Back in the Saddle
“LOOK—IT’S SNOWING again.”
Haley Duncan followed her friend Tracey’s gaze toward the big window at the far end of the crowded school cafeteria. “Yeah,” Haley said. “I heard it might today.”
Their other friend, Emma, stirred her chili and sighed. “I mean, it’s March! Sometimes I think spring will never get here.”
“I know, right?” Tracey picked a pale green grape out of her fruit cup and stared at it mournfully. “I swear, when I’m old enough, I’m only going to apply to colleges in, like, Florida.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Haley watched the fat white flakes
spiral lazily down outside. “I’d miss the snow if I ever moved away from Wisconsin.” She glanced at her friends and grinned. “For one thing, it’s fun to ride in.”
“Riding on the beach sounds fun too,” Tracey retorted, and popped the grape into her mouth.
Haley shrugged. “Good point! I bet Wings would like that.”
Her smile widened as she thought of her pony, Wings. The spunky Chincoteague technically belonged to a neighboring family, but when their daughter had gone off to college, they’d offered him to Haley on an indefinite free lease. That meant she got to keep him, take care of him, ride him, and treat him as her own pony for as long as she wanted. As far as Haley was concerned, that meant forever.
“Speaking of your riding, when’s that big show thingy you keep talking about?” Tracey reached across the table to snag one of Emma’s celery sticks. “Maybe Ems and I will come cheer you on.”
“Yeah.” Emma shivered. “But only if it stops snowing by then.”
“It’s a week from Saturday.” Haley shivered too, but not from the cold. She and Wings had competed in plenty of small, local competitions in her chosen sport of eventing—one-day events, combined training days, and a handful of jumper shows. They’d mostly done well, even winning their share.
Then, the previous autumn, the two of them had taken part in a riding clinic with a well-known advanced-level eventer who was already aiming for the US Olympic Team. It had been a full day of focused learning in all three of the phases that made up the sport—dressage, cross-country jumping, and stadium jumping. Haley and Wings had both learned a lot, and shortly afterward Haley had made a vow to put their new skills to the test by entering a recognized event—one run under the rules of the national governing body for eventing, with licensed judges and fancier prizes. She knew the competition would be tougher there, but she was excited to show what she and her pony could do.
They’d been schooling and preparing for it all winter long, jumping around their homemade cross-country
course whenever the snow wasn’t too deep, and practicing their dressage and show jumping the rest of the time in the makeshift arena her uncle had plowed for her in one of the pastures. Now, after all that hard work, it was hard to believe the big day was only a little more than a week away!
“The event’s a week from this coming Saturday?” Emma said. Haley could see her friend quickly calculating the days in her head, blinking rapidly behind her thick glasses. “Wait, isn’t that April Fools’ Day?”
Haley shrugged. “I guess so.” She took a sip of her juice. “Never thought about that, but yeah, it’s April first.”
Tracey laughed. “Uh-oh. Hope Wings doesn’t decide to play a prank on you, Hales!” Suddenly her eyes widened, and she flicked a grape in Haley’s direction. “Heads up!” she hissed. “Hot guys heading our way.”
Haley had been smiling, thinking about Wings, but now her mouth twitched down at the corners. Hot guys? That sounded like something Tracey’s shallow, snooty older sister would say, not Tracey. Well, at least until recently. . . . And what about Emma? A year ago she would have made a joke about that kind of comment, but
now here she was tucking a stray strand of hair behind one ear and straightening her glasses as she followed Tracey’s gaze with an eager smile.
Trying not to think about how much her friends had changed, Haley glanced that way too. She immediately noticed that one of the three boys wandering toward their table was Owen Lemke, who lived on a dairy farm a couple of miles down the road from Haley’s family. He and his friend Vance were kicking an empty soda can back and forth between them like soccer players. Meanwhile the third boy, a skinny kid with a big grin named John, veered around the other two and loped forward to the girls’ table. “Hey, ladies. Hey, Ghost Girl.” He tugged on Emma’s pale ponytail.
“Don’t call her that,” Haley told him with a frown. Emma had albinism, which meant her skin, hair, and eyes were very pale and her vision was so weak that she was considered legally blind, even though she could see fairly well with her glasses on. When they’d been younger, some of the other kids had teased Emma for being different. Haley had been in lots of confrontations—and even a
fistfight or two—while standing up for her friend, and so had Tracey. But over time Emma’s happy disposition had won over most of the other kids, and she didn’t get teased much anymore.
“It’s okay.” Emma giggled and slapped John’s hand away from her hair. “I don’t mind.”
By now Owen and Vance had reached them too. “Yeah, chill out, Haley.” Owen grinned at Haley in that cocky, irritating way he had. “You seem kind of tense. Did your runty little mutt pony buck you off into a snowbank or something?”
“No way,” Tracey put in loyally. “In fact, we were just talking about how Haley’s totally going to rock this big show she’s doing soon.”
“Really?” Owen raised one eyebrow. “Let me guess. Does it involve a postage-stamp-size saddle and tight sissy pants?”
Vance snorted with laughter. “Yeah. And lots of prancing and fancy braided manes and stuff.”
Haley just rolled her eyes in response. Most of the other horse people in this rural corner of Wisconsin rode
Western, usually on registered quarter horses, paints, or Appaloosas. For instance, Vance was one of the top junior ropers in the area. Owen didn’t compete in roping, though he sometimes entered his horse, Chance, in other Western events at local shows and rodeos.
John reached over Emma’s shoulder, grabbed one of her cookies, and shoved it into his mouth before she could snatch it back. “That’s okay,” he said as he chewed. “Haley’s probably better off sticking to the sissy English stuff.”
“True, true.” Owen puffed out his chest. “If you can’t ride with the big dogs, best stay on the porch.”
Tracey let out a snort. “Oh, please. Haley could ride rings around you dummies.”
“Oh yeah?” Owen grinned. “Then maybe she should prove it. There’s a penning at River Ranch this weekend. If you’re so hot, Duncan, maybe you should come show us how it’s done.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” Haley sipped her juice. “Wings and I are getting ready for an important event. We don’t have time for that kid stuff.”
“Kid stuff?” John hooted. “Ooh, burn!”
Owen kicked at the leg of Haley’s chair, almost making her lose her grip on her juice glass. “Sure, that’s what they all say when they know they can’t keep up,” he taunted. “I know the real reason you don’t want to come. You know I’ll make you and that spotted little thing you ride look like sissy English losers.”
“Right, that’s totally it.” Haley put as much sarcasm into her voice as she could. “Actually I’m worried that your fat, lazy horse might accidentally break into a trot or something, and fall over from the effort. If Wings is in the way, he might get smushed.”
Tracey giggled. “Good one, Hales!”
Owen just snorted. “Seriously, Duncan. What are you afraid of? Think all that jumping and prancing you’ve been doing made your pony forget how to be a real cow horse?”
“What’s to remember?” Haley shrugged. “Even a dummy like Chance can remember how to do something like that.”
She felt a twinge of guilt as soon as she’d said it. It was one thing to make fun of Owen, or to point out the obvious fact that Chance wasn’t as quick or lively as Wings.
But Chance was a nice enough horse in his own way, and it wasn’t his fault he belonged to such an annoying owner. Or his fault that Haley couldn’t help comparing him to the world’s smartest, most perfect pony.
“She probably thinks she’s too good for a penning,” Vance drawled. “Those English riders are like that, you know.”
“Yeah,” John put in with a laugh. “They’ll only go riding with, like, the queen of England or something.”
“With tea afterward,” Vance added, crooking one pinky finger as he pretended to sip tea.
Tracey giggled. “I so can’t picture Haley having tea with the queen!” She shot Haley a sheepish glance. “No offense, Hales.”
Haley ignored her, glaring at all three boys. “Anyway, I don’t have time for playing silly cowboy games right now, okay?”
“Don’t have time, or don’t have the guts?” Owen countered. “Five bucks says you’re just making excuses because you know you can’t beat me.”
“Oh yeah?” Haley perked up at the mention of money.
The entry fees for recognized events were a lot more than the fees for local schooling trials, and after paying for this event, she didn’t have enough money left over for the new saddle pad she’d been eyeing. Maybe this penning was a way to make sure she and Wings looked their spiffiest for the big day. . . .
Then she shook her head. She could do without that new pad—she and Wings wouldn’t need it to do their best. It was more important to stay focused on their goals.
“Bwack, bwack!” Owen danced around with his hands tucked under his armpits, flapping his elbows like wings. “Duncan’s a chicken!”
“Chicken, chicken! Bwack!” The other two boys started dancing and clucking along.
Haley gritted her teeth as kids at nearby tables started turning around to see what was going on. “Stop it, you weirdos,” she snapped. “I’m not a chicken.”
Owen stopped dancing, though the other two continued. “Oh yeah?” he challenged. “Prove it. Come to the penning and show us what you’ve got.”
Haley hesitated, thinking over her schedule. She’d
planned to do a dressage schooling on Saturday, followed by some trot sets and hill work on Sunday. Then again, maybe Wings didn’t need more drilling in dressage. He’d been going really well lately. Why not reward him with something a little more fun than endless circles and transitions? A little cross training might be exactly what the pony needed to keep him on his toes. Not to mention being exactly what Haley needed to wipe that infuriating smirk off Owen Lemke’s face.
“Okay, you’re on!” she blurted out, almost before she realized what she was saying. “We’ll be there. Prepare to be humiliated.”
Owen grinned. “Ditto.”
“Anybody home?” Haley hollered as she stepped into the front hall of her house. She paused to kick off her school shoes, which were dusted with snow.
There was no answer, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Haley’s parents had died in a car crash when she was four, and she’d lived with her aunt, uncle, and two older cousins ever since. The whole family managed to eat breakfast and
dinner together almost every day, but those meals were often the only time when all five of them were home at once. Uncle Mike worked part-time as a pharmacist and full-time running the family farm, which had long since switched from dairy cows to hay, organic vegetables, and hunting leases. Aunt Veronica was a freelance computer programmer who was always on the go. Seventeen-year-old Jake had a part-time job and was on the baseball team at school, while thirteen-year-old Danny spent most of his spare time tinkering with the robots he liked to build and playing a rotating variety of sports.
After grabbing a slice of bread and an apple from the kitchen, Haley headed up to her room, thinking about the penning this weekend. Had it been a mistake to say she’d do it? Her big event was less than a week and a half away, and there was still a lot she wanted to do to prepare.
“Too late now,” she murmured as she dropped her schoolbag onto the bed. If she backed out of the penning, Owen would probably tease her about it until the end of time. Or at least until the next time she and Wings kicked
his butt at some Western play day or other, which might be weeks from now.
But so what? Haley thought as she bit into the apple. What did she care what stupid Owen Lemke said about her? He was only doing it to get under her skin because he was totally obnoxious.
Of course, that wasn’t what Tracey thought. For some reason she seemed to think Owen liked Haley—as in, like liked her. Which was crazy, in Haley’s opinion. But she’d just about given up on convincing Tracey of that. Tracey and Emma had both gone boy crazy this year, focusing way too much on clothes and makeup and shopping and way too little on anything useful or interesting. Sometimes Haley worried that she didn’t have much in common with her best friends anymore.
Well, her local best friends, anyway. As she finished the apple and reached for her battered paddock boots, her gaze fell on the laptop poking out of her schoolbag. She wanted to get a ride in before it was time to start her evening chores. But it was staying light later every day now, and she figured she had enough time to take
a peek at the Pony Post before she headed out to get Wings.
The Pony Post was a private website that the four members had created to make it easier to share their interest in Chincoteague ponies. In addition to Haley, the members were Maddie Martinez, Brooke Rhodes, and Nina Peralt. Maddie lived in Northern California and rode a cute pinto mare named Cloudy at her local lesson barn, where she always seemed to be trying something new, from painting her patient pony’s hooves to riding out through the vineyards in the surrounding hills.
Brooke had saved up her money to buy her pony, a young flaxen chestnut mare named Foxy, at the annual pony auction in Chincoteague, Virginia. Haley had known Brooke—online, at least—for almost two years now, but she still could hardly believe the other girl had actually attended the one-of-a-kind event made famous in Marguerite Henry’s classic book Misty of Chincoteague.
Then there was Nina, who kept her pony, Bay Breeze, at a stable in the middle of New Orleans. She was a dancer
and an artist as well as being a rider, and her stories of life in the big city sometimes seemed like something out of a book or movie.
Haley knew she didn’t have much in common with the other girls when it came to the places where they lived and the things they did when they weren’t at the barn. But that didn’t matter. They all shared the love of their ponies, and that would never change.
Soon the familiar site logo appeared. Haley quickly logged on and scanned a couple of new entries from Brooke and Maddie. Brooke was home from school already, since she lived in Maryland, where it was an hour later than it was in Wisconsin. Maddie was on California time, two whole hours earlier than where Haley lived. Haley was surprised to see that the new photo Maddie had shared of her pony had been posted just a few minutes earlier.
Haley opened a new text box and started to type.
[HALEY] Hi, guys! Maddie, did u skip school today? Why r you posting now?
She sat back and waited to see if Maddie was still online. A few seconds later a new post appeared after hers:
[MADDIE] Hi, Haley! No, I’m here—study hall. Totally boooooooring. Luckily Ms. Q doesn’t care what we do as long as we’re quiet, hehe, so I’m just catching up on my ’net time!
[HALEY] Lucky u, we’re not allowed to go online in school unless it’s for homework. But as long as ur here, I could use ur advice. I think I might have done something stupid today.
[MADDIE] Uh-oh, what?!?
Haley’s fingers flew over the keyboard as she explained what had happened with Owen. When she finished, she posted it and once again sat back to wait for Maddie’s response.
It came a few moments later.
[MADDIE] Team penning looks like a blast! U should totally do it!!!!
[HALEY] I know, it’s fun, Wings and I have done it lots before. But it might not be the best time right now, u know? It’s only about a week before our event, and we should be practicing dressage, or working on sharpening up our show jumping, or even doing more trot sets to make sure we’re as fit as we can be.
[MADDIE] U have been working so hard all winter, tho! U are so ready—u could use a break!! Besides, who says u can’t practice your dressage at the penning, right?
[HALEY] Huh? I don’t think they’ll let me set up a dr. ring in the pen, lol! Besides, the cows might get in the way!
She grinned as she posted it, picturing a bunch of excited heifers crashing through the little white chains
that a lot of people used to mark out their dressage rings, or stampeding in at A and running right over the other letters that were always set up around the outside of the ring.
Then she blinked as another response from Maddie popped onto her screen.
[MADDIE] Don’t be a goof, you goof! I’m talking about PRACTICAL dressage!! Isn’t a dressage test just mostly steering and accuracy? That’s what Ms. Emerson always tells us in my lessons, anyway. Riding a straight line, doing sharp transitions, making proper turns and circles, yadda yadda . . . You’ll get to practice all that stuff in a new, distracting setting, which can only help prepare u for that big event, right?
Haley grinned as she read over Maddie’s post a second time.
[HALEY] M, u are a genius! I never thought about it that way. But don’t tell Owen, OK? I can just
picture what he’d think if I ever told him that he and Chance were actually doing practical dressage. . . .
She and Maddie chatted for a few more minutes until Maddie’s study hall was over. Then Haley logged off, still smiling at the thought of Owen doing dressage without even realizing it. Glancing at the window, she noticed that it had started snowing lightly again. Her smile grew.
This could be one of my last chances to ride in the snow this year, she told herself as she quickly pulled on her boots. Better get out there and do it!
Soon she was in the wide barn aisle tightening the girth while Wings, who was in the crossties, shifted around and snorted and generally acted as if he didn’t want to stand still another second. Her favorite dog, Bandit, twined around her legs, panting eagerly.
“Okay, okay, just let me finish tacking up.” Haley paused to give the rangy collie mix a pat on the head. “Don’t worry. You can come with us.”
She was glad that she’d planned for today to be a
conditioning day. Even though trot sets and hill work were a necessary part of their training, since they helped keep Wings fit enough to complete a long day of eventing, that work could be a little boring. It would be much more fun doing today’s ride in the snow.
A couple of chickens wandered into the barn, feathers fluffed against the wintery weather. They squawked in alarm when Bandit leaped toward them, barking.
“Stop it, you naughty boy!” Haley exclaimed, but she couldn’t help laughing as the dog trotted back over to her, looking quite pleased with himself.
The hens recovered quickly, strutting back into the barn and scurrying through the tack room door, which Haley had left ajar when she’d fetched her saddle.
“No, no!” Haley dashed after them and shooed them back out into the aisle before they could leave their messy droppings all over everything. Then she grabbed her bridle off its hook and headed back out, glancing around to make sure no other birds, cats, or dogs had sneaked in while she hadn’t been looking. She pulled the door shut behind her and returned to Wings, whistling “Let It Snow.”
A few minutes later she led the pony out into the flurries, tipping her head up to catch a few flakes on her tongue. Bandit trotted along beside them.
“Ready to go, boys?” she asked pony and dog as she pulled down her stirrups.
She swung into the saddle and clucked to start Wings walking, using her legs to steer him around the side of the barn toward the back gate, which led to a barren hay field and the woods and meadows beyond. The wind tickled her cheeks, making her shiver a little, but she was smiling. Wings felt happy and eager to go, Bandit was frisking along with his usual good cheer, and Haley had all sorts of fun stuff to look forward to in the next couple of weeks. After Maddie’s pep talk, Haley couldn’t wait to wipe the smug look off Owen Lemke’s face by beating him at that penning. And after that, of course, came the big event.
“Get used to winning, Wingsie,” she whispered, kicking the pony into a brisk trot. “Because we’re going to be doing a lot of it!”