Authors: Stacy Gregg
Issie didn’t understand. If all the El Caballo horses were safe inside these walls, why was Mystic insisting on going outside?
They were right in front of the wrought iron gates when Issie heard hoofbeats approaching across the fields just outside the walls. Was it Vega with a couple of his
? She had encountered his cowboys before, and it was not an experience she wished to repeat out here alone in the dark.
“Come on,” she urged Mystic to turn around. She didn’t want a confrontation at the gates. If Vega’s men
were coming this way then she did not want to be waiting for them.
Mystic however, had no such fear. He stood stock still in front of the gates and raised his head high in the air, listening to the sound of hoofbeats coming closer. Issie still couldn’t see anything. It was dark outside the compound and she peered into the blackness, trying to catch a glimpse of the approaching riders.
Suddenly the horses came into view. Only a few metres away, cantering straight towards the wrought iron gates!
“Ohmygod!” Issie gasped. She had feared the worst, expecting Vega’s men. But the horses were not ridden by the
. They were not being ridden at all.
Issie had seen wild horses before, running free on the hill country of her Aunt Hester’s farm. These horses approaching the gates of the hacienda were clearly untamed. Their manes were bedraggled, their coats stark from living rough and being left ungroomed. Issie could tell that the three horses were all stallions by their broad necks and powerful, muscled physiques. Each horse was quite distinct in colour and conformation.
The dun was the first one that she saw up close. He barrelled up to the gates then gave an arrogant flick of his
head and veered sharply at the last minute, cantering off again. Issie took in his rugged coat, deep mustard-gold in colour with a thick, matted, chocolate-brown mane and tail. His build was stocky, with a broad neck and compact body. The black horse who followed him was larger, probably over sixteen hands high. He was not as heavy as the dun though; his physique was more refined. When he trotted right up to the gates Issie could see he had the classical, handsome profile of an Andalusian stallion.
The grey horse was the boldest of the three. He was a curious colour, a pale dove-grey with a two-toned mane that was layered black underneath and pale cream on top. He had a thick neck and noble profile and his conformation was powerful and perfect.
The dove-grey horse came up last, but came up so close that his muzzle was actually thrust through the gates. He almost touched noses with Mystic, and Issie thought at first that he was trying to be friendly. Then, without warning, the grey stallion gave a fierce squeal, and lashed out at Mystic through the bars of the gate. His ears were flat back and his teeth were bared. He began to pace up and down on the other side, desperate to get through.
Mesmerised by this stunning wild horse, Issie wanted to get closer, but she knew she needed to be careful. Gently she slid down from Mystic’s back and asked the grey gelding to back up away from the gates. Then she began to approach the stallion, stepping quietly towards him. The stallion wouldn’t feel so threatened if she was alone. Perhaps he might calm down.
Issie was just a few steps away from the gate, so near that she could feel the stallion’s warm breath against her skin, his exhalations coming in quick, anxious snorts. She could smell the delicious sweetness of the hot horse sweat rising from his body.
“Easy boy,” she said softly, extending a hand to stroke the stallion’s muzzle. “I want to be friends. I won’t hurt you…”
The stallion, however, was making no such promises. He raised his head in the air and let out a loud clarion call, then lunged at the gates once more, striking out between the bars and almost catching Issie with a powerful swipe of his front hoof. Issie saw the darkness in his coal-black eyes as he made a vicious lunge at her with his mouth open and teeth bared.
Suddenly the lights went on and voices were coming from the hacienda. The dove-grey horse was startled. He gave a vigorous shake of his mane and wheeled around on his hind legs. He broke into a gallop like a racehorse springing from the starting gates and disappeared into the darkness. Swept up in his wake the other two horses turned and followed. Issie listened to the hoofbeats receding as the stallions galloped off into the night.
What had she just witnessed? Wild stallions that ran as a pack? She had never heard of such a thing. A shiver ran up her spine despite the warm night air. The sound of voices filled the courtyard. But the others were too late. The stallions were already gone. And so was Mystic.
Issie had been the only one to see the three stallions. The others rushed to join her at the gate and when Issie told them what had happened Francoise was particularly intrigued by her description of the dove-grey horse with the curious two-toned black and white mane.
“The horse you describe sounds like a Sorraia,” she told Issie. “They are a wild breed here in Spain. Very beautiful and quite untamed.”
“He looked like he’d never been near a human in his life,” Issie said. “His mane was matted and he had rain scald and mud all over him from never being groomed.”
“A wild stallion like that could be responsible for Vega’s
missing mare,” Avery offered, “especially if he’s running with other stallions.”
Roberto nodded. “After the disturbance the other night, I wonder if we are dealing with bachelors.”
“Bachelors?” Issie was puzzled. “You mean like a single guy who isn’t married?”
“The term bachelor does not just refer to men,” Avery explained. “A horse without a mate can also be a bachelor. Bachelor stallions are young with no harem of their own. They must either challenge a stallion to take over his harem or go around in a gang stealing mares.”
Issie thought about the Sorraia, with his ears flat back and his teeth bared as he tried to lunge at her through the bars of the gate. “Are they dangerous, these stallions?” she asked Avery.
“That all depends,” Avery replied. “Often bachelors will assert their dominance by putting on benign displays of power – simply rearing up to look bigger than the other stallion can be enough to deter an opponent. Bachelor stallions seldom get into serious life-or-death fights in the wild. But occasionally their fights can become lethal –and when humans are involved or their
herd is under threat then they will go on the attack and may kill.”
Roberto smiled at Issie. “It is lucky there was a gate between you and those horses tonight,” adding after a pause, “although I am surprised you made it there so quickly in the first place. I got up as soon as I heard the hoofbeats, but I did not get beyond the hacienda steps before they were gone.”
“Umm,” Issie faltered, “I was already awake, you know, jetlag…” She had long ago decided that she shouldn’t tell anyone about Mystic, and the grey pony had disappeared into the night before anyone else had seen him.
Francoise wrapped her shawl more tightly around herself. “The horses are not coming back tonight and it is getting cold,” she said. “We do not need to stand in the dark discussing this. Let’s go back inside.”
In the kitchen, Francoise made everyone a cup of hot chocolate before they went back to bed. It was four in the morning by then and quite a few hours of sleep had been lost. Issie took her drink and went upstairs, but now her jetlag really had kicked in. At 6 a.m. still unable to sleep, she rose again and went down to the stables.
It was only just turning light and none of the other riders had arrived yet, so Issie had the place to herself. She walked down the corridor and opened the top door of Storm’s stall. The bay stallion stuck his head out over the partition, nickering his greetings to her.
Issie’s heart leapt a little. She still couldn’t believe that this mighty horse was once the tiny foal that she had watched being born. This incredible stallion had been no more than a damp, bedraggled bundle, lying bewildered and newborn on the straw of Blaze’s stall at Winterflood Farm. Issie had been the only one there on that stormy night when her mare had given birth, apart from Mystic. She had fallen hopelessly in love with Storm on the spot. To be reunited with him, fully grown and ready to ride at last, seemed unbelievable. If she had her way, she would be riding him right now. But she couldn’t do that today. This was her first day as a pupil of the
and she needed to get ready.
She lingered a little longer at the door of Storm’s loose box, taking one more look at him, absorbing every line of the stallion’s magnificent body and his noble face, with the broad white blaze that made him look so much like his dam. And then, reluctantly, she shut the door
and moved further down the corridor to Angel’s stall.
Issie was convinced that she would be out of her depth surrounded by the El Caballo’s classical riders with their incredible knowledge of the
. It made her feel a little bit better knowing that she would be riding a stallion that she truly adored and trusted with her life. After all they had a history together, her and Angel. The last time she was in Spain they had run Andalusia’s deadliest street race, the Silver Bridle, and emerged triumphant.
Angel was fast, and yet he was also powerfully built, capable of performing the athletic leaps and exaggerated movements required of an
stallion. Riding an
horse was like trying to harness the power of a jet fighter with nothing more than a bridle. And yet, here in his stall, Angel was a total pussycat. When Issie entered his loose box, he came up and snuffled her sleeve affectionately.
“He’s so sweet, isn’t he?”
It was Francoise D’arth, leaning over the door of the stall, watching Issie and Angel. “Of course,” she added, “he is not so sweet with the men. Since you were here last many of my riders have tried, but Angel still won’t let a man on his back.”
Issie reached up and stroked the stallion’s broad snow-white neck. She understood Angel’s fear and knew that the stallion would never forgive Vega for putting the
on him. In Angel’s mind all men were like Vega
– evil. Women were another matter. The stallion would quite happily allow Issie or Francoise to ride him.
“I have been working him regularly in the school since you left,” Francoise continued. “He is one of the very best horses in the troupe, capable of the most magnificent
manoeuvres. He does the best capriole of any of them.”
“I thought capriole was a pizza topping?” Issie joked.
Francoise frowned at Issie. “It is one of the ‘airs above ground’, Isadora – a flying leap which the horse must perform with a rider on his back, thrusting his hind legs out in a kick in mid-air.”
She looked at Issie who was still smirking. “Isadora! I need to know that you will take this seriously.
training at El Caballo is no laughing matter.”
“I’m sorry, Francoise,” Issie said. “I am serious, honestly. I know I need to learn this if I want to take Storm home.”Francoise sighed. “You look upon this as some kindof punishment, don’t you? Perhaps, once you have learnt
the true power and complexity of the art, you will change your mind.”
Francoise unbolted the door of Angel’s stall and stepped inside. “Come on then,” she said, “Let’s saddle up and take him into the arena. I’ll help you to warm up and get a feel for him before the
were the El Caballo’s riders – ten of them, all selected by Francoise. “Most of them have worked in other dressage schools,” she explained as they walked alongside Angel towards the arena. “Several are from my old school, the Cadre Noir in France. Others I coaxed away from the Spanish Riding School in Vienna and, of course, there are local riders from Spain too.”
As they headed for the arena, Issie could see signs of life in the stables. The riders were arriving. A young boy about the same age as Alfie was mucking out one of the stalls. Francoise said a few cheery words to him in Spanish as they walked past.
“Is he one of the
?” Issie asked.
Francoise shook her head. “The
do not do stable chores. I have young grooms that do the mucking out. My
do nothing but ride the stallions.” She smiled at Issie. “They are the best dressage riders in the
world. They have earned the right to focus on their riding.”
“I don’t mind yard work,” Issie pointed out. “Maybe I can help to groom their horses instead of riding with them?” Issie was beginning to have cold feet about riding alongside these superhuman horsemen. Her nervousness wasn’t helped by the sight of the arena itself. It had been a long time since Issie had been in this grand theatre with its perfect sand floor and tiered seating running around the walls all the way up to the enormous stained glass windows and vast, curved plaster ceiling. This was an indoor arena fit for a king – and, in fact, the King of Spain had made visits here; there was a royal box reserved just for him where he sat to watch the horses. And now Issie would be riding in with the
in this world famous space for the very first time.
“Angel is a perfect schoolmaster,” Francoise reassured her as they walked together with the stallion through the vast, wooden doors and onto the sand surface. “He is what they call a ‘push-button’ dressage horse. If you put your legs in the right places and give him the right commands then he will perform the most amazing tricks for you.”
“Tricks?” Issie asked.
manoeuvres,” Francoise said. “Do you want me to get on and show you?”
Issie gratefully handed over the reins and Francoise put her foot in the stirrup and sprang onboard. “Can you see,” Francoise asked, trotting the stallion around the arena to warm up, “how his strides are naturally collected? Now watch…I will ask him to do an extended trot down the long side of the arena. I simply put my legs back a little at the girth, like this, and ask him to go!”
As she was talking, Francoise rearranged herself in the saddle and Angel suddenly picked up like a hovercraft, devouring the arena with his enormous strides. He began flicking his feet in front of him, stretching out over the ground so that he almost appeared to be suspended in mid-air. Francoise rode the extended trot down the long side of the arena and then rode up the centre line. She clucked with her tongue, moving her legs to a new position and Angel did a perfect half-pass – trotting sideways and crossing his legs over. Then she came back down the other side of the arena and did the same thing, only this time she stopped in the middle and Angel did
a piaffe, trotting up and down on the spot without taking a single step forward.
Issie watched this display and felt even sicker with nerves. She had never done a piaffe in her life! Francoise made it look so easy, sitting there totally composed while Angel danced beneath her. That was the art of the
rider, Issie realised – making it all look so effortless. It was incredibly difficult to ride these manoeuvres, requiring utter precision and perfect timing.
Francoise finished the piaffe and rode Angel back over to Issie, dismounting and handing her back the reins. “There you go,” she said, “you can try it.” She looked up and added, “I hope you don’t mind having an audience.”
Issie looked in the direction of the main entrance. Standing in the doorway mounted up on their horses were four of Francoise’s
. They were watching with intrigued expressions.
“Bonjour! Jean-Jacques, Javier, Wolfgang and Franz,” Francoise called out to them. “This is Isadora, the girl I was telling you about. She is joining the school for a month to train with us, and we are just having a quick preliminary lesson on Angel to get her started. If you
wouldn’t mind waiting there just a moment while she warms up? Then we can begin training the troupe once the others are all here.” The four riders all nodded agreeably. Issie, however, felt like someone had just tied a giant knot in her belly. Not only was she going to try and perform an extended trot and a piaffe for the first time, but now she had an audience of top riders watching her do it!
“You will be fine,” Francoise insisted as she legged her up. “Angel knows what he is doing. Remember to push him into your hands for the extended trot and then, for the piaffe, imagine you are holding him back, like keeping a cork in a bottle.”
Issie felt herself turn rigid with nerves as she rode around the arena at a trot. She kept casting a glance over at the
. This was an average working day for them, but for Issie it felt like the ultimate test. These world-famous riders were watching to see what she was capable of.
“Now, across the arena this time, ask him to extend the trot!” Francoise shouted out.
Issie did as Francoise told her and was amazed when Angel automatically lengthened his strides to do the
same extended trot as he had done moments before with Francoise.
“Very good! Very good!” Francoise praised her. “Now down the centre line and half-pass. Left leg back behind the girth and keep the impulsion!”
Issie did exactly as Francoise instructed, clucking Angel on with her tongue to get him moving and praising him when he skipped sideways like a ballerina across the arena.
“A bit rushed,” Francoise said, “keep him collected! And now bring him back for the piaffe!”
Cork in a bottle, cork in a bottle,
Issie was thinking as she came down the centre of the arena. When she got to the mid-point she pulled Angel back and put her legs behind the girth as far as they would go – the signal for the piaffe. Or at least, so she thought. Angel, however, didn’t read her signal that way. Rather than trot on the spot as Issie had expected, Angel rocked back on his hindquarters, snorted and rose up into the air!
Issie gave Angel a tap on his flanks with her dressage whip in the hope of getting him to drop back down on all fours. Instead, the stallion seemed to compress himself back on his hind legs, and then leapt! Issie gave a shriek
as the horse bounded forward, still on his hind legs, like a bunny rabbit hopping. Later on, when she told Alfie the whole sorry story back at the hacienda, she held her hands over her face with embarrassment.
“So instead of asking him to do a piaffe,” Alfie smirked, “you tapped him in the wrong spot and he did a courbette!”
Issie kept her face buried in her hands. “The worst bit is I should have just gone with it and tried to sit up and look elegant, like I knew what I was doing, like a proper dressage rider…”
“But, you didn’t,” Alfie grinned.
“I didn’t know it was a courbette, did I?” Issie groaned. “I thought he was trying to rear up and throw me off or do something really weird. And so, after I screamed, I let go of the reins and just clung on to the saddle with both hands.”