Authors: Stacy Gregg
The sound of horses’ hooves clattering across the cobbles in the courtyard brought Roberto and Avery running.
“What happened?” Roberto asked as Issie and Alfie pulled their horses up in front of the hacienda. “You were supposed to take these mares to the upper pastures.”
“We did,” Alfie said, vaulting down off Victorioso, “but we ran into trouble.”
“Vega’s men?” Roberto asked.
“No,” Alfie shook his head. “Not men. Horses. The three bachelor stallions. They came out of nowhere in broad daylight and raided the mares…” Alfie paused, terrified to say the next words, “…they took Margarita.”
Roberto Nunez’s expression turned stony.
“Dad, we tried to get her back,” Alfie stammered, “but there were three of them. Storm tried to fight and Issie was barely able to hold him. I had the rest of the mares to think about…”
“…and so you ran?” Roberto looked sternly at his son. Then he reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Well done. You did the right thing. One bachelor stallion is a treacherous proposition. To take on three of them in a fight would have been madness. You might have lost all our mares, or worse, you might have lost a life.”
“A wild stallion should never be confronted,” Avery agreed. “You did the right thing getting out of there.” He turned to Issie. “You’re not hurt?”
Issie shook her head. “I’m fine, Tom,” she said. “It was a bit scary for a moment there. Storm tried to fight the black stallion, I couldn’t control him.”
“That was quite a technique you used to get away!” Alfie told her.
“You mean the monster kick I gave him?” Issie looked embarrassed. “Tom, I’m sorry, but I had to use the pony-club kick!”
Alfie looked blank so Avery explained, “It’s a vicious
wallop with your boots into your pony’s side that I refer to as ‘the evil pony-club kick’.”
“And it’s totally outlawed to kick your pony like that at Chevalier Point Pony Club,” Issie continued.
“I’ll let you off this time,” Avery said, “since it seems to have saved your life.”
“I suppose you don’t have a lot of wild stallions to escape from at pony club,” Alfie said.
“No, but occasionally we need to get away from Natasha Tucker!” Issie grinned.
“What is a Natasha Tucker?” Alfie asked.
“Come on,” Issie said, “I’ll tell you all about her while we untack the horses.”
Mrs Brown had been shocked when she heard about Issie’s close call with the stallions. Francoise was too; but not so shocked, Issie noted, that she was willing to let them off training. “You’re due in the arena at eleven,” she reminded Issie and Alfie. “Be there with your horses tacked up, ready to begin.”
The El Caballo’s warm-up sessions had been a bit of
an eye-opener for Issie. In the stables as they were mounting up the
would chat and laugh together, but once they were in the arena the men were deadly serious and focused. They all spoke English when they were schooling but even so, the horse terms that they used made it impossible for Issie to understand what they were saying.
“He’s a bit croup high, pick him up!” one of the
said as he watched a young horse being worked. “Now he is on the forehand,” another said, “sit him back with a half-halt!”
The talk would go on like this throughout the sessions. If a
offered Issie advice, she would nod and try to do what they said, but mostly she was baffled by their instructions. Today, after half an hour of training, she gave up entirely and halted Angel in the centre of the arena, totally confused.
“Is there a problem?” Francoise asked.
“I need a translator!” Issie groaned. “I don’t understand what the
are talking about half the time, so how can I possibly ride with them?”
“Riding isn’t about knowing the words,” Francoise frowned, “it’s about developing your feel.”
“But how can I when I don’t know what I’m supposed to be feeling?” Issie was trying not to get upset, but she hated being constantly out of her depth.
Francoise, who had been standing in the arena holding Marius by the reins as she directed the other riders, now mounted up on the big grey so that she was sitting alongside Issie.
“Alfie?” she called out across the arena. “Can you run the school for the rest of the session? Issie and I are going for a ride.”
Outside the El Caballo walls the mares and their foals were grazing happily on the lower pastures. Issie noted that two
had been assigned to stand watch over them, just in case the bachelor stallions struck again.
“Roberto is taking no more chances,” Francoise confirmed, as they exited the gates and rode around the dusty trail beside the white walls of the estate.
“Any news about Margarita?” Issie asked.
Francoise shook her head. “Roberto sent men out this morning, but they haven’t come back yet. I do not hold
out much hope. There are too many places in the hills for horses to hide away. These stallions have survived in the wild for a long time. They will not be easy to hunt down.”
She smiled at Issie, “Anyway, I didn’t bring you out here to hack and chat in the sunshine. We are here to do dressage.”
Issie was puzzled. “Why didn’t we just stay in the arena?”
“Your mind was feeling trapped by the boundaries of the school,” Francoise explained. “You think dressage is something that can only be performed by
on a perfect sand surface. But dressage is crucial to good riders at all times. Try not to think about it,” Francoise said. “Just follow me and do as I do.”
The two of them were riding now beyond the grazing land towards a grove of olive trees in the distance.
As they trotted along the sandy path that led towards the trees, Francoise asked Marius to go into a collected trot. “Collect Angel up, please, a nice medium trot,” Francoise said. She looked over at Issie. “Now you need to do a half-halt.”
This was one of the terms that had puzzled Issie earlier.
“I am not surprised,” Francoise smiled, when Issie told her this. “Even the best riders have trouble defining
the half-halt. Think of it as telling the horse to wait and prepare for the next instruction.”
As they kept trotting, Francoise explained more terms to Issie, and as she explained, she asked Issie to perform each of them on Angel.
Often she rode in front of Issie and showed her how a movement should look before Issie had a go herself. “This is a leg yield,” she said, making Marius trot sideways, crossing his legs as he zig-zagged down the sandy path.
“Put your leg back behind the girth and ask Angel to leg yield until you reach me,” Francoise called back over her shoulder. “When you are at the end of the path, ask him to canter.”
Issie did as she was told.
“Now to practise our flying changes! Follow me!” Francoise called back. She was cantering Marius across the fields towards a grove of olive trees planted in neat rows. Once she reached the first tree, Francoise began to weave her way through them. Each time Francoise passed an olive tree she asked Marius to perform a flying change, so that the horse was swapping legs in mid-air as he cantered through the grove.
Issie cantered after Francoise and wove her way between the olive boughs, Angel doing flying changes at every turn. She found herself performing the leg changes with an ease that she would never have considered possible in the arena, where she was constantly aware of the scrutinising eyes of the
For the past week she had felt self-conscious, clumsy and useless, but here, with Angel responding so beautifully to her and the sun shining down as they rode, Issie felt the thrill of riding a brilliantly schooled horse and getting the best out of him.
Angel was snorting with exhilaration and Issie’s eyes were shining as they pulled to a halt alongside Francoise and Marius at the far end of the olive grove.
“That felt amazing!” Issie beamed.
Francoise nodded, “And now we will go back again through the trees,” she said, “but this time I want you to do half-passes to weave between them.”
“OK,” Issie replied, and then asked, “umm, Francoise?”
“What’s a half-pass?”
After they had mastered the half-passes through the trees, they rode back around the far side of El Caballo’s great white walls, doing shoulder-ins and flying changes the whole way home. By the time they had reached the wrought iron gates of the hacienda Issie was exhausted.
“That was the best dressage lesson I have ever had!” she told Francoise gratefully as they dismounted and led the horses back towards the stallions’ quarters.
Francoise nodded. “You ride dressage far better than you think. Very soon you will be ready to progress to the next level.”
Issie wondered what she meant by this and Francoise explained. “What we did today was standard dressage. But the real art of
is far more advanced.” She stared straight at Issie. “To be an El Caballo dressage rider you must be ready for war.”
In the dining room that evening, Avery explained what Francoise’s comment meant.
horses are trained for war,” Avery told Issie as they sat together waiting for the others to arrive for dinner. “Hundreds of years ago, when the
was first invented, its only purpose was warfare. Horses were trained to perform the ‘high school’ movements in preparation for battle.”
Issie screwed up her face. “I don’t get it. How is
useful in a fight?”
“The mounted soldiers would use the manoeuvres to attack their enemies,” Avery explained. “They would ride a levade, where the horse rears up on his hind legs, allowing his rider to thrust a spear into a man below him. Or they would ride the capriole, making the horse leap into the air over the front lines of the opposing army and lash out with his hind legs to strike any opponents trying to approach from the rear. These were lethal manoeuvres. The original
horses were highly prized as battle machines.”
“Poor horses!” Issie was horrified. “It must have been awful going to war. Horses don’t want to fight anyone.”
“Apart from those stallions that tried to fight you this
morning,” Alfie pointed out to her as he joined them at the table.
“Well that’s not the same thing, is it?” Issie said. “They just wanted to steal our mares and have a harem of their own.”
“And Vega’s mares too,” Alfie added.
The conversation was interrupted as the dining-room door opened and Francoise walked in. “Bonsoir!” she said brightly to the rest of the dinner guests.
“Wow, Francoise,” Issie said, “you look amazing.”
Francoise was not normally the sort to dress up. Her dinner outfit usually consisted of jodhpurs and a cotton shirt. Tonight, however, she wore an elegant cocktail dress in soft, pale yellow silk. The dress was belted with a vintage jewelled tie at the waist. In her hair, Francoise wore a tortoiseshell comb intricately hand-carved into the shape of a flower.
“Thank you, Issie,” Francoise said.
“Yeah, you look gorgeous!” Alfie agreed.
Francoise nodded her thanks and cast a furtive glance at Avery, who was sitting opposite her, but he didn’t say anything. In fact he barely acknowledged her presence and stood up in a hurry, heading into the kitchen
mumbling something about helping to bring the food through.
“What’s up with him?” Alfie muttered to Issie.
“I dunno,” Issie shrugged. “He’s been acting odd ever since we got here.”
Mrs Brown came in carrying a big dish of seafood from the kitchen. She and Roberto had been cooking together again that evening.
“Rob has been giving me Spanish cooking lessons, so I apologise in advance if the paella isn’t up to the usual standard,” Mrs Brown said as she put down the huge hot platter in front of them.
“Rob?” Issie giggled, whispering to Alfie, “I’ve never heard anyone call your dad ‘Rob’ before!”
“And I’ve never known my dad to let anyone use his paella pan and burn it like that without hitting the roof before!” Alfie muttered back.
While Roberto made sure that everyone had enough food and drink, Avery came back in and sat down again and dinner commenced.
“Isadora, how is the training going?” Roberto asked.
“She is making excellent progress,” Francoise answered
on Issie’s behalf. “In another week if she works hard she will be ready to begin the
Roberto smiled. “I must say Francoise, you look very nice this evening. I’ve never seen you wear a dress to dinner before.”
“It is a gorgeous gown,” Mrs Brown added admiringly. “It looks amazing on you.”
Francoise looked uneasy with all the compliments. “OK, so I put on a dress for once. There is no need to make a fuss!” she said dismissively. She glared across the table at the one person who wasn’t making a fuss at all. Avery kept his head down over his paella.
“Well I need a new dress,” Mrs Brown said, trying to lighten the mood which was now distinctly tense. “I understand there is a big dance soon?”
“The wine harvest fiesta,” Roberto nodded. “It marks the end of the sherry season and it is a chance for all the village to get together.”
“I’d love to go to something like that!” Mrs Brown was excited.
“And I would be only too happy to take you!” Roberto told her, adding, “It is a traditional Spanish dance, you see, so you
must have a man to escort you.”
“That’s a bit old-fashioned and sexist isn’t it?” Issie pulled a face.
Alfie shrugged. “Traditions mean everything here, Issie. You know that.”
Issie was only too aware of the importance of tradition. She had been the first girl to ever ride in the Silver Bridle. Still, she respected the ways of the people here in rural Andalusia.
“You can be my date,” Alfie offered. “It’ll be fun. I promise.”
“OK,” Issie agreed.
There was silence at the table now as everyone turned expectantly to look at Avery who was strangely preoccupied with staring at his paella. Finally, he looked up at Francoise sitting opposite him in her yellow silk gown.
“The fiesta sounds like a waste of time,” he said abruptly. “We are here so that Issie can learn to train at
level and take Nightstorm home. If everyone starts getting caught up in dances and harvest fiestas and heaven knows what then we’ll never achieve what we came here for.”