Authors: Jane Smiley
I got back on Gallant Man. One of the girls and her pony were jumping the jumps in the warm-up area, a crossbar, a single bar, and an oxer, which was two bars parallel to one another, the back one a little higher than the front one. Her pony was one of the plain ones. He was willing, but he looked dull to me. The girl counted as she approached every fence—“One two one two one two one two”—and then they jumped. The other thing she did was lift her eyes higher and higher as she got closer to the fence, so that when she was over the top, she was looking up into the trees. This made me smile.
We warmed up by trotting the cross-rail, then cantering it. He kept me right with him, and by the time we were ready for a real jump, I couldn’t wait. But I did. One thing I knew (and there weren’t many of those) was to wait. I took slow breaths. I could see Mr. Anniston standing by the rail, staring at us. Melinda was pressed up against his leg. Neither one was smiling.
Now we did the oxer—first small, then bigger, then big. I did my best to think, Slow. Level. Slow. Level.
Then they called my number and Miss Slater walked me to the gate into the arena. I stood there until the previous pony came out. The jumps looked like an absolute jumble. They were all plain, natural brown or white, no colors. That made it worse. I walked and then trotted the pony to the other end of the ring, and then, completely panicked, I asked him to start his canter circle. I wasn’t panicked about the jumping—the jumps were small. I was panicked about the feeling that I was in a sea of jumps and had no idea how to make my way around it. But I did know where the first jump was and the second. After that, I saw the third, which was a white chicken coop, and then it was one jump after the other, and all too soon, we were done and doing our final canter circle. The trot. And then we walked out of the ring. I was filled up with the thrill of the whole thing, the cantering, the turning, the jumping. I could have gone around all day.
Miss Slater met me at the gate. She said, “That was fine, Abby, for a first round. Next time, just a degree slower. Do you have a rhythm? Think the same rhythm, but slow it down.” She glanced over toward Mr. Anniston. He still wasn’t smiling, but he nodded. In the meantime, Daddy trotted over to us now that we were back in the warm-up area, and he kissed me on the cheek. When I took off my hard hat, he ruffled my hair. I was really glad he was my daddy rather than Mr. Anniston.
I walked the pony around, and Daddy walked with us. He was saying, “This is fun here. This isn’t bad at all. You know Black George? He could do this. Most of these horses look just
like him but don’t have as pretty a head. Yes, this gives me an idea. Yes, yes, it does.” Then he went off and got me a hot dog, and I ate it sitting on the fence, holding the pony. Daddy had a lump of sugar for him, which we sneaked to him when Miss Slater wasn’t looking. I didn’t know for sure that she was against treats, but I suspect she would be that type, as she was very neat.
We got a ribbon in the class—fifth place out of ten ponies. I took it over to Melinda and gave it to her, and she smiled and said thank you, but she held it limply in her hand, like she was going to drop it any second. I guess I had never really seen anyone like Melinda before. She was scared of her own shadow.
The sun came out in time for the second class, which was a hack class, no jumping. All we had to do was walk, trot, canter, turn around, trot again, halt, canter again, according to the commands that the judge called out. A fancy pony who wasn’t very nice pinned his ears and bucked once while the judge was looking right at him. Some of the other ponies had trouble with their leads. However, Gallant Man was easy and perfect, and he won the blue ribbon.
Afterward, Daddy said, “You know, I’ve been walking around, pretending I’d like to buy one of these horses, a show horse like these—not necessarily a pony, because a good pony is just luck—anyway, some of these horses cost ten thousand dollars. All of them five to ten.” He was grinning.
Now it was past noon and time for the third class. I thought it was silly that the first class and the second class were equal, with the second class being so easy, but it was true, and the pony was in contention for a champion award. The course for
the third class was almost like the first course but with one less turn and higher jumps. Miss Slater and I walked it. Melinda went with us, leaving Mr. Anniston standing by the fence.
We walked from jump to jump, right from the back middle of every fence to the front middle of the next fence, Miss Slater taking steady even steps. She said to me, “This is your path, Abby. Think of it as a red line going around the course. You just stay on the red line and slow your rhythm a little bit and look right between that pony’s ears all the time, okay?”
Then Melinda took my hand for a moment. The first thing she said all day was, “He’s my pony.”
I said, “I know that, Melinda. I’m not taking him back.”
“But if he’s not good enough, Papa will sell him and get another one.”
I realized what she meant. I said, “How many chances does he get, Melinda?”
Melinda looked up at me. “I don’t know. Not many. I’m scared of another pony.”
Miss Slater glanced at me. She said, “Well, let’s not think about all of that now. He’s a good pony. Do you understand the course, Abby?”
I nodded. I understood the course and everything else, to tell the truth. My own opinion was that even if Melinda just wanted the pony to stand around and eat carrots, that’s what she should have. I went back to the barn, and the groom brought out Gallant Man. I mounted at the mounting block and went into the warm-up. The whole time, it was like the eyes of Mr. Anniston were freezing a hole in my back. It made
me mad. It made me sit up and lift my chin. I knew that Miss Slater liked the pony a lot, and if something happened, she would find the pony another home. I knew also that it wasn’t my worry or Daddy’s, but anyway. I sat up. I made myself float around the warm-up as if the other ponies were not worth looking at.
The bell rang. I heard my name. I passed the previous pony in the gate. We trotted to the end of the ring and did our circle.
This time, the jumps were higher, and so they were more fun. I could feel the pony curling underneath me, rising under me and then landing and cantering on. The jumps, the very centers of the jumps, came up one by one right between the pony’s ears, right between my ears, too. The other thing that the pony had to do correctly in order to win, which was change leads in the turns, he did perfectly well. He was automatic at that and it didn’t worry me. It was the pace and the style that would tell the tale. We came over the last jump. I asked the pony for his circle, then for the trot, then for the walk. I dropped the rein contact and lifted my chin. As we exited the ring, I took a deep breath, as if I were Mary A. or one of those other girls at school, ignoring everyone who didn’t make any difference. I pretended to be Mary A. all the way back to the barn. Miss Slater and Daddy clapped for us.
The pony came second, after a blond fellow, whose round I didn’t see. We got reserve champion. Since it was the pony who was being judged, not the rider, Melinda went into the ring, leading Gallant Man, wearing her best riding clothes. They gave her a long red and yellow ribbon and a silver dish for mints. She came out smiling and hugged me. I glanced over
at Mr. Anniston. At last he was smiling, even though it was a small, only semi-happy smile. It got bigger when Melinda ran over to him. He picked her up and gave her a kiss on the cheek, but it all looked fake to me—not as if he didn’t love her and wasn’t happy for her, but as if he had lots of ideas and keeping the pony was only one of them. I saw his eyes follow the blond pony, who had won champion. But nobody knew those people, and Miss Slater said they were from down south. As we were untacking the pony, she said, “You can’t believe what horses cost down there. It’s a crime. It really is.”
On the way home from the show, I reported this to Daddy. He said, “Is that so? Is that so, indeed?” When we got home, he pulled Black George out of the paddock and had me stand him up so that his feet were square and his head was up, ears pricked. Then he walked around him, peering at him. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Now, Abby, look how he stands. His back legs are set right under his haunches and his front legs are set just a hair behind the straight, but his knees are a smidgen bent. That’s called being ‘over at the knee,’ and it’s not a bad thing. His croup has a nice slope, and his neck comes up out of his withers. And his throatlatch, where his head is attached to his neck, that has a nice curve to it. The Lord himself only knows what he was doing for a living in Oklahoma, given how bad his feet were and what a job it was to do his teeth, but I know what he’s gonna do for a living, so your job tonight is to write down everything Miss Slater said to you, and then we’ll read it over together and see if we can learn something.”
My paper had seven things on it. Daddy read it over a couple of times and said, “This is a nice puzzle. I think we’re going to have a good time.”
Ride the course, not the jumps.
Keep the horse level, especially through the corners.
Look ahead ten strides, not two or five.
Ride to the middle of every fence.
Maintain a rhythm.
Look up, never down.
OMETIMES A LUCKY THING HAPPENS
AND FOR US IT WAS THAT
Mr. Tacker, the old man who had Jewel, decided he needed two more ranch horses, so he came by to look at what we had. Of course we had Black George and Ornery George. The other George was a chestnut with two white socks in front, so we called him Socks George. We also had the mares. The old man bought Red Jewel right off the bat—she was well broke and, now that she’d been with us for a month, neatly shod and a deal fatter than she had been. He didn’t want any of the others, but he looked twice at Ornery George. Then he looked again. He said to Daddy, but glancing at me, “Your girl ride this one?”
Daddy said, “She has been. What with the new shipment,
we’ve given him a bit of a rest. …” He shrugged. Not exactly bearing false witness.
“He is a stylish one,” said Daddy. “Looks like a reining horse, if you ask me.”
“Has he been around cattle?”
“Supposed to have been, back in Oklahoma. I can’t guarantee …”
“What would you say to a tryout?”
“I don’t know about that. I’ll have to think about that.”
Now, the fact was, Daddy didn’t mind a tryout. As he said, his horses had nothing to hide, and generally they were just the same if they went away for a week as they were at home. But then, that very thing would be the problem with Ornery George.
Daddy stuck his hands in his pockets. He said, “Mr. Tacker, I don’t want to say no, but I can’t really say yes at this point.” He gestured toward Red Jewel, who was standing quietly with her head down. I stepped over to her and scratched her beneath her ear. She cocked a hind foot. Very relaxed. He said, “I think you’re gonna like this mare. She’s a useful animal.”
But he could see the light in Mr. Tacker’s eyes, and so could I. I knew that when he was taking off his boots to go to bed that night, he would have a picture of Ornery George in his mind, not one of the very useful and sedate Red Jewel. I said, “What are you going to name the mare?” I said this in that bright way you say things when you are trying to distract the grown-ups from what they are thinking.
Mr. Tacker looked down at me. He said, “What’s her name, Red Jewel?”
“Well, that looks to me like ‘Ruby.’ I’m sure she’ll do fine.” And he led her off toward his trailer. Of course, he looked back at Ornery George two or three times before he got her into the trailer and drove away. He paid eight hundred dollars for her. What with the shipping from Oklahoma, two shoeings, and the teeth, Daddy had about four hundred into her, so he was happy at supper. He said, “He wants to come back next week, but I put him off. And then he’s going out of town for a week, up to a cattle show. So that’s maybe two and a half weeks we’ve got to figure something out.”
Mom set down the early peas, put her hands on her hips, and said, “Figure what out?”
“How to get that horse right so he can ride him. Those two mares—”
I interrupted, “Jewel and Ruby!”
“—are fine for him, because even though he’s old and a little stiff, he used to be good on a horse. And he still thinks he is.”
Mom shook her head and then shook it again. “Mark,” she said, “that’s a dangerous game.”
“It was him who noticed the horse and asked me about him. I had to answer his questions, didn’t I? I couldn’t be unfriendly about the horse. That makes people suspicious.”
But we all knew that wasn’t the right response. And I knew Daddy would have me up on Ornery George sooner or later, most likely sooner, and what he would say about it was, “Let’s just give it a try and see what happens,” and I would know what was going to happen perfectly well, and it wouldn’t be good. The funny thing was that I could ride all the others without any problems and I had gone to the horse show and done something new without worrying, but I couldn’t stop fretting about Ornery George.