Authors: Kim Ablon Whitney
“I’ve got Cassidy Rancher coming to ride him at the end of the week to see if she’d be willing to show him in the eq so go nuts. You’ve got till then to work wonders.”
I wasn’t sure I could work wonders but I wanted to at least try. “How did Lily do?”
“Double clean,” Chris said. I knew he was happy for her and it was good for him as a trainer too, but I could tell it also chipped away at him a little to see someone with a fraction of his talent excelling because of her horses.
I went to pull out Arkos and she said it would be better to look at him in his stall since he’d feel more comfortable there. She didn’t go straight for the possible tender spot but instead worked around his body, getting him to trust her and relax. I stood there the whole time on pins and needles, my stomach churning, hoping what I’d found was something real. But even if it was TMJ, like Chris said, it didn’t mean it was going to make him suddenly never touch a rail again.
She felt his poll and under his throat latch, then delicately palpated the area behind his eye. I’d learned it was in fact the joint where the jaw bones connected. Arkos shook his head hard.
“Okay, buddy,” she said calmly. “Let’s try again.”
She tried again and he shook his head. She pressed harder and he threw his head up like he’d done for me. The other side wasn’t as bad. I was proud that she was finding the same things I had.
“Good job, Hannah.” Dede turned to me.
“Definitely. No question about it. This horse has got a bad case of TMJ.”
“Chris said he was floated before circuit.”
“So it’s probably not the teeth that are the problem. We might never know what the problem is but the horse is clearly very sore and probably has been for a long time.” She looked around the stall. “Chris doesn’t use hay nets, does he?”
“How much turnout does Arkos get? Does he go out on grass?”
“He gets an hour or two a day. It’s on grass. How do those things factor in?”
“Eating out of a hay net is unnatural for a horse. It can worsen TMJ. Grazing is good for them. Stress can be a factor too. Just the stress of showing can cause it. Maybe this guy is a sensitive soul?” She patted him on the neck and Arkos looked a little worried at us again like he might be poked and prodded some more.
“There’s a lot we don’t know about horses, like about whether they get headaches and about their vision. I think what we now know about ulcers and how they effect horses’ performances, we’re going to someday know the same kinds of things about headaches and how they effect performance horses.”
“So what do we do now?”
“I can work on some pressure points that can help relieve some of the pain. I’m sure Chris’s regular masseuse can too. Who does he use?”
“Riley can certainly do it too. I’d also call the vet and have him inject the area.”
“Inject him behind his eye like that?”
“It’s a joint like any other and it’ll bring him a lot of relief.”
“I don’t know if Chris is going to go for that.”
“That’s something I can’t speak to. But I can do a little bit now with him if you want?”
“That would be great.”
I watched Dede work on Arkos. Of course I expected her to be rubbing and kneading his head area, especially around the TMJ joint, but that proved how little I knew. Instead she worked on five different pressure points all over his body that were tied to TMJ. Those pressure points included two on his front legs, one on his chest, one on his poll, and finally, one just beneath the center of his eye. She explained how each tied in somehow, relieving the pain.
I thanked Dede profusely. I was so happy I’d found something that might be the key to Arkos’s success but I was wary too. What if this proved to be minor and wasn’t some great watershed moment? I thought of Cassidy coming by the end of the week. Well, it was worth a try to get Chris to approve an injection.
“Are you not showing Arkos anymore?” I asked him later. “I mean since Cassidy’s coming.”
“No, not necessarily. I thought I’d just see how she rides him. See whether it might even work. I was still planning on showing him in the Speed Challenge on Friday but I guess at some point I do need to stop throwing entry fees away on him.”
“Can we give him the injection and just see whether it makes a difference?”
Chris rubbed his jaw.
“Please?” I said.
“Sure, why not.”
The entire week 8 was freezing at WEF, with temperatures dipping into the 30s at night and only reaching the high 40s during the day. People posted endless Instagram shots of the thermometer in their cars. At the show, everyone bundled up in down jackets, hats, scarves, and gloves and still shivered all day. Horses and dogs wore heavy blankets. Back at home in Boston, high 40s would have been fairly warm so Mom and I texted back and forth, comparing temps.
Don’t complain! It’s 23 here!
I know but we’re not used to the cold. This is Florida!
On Thursday, Logan won the $2,000 1.30 meter class, which had seventy horses in it. I couldn’t believe my once-crazy horse had beaten out seventy horses, including many ridden by the top professionals. Chris had given me the blue ribbon and I had hung it on the mirror in my room at Dakota’s. Of course I’d also texted both my dad and my mom to tell them.
On Friday, Chris did Arkos in the Speed Challenge in the DeNemethy. Linda came with me to watch. She’d been following the whole saga and was interested to see what would happen.
We stood on the little hill sloping down from the VIP tent, crossing our arms for warmth. I had borrowed some clothes from Linda because I hadn’t brought nearly enough warm stuff. I felt more nervous than I could ever remember. If Arkos went just the same, I’d feel like a fool who had gotten Chris’s hopes up and wasted his money. Of course if Arkos went well, it didn’t exactly prove anything monumental either. It would take more than one clear go to declare success.
“Breathe in and out,” Linda said, noticing my clenched fists. “Christ, you’re worse than a kid their first time in short stirrup.”
Linda tried to distract me by telling me how the Pearces wanted her to find a replacement for Tizz as soon as possible and had given her a generous budget to work with. Tizz had sustained two fractures of his spine. He’d be sent back to the barn where the Pearces had their horses in Westchester to turn-out and rehab with hope, but no guarantee, that he would show again.
Chris entered the ring. I studied Arkos, searching for some slight difference in his gait or how he held his head. I couldn’t find anything. He looked the same as he always did, impressive. But would he leave the jumps up?
He jumped high over the first fence, an oxer. The sides of the ring were pretty empty. A few riders watched before their turn in the order. A man sat further down the long side talking loudly on his cell phone, complaining about how cold it was. Then I heard him mention something about the saddle thief and how everyone at the show was on edge. It was true. The thief had recently broken into another barn’s tack room and now Linda had been making double sure to lock our doors.
Arkos cleared the next four jumps easily. “He looks like he’s really jumping high, don’t you think?” I asked Linda.
“He definitely looks good.”
Chris turned to the double combination, oxer-vertical. He was a little deep into the oxer as far as I could tell and Arkos had no problem making the distance work. He always jumped in good form with his front knees and his ears were pricked straight ahead. He came around the corner by where we were standing and I swear I saw something in Arkos’s eye. Like he was finally comfortable and able to perform like he’d always wanted to. Then I began to think I was crazy. Could a horse really look like he was feeling great, or was it all just about projecting my own hopes onto an animal?
He finished the course clear. Chris hadn’t gone all out for speed but he’d been efficient and the announcer said he was in third place.
“Come on,” I said to Linda, as I hurried to the in-gate.
I could tell Chris was trying desperately not to read too much into Arkos’s performance. Arkos had gone clean before. He’d shown promise many times. But he’d never quite jumped like he just had.
“He looked great!” I said.
Dale moved in to take Arkos as Chris slid off him.
“He felt really good,” Chris said.
I opened my mouth but Chris added, “No, no. Don’t say anything more. Let’s just leave it at that.” He was serious but he was smiling too.
“Okay,” I said. “You’re right.”
After several clears, Chris did admit that he owed me big-time. “I don’t want to jinx it or talk too much about it,” he said. “But what you did with Arkos, how you figured out—”
I cut him off. “Shh! I thought we were leaving it at that.”
“We are, but I feel like I just have to say something. I want to say thanks.”
“It could have very well turned out the complete opposite.”
“But it didn’t. And even if it had, I hope I would have been able to see that you were trying to help me and think about why he wasn’t going well and I hope I would have been grateful for that anyway.”
“So I know we’re not talking about it but what’s next for him now?”
“I think I’m going to go crazy and jump him in the grand prix Saturday.”
“Under the lights?”
“Yeah. Trial by fire. But I think he’s up to it. It’s never been about the courses or bravery or rideability or anything with him. It’s just been about not leaving the jumps up.”
It was what Chris had wanted all circuit—a chance to ride in the big class of the week. I was nearly giddy with the idea.
“I was thinking about seeing if my dad might want to come visit,” I said. “Maybe that would be a good class to invite him to come watch.”
I’d also been secretly hoping Chris would have a horse to show in a really big class so I could invite my dad. He might be so impressed with Chris that he’d consider investing in a horse for him. Or, at the very least, continue to support Logan. The grand prix this week wasn’t exactly the half-million dollar CSI-5 that Chris was capable of riding in if he had the right horse, but it was still a big deal.
“Sure,” Chris said. “I’d like to meet him in person.”
I called my dad later that day and proposed the idea. It was a little bit last minute but sometimes last minute was better for Dad. Too far ahead and he got squirrelly about making plans in case something came up. He didn’t care about the expense of last minute airline tickets. He was silent for a moment, which would have made most people think the phone had cut out, but I knew it meant he was thinking seriously about my idea. “I’ll have Amanda check into flights,” he said, meaning his assistant.
“Do you think Monica will come?” I didn’t mind Dad’s second wife. She was smart and pretty and nice. I didn’t have the whole hated-step-mother thing going with her.
“I’ll see,” Dad said.
Dad texted me later that day to tell me that Monica had to be at a conference and couldn’t come but that he’d invited Ryan and he was going to come. I immediately texted Ryan:
Thanks for inviting me yourself
, he wrote back.
I never thought you’d be able to take time out from your ultra busy life out there to come visit little old me.
Well, you’re in luck cause I’m coming and I’m checking out this Chris guy to make sure he’s good enough for you.
I’ll warn him to be on his best behavior.
I was so excited to have my dad and Ryan coming. Well, most of all, Ryan. All week leading up to it I found myself smiling when I thought about them coming. I asked Linda and she said I could have three tickets to the VIP tent so Dad and Ryan could watch the class from there. Both of them had been to their share of fancy events. Dad constantly was being hosted by various companies at big-time sports events like the Masters or the MLB All Star Game. There were pre-parties and post-parties that were most likely more over-the-top glamorous than being in the tent at WEF but I had to hope that they’d be taken by the sheer power and grace of the horses and riders flying over five-foot fences.
Chris took me to the FEI Security office on Monday to get my photo taken so I could have my very own FEI pass. It was a simple plastic ID badge but it was the single most elite pass you could have at WEF. There were endless passes to be had—parking passes, passes to the VIP tent. But all those could be purchased by any old yahoo with money. The FEI pass, however, signified that you were either an FEI rider or one of the people most important to an FEI rider. Chris had an FEI pass for several of the weeks as Lily’s coach and when he’d shown her horses, but this was the first time he was competing for himself. Chris explained that every FEI rider was given one pass for themselves, one for a companion (that was me), two for grooms, and two for owners. Wearing an FEI pass on a lanyard around your neck (backwards if you were really cool) screamed exclusivity to the rest of the horse show. Of course, I loved having mine. It was like a visible badge that said I was Chris’s girlfriend.