2018 The Plaid Horse Prize in Fiction
BY THERESA RICE
I was fifteen when my sister chipped my front right tooth. She threw a horseshoe at me while we were at a show. Mom told me she’d pay to fix the tooth or cover my entry fees for the next show. I picked the entry fees. Ten years later and I still run my tongue over that jagged section of tooth whenever I’m irritated.
I’m working the sharp angle of it right now while my sister Ashley hammers at me from the other end of the line. I flip my hair in irritation wishing she could see my eyeroll and be annoyed by it. I sigh into the phone instead. It has the desired effect.
“Claire, stop acting like a child.”
It was childish. I’ve always been childish in Ashley’s eyes. Four years younger than her, I was always too young to hang out with her cool friends, but old enough to know I desperately wanted to. Cece was the sister who included me. Treated me like a friend.
“Excuse me for not jumping for joy when you call me out of the blue and demand I show one of your horses for you,” I say.
“I’m not demanding. I’m asking you, Claire.”
She wants me to get back into showing to show one horse in particular, a half-Arab none of her students can handle. And, apparently, neither can she. I stopped showing a year after we lost Cece. There’s a pang in my chest at the thought of sweet Cecelia. When she first died I asked God why he didn’t take Ashley instead. A year after we put Cece in the ground I stopped asking God for anything. And I stopped showing. Cecilia was the glue who held the three of us together. At the local shows we would constantly vie for position, but we were always taking first, second or third between the three of us. That’s why they started calling us the Three Sisters, like the mountains in the Cascade Range, we were unmovable. They couldn’t get us out of the way.
I’m not sure how long I have been thinking about Cece when Ashley clears her throat on the line. “Please, Claire. Just come and see if you like her. If you two connect.”
“I already know I don’t like her.”
Now it’s Ashley’s turn to sigh. I want to be done with this conversation and get going with a run. That’s what I do now. I run. I untie my purple laces and tighten them down again, thinking we’re about to hang up. I don’t normally wear my shoes on the carpet, working in healthcare turned me into a germaphobe, but she caught me right as I was about to head out. I needed a soft place to sit for whatever hard-edged message Ashley had for me.
“If you don’t show her, Bill Tipple is going to buy her and you know he’ll take her all the way to Nationals. She’s that good. But only for the right person. And she won’t show for me. We just don’t click.”
“You can’t sell her, I own half of her.” I fiddle with the corner of a couch cushion.
“Yeah, the ass half.” Her smirk is audible.
“You can’t sell her,” I repeat.
“Your name’s not on the registration. I can’t afford to feed her and not use her. She’s not calm enough to be a lesson horse and she’s not making me a name as a trainer either.”
It would be like Ashley to care more about the dollars than what the horse means. Cece had just started the filly under saddle the year she died. In the five years since, Willa has bounced between intense training with Ashley and then getting turned out to pasture when she couldn’t meet Ashley’s expectations.
“Please, Claire.” There is something in Ashley’s plea, a break in her voice, that makes me pause.
Before I understand what I’m saying, the words are already out of my mouth. “Fine. I’ll show her at the Spring Fling in six weeks. If we’re not good together, I’m not showing her again. I’m done. And you’re not selling her to Tippy Tipple. That drunk will bloody his spurs on a horse like her.”
Three days later I’m pulling under the canopy of oak trees that saw all of us grow up. Dappled shade dances across the gravel as I walk to the arena. The early spring morning is unusually warm for Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Off to the left of the barn I can see Mom watering the potted plants on her porch. She raises an eyebrow in my direction, but says nothing about me in boots. There’s a travel trailer parked alongside the barn, extension cords running inside- a stray Mom must have let crash on her property until they’re back on their feet.
I tack up the bay mare with four white socks and a stripe down her face and think of nothing but proving what a waste of everyone’s time this is going to be. In spite of myself, I press my nose to Willa’s neck and breath deep. Sweat, dust, the sweet musk of horse flesh blooms in my nose and floods my body with long-forgotten memories.
I settle into the hunt seat saddle, old leather squeaking beneath my grown-up body. I slip the reins between my ring fingers and pinkies, and lightly grip the leather between my thumb and forefinger as I have done hundreds of times. I move the mare away from the mounting block and urge her up into a trot. My muscles strain at the effort, but my body rejoices at this familiar job.
“You’re on the wrong diagonal,” Ashley calls from the center of the arena, already giving a lesson.
I roll my eyes and fix my posting. I knew I was on the wrong diagonal. I just hadn’t fixed it yet. Patience never was a virtue of hers, but jeez, I haven’t been on a horse in four years.
I work Willa for a while at the trot, going one way and then the next, changing my rhythm at the center of the arena with each change in direction. Maybe it was a mistake to give up what I loved. I try to recall what’s kept me away, but all I can come up with is a decision that was made in spite and then carried out with stubborn commitment. I wouldn’t let myself change my mind.
Ashley clears her throat at the other end of the arena and calls out, “Slow your body down, you’re getting her going too quick.”
I bump Willa back with the reins instead and instantly regret it.
“I said slow your body down not to slow her down. Seriously, Claire, if you’re going to ride her like a pony-clubber I’d rather sell her. You’re going to harden her mouth.”
By this time the first client is exiting the arena and the next client is waiting for the gate to clear before coming in. I flip Ashley off with my inside hand and keep Willa moving. I would have yelled at her, but I didn’t have the breath to spare, and I don’t want her to know.
I decide I better give the canter a try before walking the mare out for the day. I collect up my reins and put my outside heel in her. A few seconds too late a foggy recollection emerges that Willa was sensitive about transitions into the canter.
The mare dips her head and then explodes into what could be generously described as a hand gallop. There’s no name for what I was doing trying to stay with her. A third of the way around the arena I lose both my stirrups and in five short strides I lose my seat altogether. Dirt flies up around me as I hit the ground.
I have a mouthful of obscenities I can’t scream because the next client is already in the arena. My sister has a decent reputation as a trainer and I don’t want to be the one to tarnish it. Even if I don’t like her very much.
Ashley apparently has no regard when it comes to preserving her reputation as a sister. “Oh. Yes, there is that little bug,” she says to me as a half-smile twitches across her face.
By this time Willa has made a full lap around the arena and trotted back up to me, seemingly apologetic for her little racehorse explosion. I get back on and collect the reins, cue the mare with just a kiss, no leg, and manage to get three transitions out of her that don’t send me slamming into the saddle. I quell a little tickle of excitement, of promise, and walk her out.
“It was a good try, Claire. I understand if you never want to see the back of her ears again,” Ashley says as we walk by.
I snap my mouth shut. I thought we did well together even though she had a couple quirks and I hadn’t ridden in years. I flick the chip of my tooth and then give Ashley a smile. “I’m not letting you sell her that easily. I’ll be back to ride her in two days. Make sure you lunge her in between, please.”
Ashley gives me a silent salute and turns back to her student of the hour.
Five weeks later I have Willa circling around the warm-up arena like she hasn’t spent the last five years lounging in a pasture. She moves with me and I with her. Going into our first class, I figure we’ll take top five. We’re not polished enough to take first, but I figure we deserve at least some kind of ribbon. Although I hate to prove Ashley right.
The show is bigger than I expected. Seventeen horses enter the arena at a trot along with Willa and me. We’re collected in our posting trot when they ask for a canter. I collect up on the reins a little more, our first explosive canter a memory that tenses my body. I lay my calf against her side and kiss. Willa blasts forward, her front legs eating up the ground. Any moment she’s ready to dissolve into a gallop. I collect up further, pull her back to me and slip my eyes to the judges. I can’t tell if they saw or not.
“Easy girl. Nice and easy.” I try to soothe our trembling nerves. I pass Ashley standing on the rail.
“Bring her back to you. You’re too fast.” I already knew Willa was too fast. What did Ashley think I was trying to do?
We slow back to a posting trot and reverse and the judges ask for a canter in this direction. With a kiss and a flex of my calf Willa is up into the canter. It’s so smooth and glorious I lose myself in the moment of her rocking gate.
As I pass by Ashley on the rail she chips at me again. “Don’t rush her through those transitions. Ease her into it. Just let it happen.”
I focus on a point ahead of me and resist the urge to yell at Ashley. She wasn’t successful getting Willa even this far, so what the hell does she know? We circle at the hand gallop both directions and then line up for our placings. I’m not in the top five places under either judge. I glare at the back of Ashley’s head as she walks away and I accept one green ribbon. Sixth place. Better than last, but not good enough.
Out of the show arena I hop off Willa and march back to the stalls. Ashley reaches for the reins as I came up the aisle. I snatch them away from her. “Why didn’t you stay at the rail?”
“To see the placings.”
“I saw you ride. I already knew your placing before they had to call the number.”
I thrust the green ribbon in her face to show her that, in fact, we weren’t last.
“Big whoop, Claire. So you beat 11 other horses for a little green ribbon. You rode like a tired grandma with a hip replacement. And you rushed her through those transitions. Which is exactly what you’re not supposed to do with her.”
“I don’t see you riding her into greatness.” With Willa trailing behind me I walk away from Ashley, cursing my emotions for wobbling my voice. Mysteriously, all the clients and help have scattered. The aisle is empty except for me, Willa, and Ashley standing behind her.
“I know what my limitations are, Claire.” She says my name like she can’t stand the taste. “I don’t have something to prove. You excel with her, I win. You can’t show her, I sell her. I might not be able to get along with her, but I still know a thing or two about training a hunter. I am the one who’s doing this full time, making a name for myself in the Arab industry.”
“How could anyone forget? Poor Ashley, lost her sister Cece. Poor Ashley, the only sister she has left abandoned her. You’re the same as me. You’re just better at marketing your story.”
I yank the saddle off Willa, hose her down and put her away.
Ashley calls after me as I march toward my car, “Your class tomorrow will be after lunch. Be dressed and ready to get on by 12:30.”
As angry as I am, she was right. I would be back. I don’t know why I need Ashley’s approval to make the ride mean something. I quit showing, quit horses. Without Cece it felt wrong to continue. How could we keep doing something that gave us so much joy while we were also mourning our deep loss? I blamed Ashley for callously continuing. Continuing to promote her training business, continuing to win, continuing to smile for pictures like we all hadn’t just lived through our version of hell.
The rest of the classes that weekend are incremental improvements over the first. By the last class, the fifth one we had completed together, we place third under both judges.
Ashley waits for me at the out gate and nods her head. “Good job.”
I figure that’s as good as I’m going to get. “I’ll show her at the next show and see what happens.” An image of Cece schooling Willa flashes in my mind needling me with guilt.
Ashley walks next to me as we make our way back to the stalls. “If you can pull some firsts and seconds at the next show, you’ll have enough points to go to Regionals.”
She wanders ahead and I stare after her, wondering if I want to go to Regionals. I don’t care about the ribbons or the possibility the Region 4 show holds. Although, the thought of doing well enough to make it to Nationals has filtered through my brain once or twice. But, what I really want is to bring Willa up to the level I know she can achieve, to show her how to be the horse she is talented enough to be, to finish what Cece had started all those years ago and didn’t get to finish. At eight years old it’s pretty late to be starting a show career for Willa, but if I really could finish what Cece started, I have to at least try. Guilt or no guilt.
We showed at the next two local shows, qualifying for Regionals. But, each ride was a series of false starts, sputters and renegotiating what I thought she already understood, reminding her she knew what she was supposed to do, building her confidence. By the time Ashley was hauling Willa to Regionals and I was set to board a flight, I was nervous for what the weekend had in store. Willa was talented, no denying that. But, I was losing patience with the two-steps-forward, one-step-back progress we were making. I wanted results faster and more consistently.
Ashley picks me up from the airport and we ride mostly in silence. Amazing that two people with a shared history and shared DNA could turn out so different and have so little in common. I sigh at the scrubby scenery flying by. “Seems like you’re keeping busy with clients these days.”
“Busy doesn’t pay the bills,” she clips back. “I need to get more people with horses in long-term training. All those one-hour lessons using my horses barely cover my costs.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything more to say.
“I moved a camp trailer onto Mom’s property.”
I scoffed and realize the one I’d seen must be hers. “What’s Nick think about that?” I was actually surprised I hadn’t seen Ashley’s long-time boyfriend skulking around the barn, asking when she was going to be done for the day.
“Well considering the last time we spoke was three months ago, when I moved out of his place, I don’t think his opinion matters much at this point.”
“Wow. I’m sorry to hear that.” Nick had been kind of odd, but then again, so was Ashley.
“I’m not. He wanted me to get a ‘real’ job. Help pay more of the bills. I said I’d rather die broke following my passion. He held the front door open and said he’d like to see me try. So, I packed my stuff and moved onto the property. I’m going to make this work for real. No more messing around part time, filling in at the coffee shop, trying to fit in lessons. It’s all or nothing.”
“I had no idea.”
“That’s why it’s so important to get something figured out with Willa. I know she was Cece’s, but I can’t afford to be sentimental. They help pay the bills or they go somewhere else.”
“What the hell made you think I could get through to Willa if you couldn’t?”
“Mom. I was ready to sell the damned mare but Mom said I shouldn’t until you’d had a crack at her.”
I should have known it wasn’t Ashley’s idea to get me involved. It stings that she would even consider selling Willa, Cece’s last project, without even talking to me about it. I stare out the window, the sun sinking lower, throwing orange light across the sky and casting the far-off ridges in shades of lavender.
Ashley seems to read my mind, answering a question I didn’t ask. “I didn’t bother asking you because I didn’t think you’d care. I’m glad I was wrong.” She kept her eyes dead ahead and I don’t dare take my eyes off those far-off purples that are blurring together now.
The regional show flies by and I know that I was there; I know I competed. But, it’s as if I was watching it happen from above, out of my body, floating through the days. The classes were a swirl of pulsing horse flesh, flicking ears, subtle cues, bodies rising and falling with a beat drummed into the arena dirt and on our hearts. Willa and I started out stumbling together- me because my sister’s emotional admission flipped me upside down, Willa because she was still searching for her confidence. But, we ended with a Reserve Champion in the Amateur-to-Ride class. We qualified for Nationals. I was just trying to show Willa, to win with her, out of spite. Now, I’m flying back home and realizing that I need to give Willa all I’ve got, to really bring her along into the horse she can be. Now, I have to figure out how to pay for national entries. My stomach spasms at the thought of being up against all those riders with hundreds of hours in the saddle and thousands of dollars in their horses, tack, and outfits. The idea of showing her at Nationals seems ridiculous. But, not taking the chance seems even more absurd.
Two weeks later, the emotion Ashley had stirred up and the hope I had about succeeding with Willa have both settled in my body like a rock in my gut. I’m holding my reins like silk, light but firm. I’m posting my body with her movement. I’m cueing her transition into the canter gentle and firm. But, I seem to have misplaced my nerve.
“Get off her face, Claire.”
“I’m not on her face. I’m collected up. I was going to go into a canter.”
Ashley raises her eyebrows at me. “You call that collection? I’ve seen old nags with their bellies pulled in better than that.” She turns away from me and calls out to her student, “Great job, Susan. Now that’s good riding.”
I know she says it all the time, but it irritates me. Like she’s sending me passive aggressive messages about my lack of connection with Willa. I’m still debating about when to go into the canter when she whips around back to me.
“Are you going to canter her or what? Quit thinking about it and canter her.” She’s yelling at me from across the arena but I know she’d be yelling even if she were two feet away. “Canter!” She yells at me again.
I jab my heels into Willa, irritated at my sister but punishing the horse. The mare charges forward into the bit, yanks the reins through my hands and takes off at a gallop.
“What are you doing, Claire? You’re supposed to be easing into the transition.”
“It’s hard to ease into anything with you chipping at me.” I pull up on Willa, trying to get her to come back to me, to slow her body down. Instead she’s raising her head, nose in the air, avoiding the bit.
Ashley has a hand on her hip now. “Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you came here to work, not just dink around on her and think about maybe cantering someday. You both need to work. If you’re not going to work then what are you doing here?”
Willa is still charging through the bit and I can’t get her back to me. She shakes her head and kicks out. My feet slip from the stirrups and two strides later I hit the dirt. I stare up at the rafters of this old arena where we three girls used to play in the bales of hay kept at one end when our mounts were ponies with bad attitudes and the falls were shorter. I pull a ragged breath in and stand up. Ashley has Willa and is walking her out of the arena.
She calls back over her shoulder, “Come back when your mind is here. You’re no use to her if you’re not really into it.”
I leave without saying anything. I’m not sure if Ashley was talking about herself or Willa. All I ever wanted when Ashley, Cece and I were showing was to get to Nationals and see those ring stewards slip those roses over our horses’ necks. Now I have the chance to do it again, with Cece’s horse, and I can’t shrug off this feeling of guilt that somehow showing would leave behind Cece.
I throw my little car in gear and spray rocks by peeling out onto the road. Instead of heading back to my apartment, back to running shoes and salads and control, I turn left and head up into the hills. Fields of green divided by rusting barbed wire and rotting posts zig-zag across the land as I drive further away from the roads I know. Clouds take over the afternoon light and cast me into an early twilight. After three hours of aimless driving, I turn around and make my way back toward home, no clearer on what I want and why it’s harder to decide than when I started. At the turn-off for the arena I slow down and turn in.
The lights are still on down the aisles, but the arena sits in the dark. I walk up to Willa’s stall and peek in. She’s got her butt to me, head down, eyes drooping. I turn to leave, not even understanding why I stopped. Ashley steps out from a stall further down the aisle and jerks at the sight of me.
“Thought you left.”
I turn away from her. “Yep. And leaving again.”
“You know it hurts me too, Claire. It hurts Mom. It hurts everyone she touched.”
“I never said it didn’t hurt.”
“No. You just make it out like you have it the worst, like you suffered the most and the rest of us don’t have big gaping wounds where her life was.”
“I’ve never once complained to you about her death and how I was left to deal with it by myself while you and mom comforted each other. You both treated me like a child. Like somehow my pain was less real than yours.” I don’t know when it happened, but I’m screaming now.
“You didn’t have to say a thing. I got it loud and clear when you stopped talking to me. Made me the bad guy. You don’t have to be here. You don’t have to ride Willa. You don’t have to go to Nationals. You’ve already confirmed what I thought. She’s got the heart. She just needs the rider.”
“I fully intend to go to Nationals.”
“You’re not hearing me. I don’t want you to go if everyone has to deal with your armor of anger pushing me and the clients and Willa around. There’s no point to it.”
I leave the barn with hot tears streaking down my red face. I practically run into Mom before I make it to my car. She must have come out when she saw someone pull in so late.
“You okay, Claire?” Her voice is quiet.
I say nothing and slam my car door to shut both of them out. Hell of a time for her to start wondering if I’m okay. She hasn’t even been watching me show.
After a week of feeling sorry for myself I drive back to the barn. I lost a week of training with Willa, but I didn’t know how to come back. Mom and Ashley did leave me behind in their grief. And now it feels like it’s up to me build a bridge back- which seems unfair. They should have to work harder than me. But, I keep coming back to Willa. Ashley is right that I can’t push Willa around with anger. Everything Cece did, she did in love. Well, love and a little stubbornness. She’d be so mad at how I’ve isolated myself from Mom, and Ashley, the horses. She’d probably whoop my butt for trying to get by on anger.
I slip my boots on and tack up Willa myself. In the arena, I step in the stirrup and sigh into the saddle. We ease into a posting trot, the coolness of the morning flushing my face. I didn’t tell Ashley I was coming, but she doesn’t seem surprised.
“That’s good, Claire.” She clears her throat, softening her voice. “Now slow your body down a little. Let her know you have all the time in the world for each stride. Don’t rush it. Let her extend.”
Ashley’s coaching doesn’t feel like criticism this morning. I take a deep breath and glance down at the pommel. There, on this saddle that’s at least half as old as me, is a pattern scratched into the smooth leather. I slow Willa down into a walk so I can look closer at what I’m seeing. I don’t know when the leather got scratched or how, but in the random marks I see a pattern. These jagged lines all connect and I swear I’m looking at the outline of the Three Sisters mountains.
I don’t know if I believe in messages from beyond, but I believe in the love my sister Cece had for this horse, for us, and I know I have to take Willa to Nationals. I know that I have to find a way forward with horses without Cece, but with Ashley and with joy. I take a deep breath and ease Willa into a canter. She stumbles a step, but recovers.
Isn’t that the way.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.