Something inside the bright blue grooming box caught Tally’s eye. Tucked in between a rubber currycomb and a hoof pick was a sheet of lined paper with a note scribbled on it in marker.
That’s weird, Tally thought. Why would someone at the barn write to me? She bent down to pick up the paper, her new tall boots cutting into the back of her knees. Tally winced – a couple of her older barn friends had talked about how painful it can be to break in new tall boots, but she thought they were being a little overdramatic. Until now, that is.
She unfolded the piece of notebook paper to find the following written inside in black Sharpie:
HARD WORK BEATS TALENT WHEN TALENT DOESN’T WORK HARD.
Dad, she thought immediately. No one else she knew would write in all capital letters like that. Plus, her dad was super proud of how much work she put into her riding. He was always sharing things he’d read about sports and athletes, encouraging her to follow their lead. “Tally up the ribbons!” he liked to say about horse shows. It was a cheesy play on her nickname (everyone had called her Tally – short for Natalia – for as long as she could remember), but she secretly loved when he said it. Who didn’t love horse show ribbons? She scanned the paper again, the words blending together a bit in front of her eyes. Was her father trying to say she had talent or worked hard? Both? Not enough of either?
“Tally Hart!” A loud voice broke the silence of the tack room and startled Tally so much that she popped straight up, bumping her head on one of the school saddles mounted on the wall rack above her. In the doorway to the tack room, her instructor, Meg, laughed. Tally felt her cheeks turn red.
“Hey, I want to talk to you about the show coming up,” said Meg.
“The show on the twenty-fourth, right? My parents are dropping me off for the whole day,” Tally said of the barn’s upcoming schooling show, the fourth in a series of six. At the end of the series there would be an awards banquet and, rumor had it, super-long and fancy ribbons – longer than champion and reserve ribbons, even – awarded to first through sixth place for cumulative points over the show series. In two of the shows so far, Tally had gotten to ride Sweet Talker, a little chestnut Thoroughbred cross in her barn’s lesson program. She’d never ridden in a series before.
“Great,” Meg said. “Keep going with the hunter division you’ve been doing, but I also want you to do the medal class with Sweetie. I think you’re ready.”
Tally felt her heart thud excitedly in her chest. She’d watched the Quince Oaks junior equitation medal class at the last show and thought it looked like a blast. There was a rollback turn and a trot jump – a much more sophisticated course than the usual outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal pattern of the hunter trips.
“Sign up for that one too when you register, okay?” Meg reached for the buzzing phone in a pocket of her jeans. “Thank you, Meg!” Tally called after her. Her instructor gave her a thumbs-up as she walked down the aisle, already talking on her phone, and Tally felt that familiar swell of pride.
Tally practically skipped out of the tack room to go celebrate the good news with Sweetie. Quince Oaks (or Oaks for short, as the riders called it) was situated at the end of a long gravel driveway off a windy, woodsy road. The Oaks barn was shaped like a horseshoe – the right side was reserved for the lesson program, which housed
nearly thirty school horses in stalls on either side of the aisle, with a tack room on the open end by the barn entrance and parking lot. The left side of the barn was designated for the fifteen boarders’ horses (the stalls were slightly bigger on the boarder side), and in the middle of the horseshoe was one of the farm’s two indoor rings that everyone shared. From the parking lot, you looked directly into that small indoor when the doors were pushed open on their tracks. The top of the barn that curved around the indoor ring had a few more stalls that were used to store feed and supplies. To get to the bigger indoor ring, you walked out the far end of either aisle where the barn curved, and then up a hill. That’s where Oaks horse shows were held. There was also a large outdoor ring right by the big indoor, plus a few miles of paths in the woods for trail riding.
Tally had ridden at Oaks for five years, and she would spend every single day there if she could. It was a unique place to ride due to its strong lesson program, in addition to the top-notch facilities that appealed to boarders. But she had to settle for just three days a week: once a week she took a lesson that her parents paid for, another day after school she was scheduled for a working-student shift, and on the third day she took the lesson that she earned from her shift. Technically, she was too young to be a working student, a position reserved for the teenagers at the barn. Even though Tally had just turned twelve, the barn manager, Brenna, had agreed to give her an unofficial junior working student position to earn her second lesson each week. Tally’s gig didn’t really seem much like work, since she had so much fun being around the horses and her barn friends. It was good exercise though, as she regularly fed the horses and ponies their hay, filled water buckets, cleaned tack and sometimes mucked stalls when the full-time grooms needed a hand.
Making her way down the aisle, Tally said hi to some of her favorite horses. Half of the school horses had stalls on the inside of the aisle. Those stalls were secured with mesh stall guards or a chain covered in rubber, so the horses could stick their necks out to watch what was going on around the barn. The horses on the outside of the aisle had sliding doors and a big window that opened up to the outside of the barn. Tally always thought those horses were the lucky ones, so when she rode an inside-aisle horse in one of her lessons, she’d spend extra time with it outdoors, walking or hand-grazing, since those horses didn’t get to look outside nearly as often.
As she approached the end of the aisle by the exit to the rings, Tally saw Sweetie pin her ears at Harry, the horse in the next stall over.
“Oh, don’t be grumpy, my girl,” Tally told her softly as she approached. Sweetie acted like a typical mare on the ground, with strong opinions about the horses around her, but she was totally different when Tally rode her: agreeable, happy, ears perked almost all the time. Some of the school horses at Oaks were reserved for beginners only. Endlessly patient, they’d stand still for as long as they needed to as beginner riders learned to mount and get settled in the saddle. The more advanced school horses, like Sweetie, mostly went in jumping lessons and had a variety of riders. Sweetie had very little patience for riders who balanced on her mouth or bounced around too much on her back.
“Guess what?” she whispered to the mare. “We’re doing the medal!” Sweetie stuck her muzzle between Tally’s arm and her side, looking for a treat.
That’s when Tally heard someone round the corner; she hoped it would be one of her friends. It was busy down by Sweetie’s stall, with traffic from the boarders’ aisle and horses coming in and out from the upper and lower rings. One of the best things about having barn friends, Tally thought, was that it didn’t matter if they were the same age or went to the same school, or anything like that. They had a love of horses in common, and that was enough.
“Hey there,” said a male voice she didn’t recognize. Tally turned to see a man in a navy blue polo shirt, jeans, and shiny black paddock boots standing in front of Sweetie’s stall. “Can you point me toward the office?”
Tally instantly felt her face flush. She hated turning red, but it happened pretty often – usually when she was surprised or embarrassed.
“Up those stairs,” Tally said, pointing him toward the other end of the aisle. “The office is right above the tack room for the school horses… it’s a separate tack room from the ones the boarders use,” she added, immediately feeling foolish for offering this random detail that Polo Guy certainly wouldn’t need.
“Thanks,” he said, walking down the aisle. “By the way, I’m Ryan.”
Here at The Plaid Horse, we are proud and excited to bring you Show Strides, a series of novels about riding, horse shows, and what it takes to succeed in the sport we all love. A series of novels for young readers and horse lovers of all ages, Show Strides was written and created by Rennie Dyball, an author, equestrian, and contributing writer for The Plaid Horse. Get Your Copy Today!