Dragon – The Story of a Fiery Thoroughbred and the Girl Who Loved Him

Author Katrina Balding Bills in 2010 - Picture by Annette Dusenbury

By Katrina Balding Bills – Reprinted with permission from the author

Chapter 19

Fella Stumps The ‘Expert’

The commentary from my classmates swirled over my head like the steam from our dinners. My closest pals kept their mouths shut, not only to chew politely, but because they knew I accepted Fella’s quirks, lock stock and barrel. But there were days when our challenges at the barn had zoomed to main campus faster than the old barn van. 

“I swear you like it when he’s like this.” Yup, you’re right I do. I love his zest for life.

“It’s a little embarrassing, I mean with you being on the Varsity team and head of Riding Council and all.” Just goes to show everyone how secure and unflappable I am!

“You’re going to give everyone a heart attack one of these days.” I’m not worried, why should they be worried?

“What, do you think you’re better than the professionals?” ouch. No, no I don’t. but I do know my horse better than they think they do.

As I laid on my dorm room bed that night, trying to no avail to finish my dense Economics reading assignment, I replayed the last two days in my head. The intense clinic sessions with Mr. Horseshow Fancypants had not gone terribly well. To say the least.

Then again, they weren’t a complete disaster. I’d not been made into a lawn dart, nor was I wearing a sling or bandage or splint on any part of my body, nor had he scattered the lacrosse team from their field. Other days had those kinds of results. Fella had not broken anything nor bitten anyone, which I felt was a huge win. My standards weren’t low, but I was realistic. I knew Fella was different from day to day, season to season. He looked like a million bucks, having gotten rounder with more turnout time and more hacking out. Fella was very aware of changes in surroundings, the jumps that were set up and even the voice of the person teaching the lesson. 

His misbehavior during the clinic was subtle. A little lead swap out before jumps because he was anticipating being balanced for the turn ahead. Then cheeky moments where instead of shortening his strides, he simply collected his body, tucked his head and neck in, and flung his legs further out so as to do the same number of strides between jumps. He showed he was quite adjustable, just not the way we’d been instructed to be. When poles were added in a V shape, to give our horses focal points to jump over the middle of each fence even more dramatically, Fella felt the entire structure should be leapt. He bucked and squealed in celebration of not touching anything. His long full summer sunset tail swished and snapped in the air like a long whip tassel. I think he may have been above the jump standards while in his supersized flight path.

I chuckled when I thought about the ‘professional’ wanting to get on Fella to “make him behave.”

“Really, momma?” Fella’s side eye was plain and clear, irritated that I dare let anyone else put a leg over him. Rarely, only if I was sick or had too much homework, would Cassie ride him for me (and I would ride Beamer for her). I watched the professional adjust the stirrups longer and climb aboard my long-legged boy. I thanked God that Fella stood still at least. Small favors. 

Like a petulant child, following teacher’s orders, but with a growl and scowl while doing the task, Fella carted Mr. Fancypants around the course of jumps. I smiled and bit my tongue as I watched him jump around brilliantly – and swap his leads when he felt like it, flat out refuse to shorten his extravagant step, and again leap the entire V formation over the jumps, jostling his very accomplished rider with enormous bascule. His knees were up around his muzzle and his bright eyes told me he was enjoying himself. Granted he did not buck or squeal that time, but saucily shook his head, swished and snapped his tail again and refused to slow down or stop until he got within two feet of me. Then he halted like an actor making his mark, and immediately pushed his stripey face into my shoulder.

“See, I behaved. I should get an A+” Fella demanded a forehead scratch and I added a big pat and rub to his long neck.

Slowly dismounting, shaking his head and regaining some color to his cheeks, our clinician said, “Well, Miss Balding, you have quite the challenging horse. And talented. I’m not so sure you’re showing him in the right division. I’m not so sure there is a right division.”

Fella clacked his teeth and ground them on his bit as the reins were passed to me. He calmed as he tucked my shoulder into the crook of his neck and head and lightly rested on me. We took our final instructions from the clinician and then went for a cooling out walk around the riding center with our classmates.

On his points, I agreed whole heartedly. The show hunter divisions praised a calm, smooth way of going, with plump obedient horses jumping the same jumps, in the same order, week in and week out. Fella clearly thought that was boring. And his relatively lanky lean look stood out like a sore thumb. Sometimes we’d luck out and the judge of the day would like Fella’s classic look. The equitation classes, judged on rider’s position and proper execution of tasks, asked more difficult questions that we both enjoyed and excelled at, but my position was not nearly as stellar as his jumping form. But often enough, we were the most accurate around the course or during the flat tests and scored well. The jumpers seemed promising—all we needed to do is clear all the jumps and go fast. We had solid skills to do both and the more challenging courses would be fun on Fella, who keenly went wherever I looked and rarely met a jump he didn’t love to soar over. But neither the college’s program nor Beth’s back at home wanted us to go straight there just yet.

Everyone thought he needed to learn to listen to me more. Begrudgingly, I did, too. How could I get him to listen, without breaking his spirit, his joie de vivre? Would that up our chances on more good days than bad? And how would I become a hunter trainer with a horse that was so clearly out of place?

Mr. Horseshow Fancypants was one of several clinicians who had come to Sweet Briar and Fella had stumped them all. Male and female, much sought after, wise and well-respected trainers, professional riders and judges from all over the country who couldn’t get through to him any better than I did. My professor and I agreed, no one else needs to get on Fella. Fella is just Fella.

I’d used up all of my homework time re-hashing the clinic in my mind. Great job chickadee. I closed my book and grabbed my towel and shower kit for the stroll down the hallway. Once back in our room, I re-set my alarm for an hour earlier, so I could catch up on my reading before heading out to the barn for my student worker hours. Maybe widgets would make more sense in the morning.

It seemed we both still had a lot to learn. 

Books are available to purchase at katrinabaldingbills.com