BY Tiffany Noelle Chacon
Book excerpt reprinted with permission from the author.
Mila is competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival with her sister’s Grand Prix horse, Cyrus. Her sister suffered a tragic fall that left her paralyzed last season at WEF. Mila and Cyrus have been competing in the Low Amateur Jumpers and are more than capable of moving up, but fear has kept Mila from making the jump to the higher class. Before this scene, she got a call from her trainer that they had to move arenas to the International Arena because of a burst pipe in the DeNemethy Ring.
By the time I arrive at the temporary barns, Alex already has Cyrus tacked up on the cross-ties. I feel shaky, like I’ve just downed three Red Bulls.
“Hey!” he says, a little too loudly. He seems like he’s too hyped up on caffeine, too. It’s almost like he’s vibrating, and it’s making me more anxious.
“You excited? International Arena! That’s exciting. I would be excited.”
“It’s okay to be nervous, it’s a new place. Why don’t you sit down and look at the videos Trina sent you?”
“Alright.” I don’t know how to deal with this jumpy version of Alex, but I do as he suggests and take a seat just outside the barns and watch the videos of the first few riders since I missed the course walk after the ring snafu.
The jumps seem massive, and the ring is sprawling. Of course it could just be that everything seems bigger in the International Arena, but a part of me wonders if they forgot to lower the jumps from the previous class.
But no, they wouldn’t do that.
And, of course, it’s the site of Anya’s accident. A truth I can’t shake as I watch the videos again and again.
“C’mon, Mila, get yourself together,” I mumble.
“Ready?” Alex says as he approaches with Cyrus.
“As I’ll ever be.”
He helps me into the saddle and then walks beside me as we go to the Arena. He’s practically bouncing on his toes, and Cyrus is doing his typical prancing horse routine, while I silently clench my teeth and review the course in my mind. Alex seems to get that I don’t want to talk, so he’s whistling. Whistling. Since when does Alex whistle? I don’t know who spiked his coffee with extra espresso this morning, but I’m not sure I like this peppy Alex.
At the practice ring, Trina already has a jump set up for us, so I immediately start warming him up. The exercise gives me calm—I can’t think about the course or the arena as Cyrus and I weave around the other horses. At first, Cyrus is really fresh and he’s tossing his head, kicking out his back legs and chomping at the bit. But eventually the jitters wear off and we’re jumping higher and higher practice fences until they’re almost the height of the standards. Then Trina is waving me over to the in-gate.
“You’re in,” she says.
“What?” She normally gives me time to watch a rider or two before me, but all of a sudden, I’m in the ring. My heart is booming in my chest and I’m certain everyone in the stands can hear it. I’m trotting toward the spot where Anya last moved her whole body, and then I’m cantering past it and it’s behind me.
“Next on course in our High Amateur Jumpers we have Cyrus Van Der Bergh, ridden and owned by Miss Mila Kozak of Miami, Florida.” For a second, I think I’ve misheard the announcer—High Amateur Jumpers? This is supposed to be the Low Amateurs. But when I look up at the scoreboard, where Cyrus and I are being projected live, I see it clear as day: High Amateur Jumpers.
My whole body is shaking, and I’m about to turn Cyrus around and get out of this arena, undo this mistake or whatever this is, when the buzzer shrieks. And, as always, Cyrus bursts into a gallop at the sound.
Just like that, we are on course. In the High Amateur Jumpers in the International Arena, jumping the same jumps, the same heights as Anya did right before she fell and lost all movement in her body.
My stomach is roiling, bile threatening to burn my throat. I swallow it down and, with quivering hands, point Cyrus toward the first jump. Just one jump, I tell myself. We’ll just jump one jump.
It’s a black vertical with huge yellow arches underneath the top pole. And when I say it’s huge, that’s like saying a Clydesdale’s hooves are moderately sized. But then we’re soaring over it, and I tell myself, just one more jump. I can do one more jump.
Cyrus and I gallop through the turn into a five stride line. We hit the five perfectly, and then we’re making a tight rollback toward a plank jump. We leave a bit long, and I fall onto Cyrus’s neck as we land, but we both recover and the jump is still standing, even though I’m quite literally shaking in my boots.
The next obstacles are arguably the hardest in the course—the triple combination. Cyrus is absolutely flying, so I sit back and rein him in as we approach. We zoom through, a perfect staccato as we jump one after the other after the other.
At some point in the course, I stop telling myself one more jump. Because despite the fear quaking through my body, I want to finish the course. I want it more than anything I’ve ever wanted in my life. It grips me tighter than the fear, and propels me to the next jump and the next.
There’s an option after the triple—we can either jump a very high, very skinny vertical or go over the water jump. I choose the water, and let Cyrus gallop full-tilt toward it. His whole body expands underneath me as I extend my arms as far as they can go up his neck.
We are winged. We are flying. We won’t ever touch the ground.
And then, we do. And we’re hurtling toward the green Adequan jump. We’re shooting through a broken line, and we take the inside for six strides. It’s a bit tight and at the last minute, Cyrus inserts an extra half-stride before taking off. He gives a valiant effort to get over the fence, but his hooves graze the top, and I can tell the rail falls because I hear the crowd go, “Ahh.”
I can’t even register the disappointment of knocking down the jump because we’re speeding toward the last jump in the course. I’m gripping the reins like they’re the only thing holding me to this earth. We thunder toward it, and I’m holding my breath, and then his feet are off the ground. We’re sailing over it, gliding through the air like this is what we were made to do, and then we land.
We’ve finished the course, and we’re both still whole.
Trina and Alex are at the in-gate, cheering, their matching, conspiratorial smiles tell me all I need to know: they planned this. They tricked me. I don’t know whether to be upset with them or giddy.
But then I see Trina’s smile, Alex’s dancing brown eyes, and I decide to choose to be giddy, because, well, I can’t help it. I just jumped Grand Prix-sized jumps—and I survived. More than survived. I thrived.
Trina’s saying something, slapping my leg as she feeds Cyrus a treat. And as much as I want to pay attention to her feedback, I’m looking at Alex. I’m watching his eyes shine as he rubs Cyrus’s mane and smiles up at me.
I cut off Trina. “Thank you, guys,” I say. “I wouldn’t have done this without you.”
“Uh, yeah, we know. That’s why we did this,” Trina says, with a wave of her hand. “We knew you were capable, you just needed a little…push.”
I laugh, though I wouldn’t categorize this as a little push. “Fair enough.”
“You deserve to get through your fear,” Alex says in that amiable way of his.
It’s a profound thing to say, and I feel like I should say something equally profound back, but no words come. So I just smile and nod. Trina hands me some water and I down it in one gulp. I’m shivering, not from cold, but from the let-down of adrenaline from the course. Cyrus is picking up on it, because he’s prancing again, even as I give him the reins and he lets his head down.
I’m filled by the exhilaration of what we just did, and I let it consume me. The sheer terror of jumping those heights combine with the unbelievable thrill of accomplishing something so outlandish. Waves of emotion—gratitude, elation, relief—crash over me and I’m taken out by them.
I’m so caught up in my feelings that when Alex asks me to dinner, I say yes.