The air was soft, stilled by the dense canopy of trees, through which golden swords of the sun's rays pierced the undergrowth. A disused but clear forestry track, its pathway cushioned by a thick layer of fallen pine needles, beckoned. The horse snorted, disturbing the almost mystical silence of the forest's natural sound barrier. He tossed his head, anxious to be released then, as he felt the weight of his rider tip over his neck, he leapt forward.
Samantha crouched over Jetsetter's rolling shoulders as he gathered speed and not for the first time, revelled in the big bay's immense power. He galloped with his nose tucked into his barrel chest like a warhorse, his neck crested like an archer's bow. Each pounding hoofbeat shattered the New Forest's serenity, like a muffled drum proclaiming the onset of battle. He snorted through blood red, trumpet-like nostrils, his ears alert to his mistress' spoken command. Sam squeezed the leather reins between her fingers, feeling Jetsetter's immediate response and a rush of awed satisfaction coursed through her slight body. The respect each had for one another overcame the huge imbalance in strengths, a mutual appreciation of speed. She knew he only tolerated her discipline because they both loved to gallop… and to jump.
The drone of a tractor, returning to Fernleigh Farm's main yard, drifted across the landscape to the large sandy arena where nineteen-year-old Sam Peterson was guiding a tall dark bay gelding in a twenty metre circle. The horse slashed his tail with disdain at being held to a medium trot and twitched his ears to the sound of the distant tractor. Sam chuckled and reined him back to a walk.
"Well done, Hellfire," she murmured, patting his sweaty shoulder. "I'd say you've just earned your ticket to a day out tomorrow."
The gelding flicked back his ebony-tipped ears at the sound of Sam's voice then pricked them forward and quickened his stride as the prospect of dinner won over his attention.
The small stable block, positioned in an L-shape against a shady line of fir trees, welcomed their return, the white-washed walls blushing in the early evening sunshine. In front of it, bordering the bumpy dirt track was a small exercise paddock where Sam's three horses usually spent their lazy afternoons. The sound of the Hellfire's shod hooves striking the concrete walkway brought a stocky boy, in his mid-teens, to the door of the tack room. He ran a hand through his unruly dark curls and shaded his eyes against the glare of the sun.
"'Allo, Sam. Go all right, did he?"
Sam drew her horse to a halt and dismounted.
"Hey, Jem. He went great, thanks." Her blonde head disappeared under the saddle flap as she undid Hellfire's girth. "Still not ready for the big jumps but he's getting there."
"Bet you found all that schooling really boring, didn't you, boy?" Jem cooed, rubbing the gelding gently on his muzzle.
"He'll thank me one day when all that boring schooling pays off. He might not know it yet but this is what's going to make him into a top class eventer." Sam lifted off the saddle and placed it on the nearby post and rail fence. Jem raised a magazine he had in his hand and Sam looked at him questioningly.
"You're in The Equine."
"Am I?" Sam looked bemused. "What for?"
"See here on Page Twelve. They're talking about your goals for next show jumping season. They've even got a photo of Malaika. Where was that taken?"
"Southern Counties Agricultural Show it looks like," Sam scrutinised the small grainy picture. "This issue must be a bit out of date."
Jem flicked back to the cover.
"Oh, it's last month's edition. I just found it in the tack room, that's why. But is it true? Are you going to Huntingdon next year?"
"If I can qualify, then yes. Everyone wants to win at Huntingdon but only the top twenty go through to the final."
"Can I come along if you do?"
"Of course. You're our unofficial helper at all the other shows. But it's a four-day tournament, it won't be a ride in the park," she warned. "I'll have a better chance with another horse though."
"What, you're going to buy another one?" Jem exclaimed, his blue eyes sparkling.
"Good God, no. I couldn't afford that. But there are plenty of owners out there with some good A Grade horses."
"But you'll have to be in the top twenty, so what are you now?"
"Qualifying shows don't start until later in the year," Sam explained as she attempted to unbuckle her horse's bridle while he tossed his head. "Last year, I got as far as about thirtieth. That horse, Life Guard, which Carol Charles leant me last season was a Godsend when Malaika was out for those two months with a bad tendon."
"D'you think she'll lend him to you again this season?"
"Dunno," Sam shrugged. "I know she wanted me to spend more time show jumping than eventing last year so her conditions might be a bit stricter this time around." Sam led the bay jig-jogging to his stable, with Jem following, his bowed legs spinning as he tried to keep up.
"Which do you prefer?" he asked.
"Both, I guess. I love eventing on Jetsetter as much as I love show jumping on Malaika. I suppose Hellfire is going to be the decider," she said.
"Well, if he's not cut out for eventing then I'll probably take him show jumping. Eventing will have to take a back seat then."
"You wouldn't sell Jetsetter though, would you?" Jem sounded horrified.
Sam laughed from within the stable.
"Jem, I'm not buying or selling any of this lot. I love them all too much."
After settling Hellfire and bidding Jem good bye, Sam moved to the next stable along. In the dimly-lit room, she could see Jetsetter noisily eating his grain from the manger at the back. Sam admired his fit, well-muscled frame. He was all an eventer should be. And hopefully this weekend he would prove it. Not wanting to disturb his meal, she carried on to Malaika in the next stable.
This horse, on the other hand, had a much lighter conformation and was probably more suited to Sam's slight build than Jetsetter. Sam's adoration of the chestnut Anglo-Arab channelled deeper than the mare's superficial beauty. Even being Sam's first horse was not the reason why she was so devoted to Malaika. The fact that Malaika had entered her life when it felt everything was crumbling to ruin around her was possibly the truest reason. Amid the emotional rubble she had found herself when her parents had been killed in a car accident six years ago, her uncle Kevin, a farmer from Hampshire had stepped forward, become her guardian and to lift her spirits, bought her a horse.
Malaika whickered when she noticed Sam and immediately left her feed to greet her owner. Sam stroked her fingers along the delicate blaze arrowing down the mare's dished face, murmuring words she could never recall after their conversations but which Malaika seemed to understand perfectly.
"Wish us luck tomorrow, Mally," she whispered. "I'm going to need it with that whiz-bang we call Hellfire."