The next morning, Sam's uncle, Kevin, manoeuvred the Jeep and horse-box down the potholed road in the wake of another trailer where two sleek rumps could be seen above the closed ramp. Sam, bouncing in the passenger seat as they hit another hole tried to contain her excitement as she gazed out the window at the unfamiliar landscape.
No matter how big or small the show, I still get this rush, Sam thought. Nothing beats the thrill of competition.
Once Kevin had drawn the rattling horse-box to a halt in a spacious clearing where a handful of other trucks and trailers were already parked, Sam jumped out and went to check how her two horses and Jem had fared in the back.
"All right in there, Jem?" she called as she and Kevin lowered the ramp. "Back him out nice and slow."
Hellfire began his shaky descent, placing one uncertain hoof behind the other, as Jem pushed encouragingly on his chest. Once away from the trailer, the tall horse stood with his head held high and his eyes and nostrils wide.
"Hang on to him tight," Sam warned as he started sidestepping. She peeked beneath his sweat rug and saw he was wet with perspiration.
"Is he bad?" Kevin asked, watching his niece and the prancing horse with concerned blue eyes.
"Mm, he's not great," Sam replied, stepping aside as Hellfire skittered Jem around in a tight circle. "But this is only his second time on strange territory and he's a fizzy horse anyway. I guess it's only to be expected. Never mind, he's not competing today anyway, this is just for experience."
Sam struggled to remove Hellfire's travel bandages, despite Jem's supreme efforts to hold him still. She whipped off his tail bandage and gave him an absent-minded pat on the rump, sending the horse into orbit. She shook her head, smiling as she watched Hellfire do his best impersonation of a rodeo pony with Jem hanging onto his lead rope.
"You might want to get Jetsetter out, Sam," Kevin suggested. "It might calm him down a bit."
Sam walked up the rickety ramp and found her other horse still snatching at his hay net.
"Pig," she grinned, pulling loose the quick release knot attached on his rope. "Come on, mate. You won't make a scene, will you?"
Jetsetter stomped down the ramp as placidly as he had gone in an hour earlier. Not a trace of sweat tarnished his supple body. In stark contrast to his travelling companion, the only excitement visible in Jetsetter was in his glistening eyes and distended nostrils. Hellfire let out a clarion whinny, bolting forward when a reply was heard from a nearby horsebox.
"Maybe not," Kevin said, keeping a safe distance.
Twenty minutes later, Sam sat astride a still excited but much calmer Hellfire. She had changed into her white jodhpurs, tucked into spotless long black boots. She wore black riding gloves and her trademark lime green polo shirt, which matched the silk pulled over her safety helmet. Even though he was not competing, Hellfire was also decked out smartly with a coloured brow band and silver-lined Cavesson noseband. His usual dirty green numnah, which had an ugly rip through it, had been exchanged for a clean and snug sheepskin one.
Sam sat easily in the saddle as he jogged towards the temporary practice arena, vaguely aware of the appreciative stares from the other riders, most of them children who would be competing in the class before her own but also keen spectators. She knew the quality of Hellfire's Thoroughbred breeding was apparent to all and she felt a million dollars riding him.
Hellfire gradually began to quieten down and the girl on his back was able to enjoy herself and forget her pre-class nerves. Sam walked him around the edge of the practice ring, where the grass had been slashed to accommodate a sizeable space for competitors to warm up their horses and studied the three cross-country fences in the centre. The first, which was for the juniors, comprised of a simple pheasant feeder. The middle jump was obviously for the more daring of the juniors and not-as-challenging use of the adults. It was a narrow arrowhead fence, its chevron of wooden slats pointing towards the ground. The third jump was a tall brush fence held upright by two heavy poles at the top. The ground then dropped about three feet on the landing side and sloped away.
When there were fewer horses around, Sam pushed her mount into trot, encouraged when he listened to her commands despite the distractions around him. His pace changed smoothly into a canter and she guided him in a wide circle. She brought him back to a trot and repeated the same exercise on the other rein.
Finally, she slowed him to a walk and steered him towards the juniors' smaller jump. She let him inspect it before gathering up her reins and sending him into a brisk canter. Turning in a half circle, Hellfire bounded towards the jump, lifting his head and pricking his ears in eager anticipation. He leapt over in a fluid arc but with an extra two feet to spare. Sam knew this over-exertion would be corrected in time but was happier to have this as a fault as opposed to a horse who trailed his legs through his jumps.
"Looking better now, isn't he?" Jem remarked when Sam, having ended their exercise, pulled up beside the trailer.
"Much," she agreed, patting the gelding's shoulder and swinging herself out of the saddle. "I don't want to push him too much but I think he'll take to eventing like a dream."
Jem dipped a large sponge in a bucket of water and squeezed it over Hellfire's poll. Sam laughed as the bay curled up his top lip and tried to catch the water droplets with his tongue.
"We'll be walking the course soon. You feel like keeping me company, Kev?" She grinned at her uncle. "Think those old bones are up to it?"
"These bones aren't even forty, don't go accusing them of being old."
"Let's see those spring-chicken legs moving then." She laughed and dodged away from Kevin's backhander.
"Watch it, madam," he said with a wry smile. "Or I'll put your rent up."
The sight of so many challenging obstacles made Sam rub her hands together with glee as she analysed each one's approach and landing, looking for short cuts and angles as she dared contemplate.
"Ooh, doesn't it look great, Kev?" she exclaimed at the Normandy bank. Here, competitors had to negotiate a ditch and a bank in one jump, then with only space for a short stride, immediately take off over a solid log roll with a drop landing.
"Great - if you're thinking of committing suicide," Kevin shuddered.
"I don't need to tell you you're mad taking such risks," her uncle continued as they carried on to the next obstacle, "but there is no doubt in my mind that you were dropped on your head as a baby."
"Give over," Sam laughed.
"Seriously, Sam. All these jumps seem larger than usual. Is this competition bigger than you're letting on?"
"Fairly big. But the bigger the better for Jetsetter really. He can get complacent over the smaller fences. I'm probably safer over this course than on the juniors'."
"If you insist," Kevin replied, unconvinced.
Despite Sam's confident words, by the end of their walk, she was feeling somewhat light-headed with nerves and it was only when she was mounted on Jetsetter that her dizziness began to dissipate. Astride her horse, she felt secure. He was so solid, she looked upon him as her rock and his familiar bulk brought reassurance rushing through her body. Their partnership held the most vital of ingredients: trust.
After stretching his legs over the practice fences, she walked around the small collecting area waiting for her number to be called.
"Sixty seconds. On my whistle," the starter said to her.
Sam double-checked her gear, ignoring the slight tremor to her hands. The whistle blew shrilly and Jetsetter leapt forward as if he'd been stung. Sam gripped the saddle with her knees and balanced above its pommel, moving rhythmically with her horse's long stride.
The first jump loomed, a stone wall partially obscured by the thick grass. Jetsetter rose over and hardly broke stride as he landed. Nerves forgotten, Sam grinned from ear to ear as she gloried in the rush of speed and danger. The pair followed the red flags, which would lead them to the next jump, the Chair. Jetsetter positioned himself accurately and cleared it in a flowing leap. The flags then led them into the forest where the ground became softer and the long dry grass more sparse. Small clusters of onlookers, gathered along the track, cheered them on as they swept past. Jetsetter took off well away from the corner fence, arching his back over the awkward jump, with Sam balanced over his withers.
The fourth obstacle was a water jump. Jetsetter shortened his stride on approaching the bordering log and Sam prepared to sit back defensively on descent. They landed with a splash, Jetsetter snorting as the chandelier drops of water sprayed up into his face and onto his belly. He cantered strongly through the pool then jumped the small log up onto dry land.
Next was the suicidal Normandy bank. Jetsetter was going strong and pricked his ears at his next challenge. About four strides out, Sam realised they were going too fast. She sat deep in her saddle, hauling on the reins. Jetsetter tensed, sensing his rider's sudden uncertainty and hesitated. His dramatic loss of pace almost threw Sam onto his neck. Realising they now didn't have enough impulsion, she slapped him once on the neck with her crop. Without his forward propulsion, Jetsetter strained to clear the ditch and bank. He pecked as he met the rising ground and Sam wrenched his head up, fear suddenly gripping her. The big bay stumbled forward, only just managing to keep his feet before he faced the log roll. Unbalanced, it was impossible to clear. He rapped the fence hard with knees, pitching Sam over his head. As if in slow motion, Sam tumbled down the drop landing, the air knocked out of her lungs as she hit the ground. She turned in mid-roll to look behind for Jetsetter, aware of the danger he now posed. But there was no escape. The impact as he landed his half-ton weight on top of Sam sent volts of agony searing through her body. Jetsetter's shoulder hit first into Sam's upper back. Then the rest of his body ground her torso into the dirt. She couldn't breathe for the sand and grit in her mouth and nose but managed a short sharp gasp as her horse rolled off her. She heard the harsh sound of Jetsetter's frightened gulps of breath and the muffled shouts from onlookers and stewards. Sam opened her sand-encrusted eyes to see Jetsetter's face beside her. A thin trickle of blood ran down his dirt-tanned white stripe and his eyes were wide and scared. She opened her bleeding lips to say something, anything to reassure him.
Everything will be fine, she tried to form the words. I'm sorry, Jets. I'm sorry for hurting you. Sorry…