This isn't too accurate. I know and ride horses; I don't know or ride shows. Sorry. I mostly used my imagination and the Saddle Club.
Christina's Last Show
Christina hopped out of the cab of Samantha's truck as her instructor pulled to a halt outside the barns of Oak Ridge. It was an event that took place towards the end of show season, and the place was buzzing with prospective riders hoping to get their last qualifying points for final standings. As for Christina, she wasn't in it to win it. She was in it to say goodbye.
Since Wonder's last foal, Star, had been born, she had been spending less time with her eventer Sterling and instead focusing on the colt. They had a bond that she didn't share with any other horse, even the flashy gray mare waiting for her in the horse trailer. That was why she would be "selling" Sterling to Samantha for a fraction of what she was worth on the assumption that she would stay at Whisperwood forever. It would be a hard break; there was no pretending that it wouldn't, Christina thought sadly as she surveyed the hustle of the showgrounds that she'd grown accustomed to in the past years of stadium jumping, cross country, and dressage. They had a different kind of magic than the racetrack that she would be moving on to. And at the moment, when she knew she wouldn't be an active participant in this world any longer, their magic was no less poignant than the racetrack's.
"Hey, beautiful," she called, unhitching the trailer door. Sterling snorted in response, tossing her head and jangling the lead shank against the metal of the trailer so it made a loud clanging sound. This made the mare jump a little, shaking once in her habitual nervous way.
"Goose," Christina laughed fondly, backing her horse out. "It's not going to hurt you."
Samantha came up behind her, acting brusquer than her normal sweet self as she told Christina, "You've got stall nineteen in the B barn. Your parents and Mel are coming down to watch later; I'll go check and see if the big trailer's arrived yet with Dylan and Katie."
Christina nodded. In one hand she continued to keep a firm hold on Sterling, earlier adventures in which the mare had escaped and wreaked havoc on riding camps, events, and stables entering her mind. In the other she gathered up as many grooming supplies as she could hold.
"I'll be right back for my tack, Samantha," she called, setting off towards the barns.
Sterling walked complacently just behind Christina, content to drink in the sights as Christina herself was doing.
"This is our last show, girl," Christina said absently, speaking as much to herself as to the horse. "This is one of the last times I'll ride you and you'll be my horse. I'm giving you to Sam for her riders to use. And she'll teach you everything I don't have time to, and you'll be the best eventer there is."
They halted beside the stall block. Christina eased Sterling into her stall and stood there for a moment, lead shank in hand, surveying the graceful mare and how far she'd come since the first time they'd met at the track. She was a healthy body weight. Muscle rippled along her chest and hindquarters, but it wasn't the lean, stringy stuff of a misused racehorse. Now, it was sinew born to jump. Her coat was glossy and shone under the hard light. But best of all was the change in her face. Once hard and defiant, Sterling's eyes were now large and warm. You could tell a lot about a horse by looking them in the eyes, and Sterling's only showed love. Love, and a whole lot of heart. Her ears flicked this way and that, curious and on edge, but not riled up. She'd really developed into quite a horse.
"You good, pretty girl?" Christina asked finally, turning to retrieve the rest of her gear from Samantha's truck. A handsome black in the stall block across from her and Sterling caught her eye as she moved to leave. More than his confirmation and clearly impeccable care, there was something familiar in the way he tossed his head; the flash of the single snip of white across his face …
That was it. Flash. Stepping closer, Christina examined the horse and was positive: he was Flash from Camp Saddlebrook a few years ago. Eliza's Flash.
The two of them—Eliza, really—had made her utterly miserable for half of camp. But everything worked out when Christina accidentally discovered that Flash wasn't really Eliza's horse, saved him from a colic scare, and helped Eliza earn the money to be able to keep him. By the end they'd become close friends, exchanged addresses, and promised to write often. That hadn't happened. They'd fallen out of touch quickly, hardly even bumping shoulders on the show circuit; Eliza was from Maryland, land of the steeplechasers, while all the time Christina spent out of Kentucky, she was on a racetrack. Here was Flash, though. There was no doubt in Christina's mind. But where was Eliza?
By now, the gelding was curious. He stepped forward to sniff Christina delicately. She stepped away, wary of touching him after the time at Camp Saddlebrook when Eliza jumped down her throat for one pat. But when he nudged her arm with his nose, she laughed and gave in.
"Remember me, boy?" she asked, scratching his cheek. Flash wiggled his upper lip in pleasure. "Yeah, I bet you do. I wouldn't forget that midnight ride either."
The day Flash had colicked, Chris had ridden Melanie's pony, Trib, while ponying Flash beside her to find Eliza in the middle of the night. It had been worth it to save the magnificent horse, but, all told, the ride itself was not one of her finer moments.
"Hey!" cried a familiar voice behind Christina. "What do you think you're doing to my horse?"
She whirled around guiltily, face to face with Eliza, in an unpleasant flashback of a few years ago on the first day of camp. As Christina stood there awkwardly deciding if she should apologize or reintroduce herself first, recognition dawned across Eliza's face.
"I remember you," Eliza said. "You're Christina Reese. You went to Camp Saddlebrook with me."
"Yeah," she nodded.
"You and your cousin got me my horse."
Eliza squealed and set her saddle hurriedly on the ground, then ran forward to Christina. They embraced slightly awkwardly, then pulled away to look at each other. Eliza had changed in the same way Sterling had; there wasn't the hardness to her face that there'd been when Christina remembered her at camp. A few years of doing something you loved could do that to you.
"It's so incredible you're here!" Christina exclaimed. "What are you doing so far from home?"
Eliza grinned, "I live down in Virginia now. So Kentucky's not quite as much of a stretch. And I'm going for the big prize here." She grimaced, swatting Christina lightly on the arm. "Although I could have done without this competition."
"What, me? No way!" Christina laughed. "You and Flash could always ride circles around me and Sterling."
Forgetting to pretend modesty, Eliza said, "That was just because you and Sterling hadn't been together like Flash and I had." She paused quickly and corrected her cockiness, adding, "And, anyway, I thought you guys were quite good as far as raw talent goes."
"Thanks." Christina shrugged and scuffed her boot in the dirt. "But we're not going for points or anything here, really, except for a good ride."
"What more can you ask for?"
"No," Christina told Eliza, "I mean, it's not just that fun is top priority over placing. I'm selling Sterling."
"What?" Eliza looked shocked and unhappy. "Why? You're Christina Reese, you have all the money and training facilities in the world! Why would you get rid of a horse like her?"
"I—I've been racing." For the first time, Christina was faced with someone who was questioning her decision. She respected Eliza, a lot. And she knew that Eliza had little appreciation for how anyone in Christina's financial situation could face the struggles with riding that she did on a daily basis. "I think I love it more than eventing." An image of Star shaped in her mind; then an image of what he could be pounding down a track next year, the year after. "I mean, I know I do. And it's not fair to Sterling to just become a pasture ornament."
Eliza continued looking stunned. "It's your choice," she finally said. "And Sterling deserves to be happy. But don't you think she'd be happiest with you?"
Christina flicked her gaze across the aisle. Sterling stood at the edge of her stall, ears pricked as she watched the hustle and bustle before her. Eliza followed Christina's glance and looked at Sterling as well.
"She looks great," the other girl told her. "Really." She walked across the aisle; Christina trailed behind. "May I?" Eliza gestured at the stall.
"Be my guest." Then, remembering Sterling's general wariness around strangers, "But a careful one!"
"Got it." Eliza unclipped the makeshift stall door and slid in with Sterling; Christina followed and gripped the mare's halter, stroking her cheek to calm her. She wasn't too excited, not like she used to get around strangers. But Sterling was still Sterling, very much a high strung Thoroughbred.
"Gorgeous." Nodding approvingly, Eliza circled Sterling, carefully keeping out of kicking range. "Gorgeous." She ran one hand down her flank. "Thin skinned as ever?"
"And the better for it," Christina replied defensively.
"Easy, easy!" Eliza laughed. "I know she is."
They exited the stall and sat down on a haybale outside.
"So," asked Eliza, "You selling her?"
"Sort of," Christina told her. "I'm selling her for a tiny amount to my riding instructor's barn, and we have an agreement that she'll stay there or come back to me; not be sold anywhere else without my permission."
"Nice," Eliza said, a tad wishful. "Hey, I've got all the horse I need now." She grinned fondly in Flash's direction. "But I'm going all the way. To the Olympics in a few years. I know it." Determinedly, she stuck her chin out. Christina had no doubt that Eliza was telling the truth. "And then I'll need more than just Flash. If you want her to really get a career, give me a call."
"I will," Christina said automatically. But she knew she wouldn't. Firstly, Whisperwood was the best place she could hope for for Sterling, and Samantha and Tor wouldn't be giving it up anytime soon. Even more, though, the kind of drive Eliza had wasn't what Christina wanted for Sterling. She had no doubt that the other girl was passionate about horses and loved them with her whole heart. But there was almost something unintentionally cruel in her, the matter of fact way she talked about Sterling's career and Flash's heart. Insecurity, maybe, that she'd never measure up to her dreams. Whatever it was, Christina didn't want Sterling to be exposed to it. The black gelding was Eliza's horse. Sterling was Christina's—and Whisperwood's.
"Thanks." Eliza smiled kindly at Christina, but Christina had a feeling that she'd guessed enough of what was going through her head to know that Sterling probably wouldn't be her horse.
"You're welcome." Christina grinned broadly, sincerely back—because Eliza was an old friend who she'd had a lot of fun with. "And, hey! Melanie's coming later to watch. You'll have to come say hi!"
"I will!" Eliza exclaimed happily. "I can't wait!"
They hugged again, less awkwardly.
"See you later," Christina finally said. "I still have to collect my tack from the trailer; Samantha'll be wondering what I got off to."
"Yeah," Eliza replied, "See you."
And hour or so later, Christina stopped braiding Sterling's mane and headed for the main ring to watch Eliza jump. Earlier, when Melanie came, the three girls had had a loud, laughing reunion and Melanie had left to watch Eliza warm up. Now, Christina scooted through rows of people towards her cousin.
"Hi cuz," Melanie said. "Eliza's up next."
They both watched the current pair, a big boned bay and his scarecrow of a rider, jump clean but slow and exit the ring. Then Eliza and Flash trotted in and began their circuit.
"Look at them," Christina breathed, the affection she felt for eventing coming back as she watched the pair move as one around the arena.
"They're something, all right," Melanie replied. "Flash has a beautiful trot." She grinned ruefully, "But I liked Trib's better."
Christina snorted. "And I'd rather be jerking around on Legacy."
"Alright, alright, I won't play the loyalty card with you, Little Miss Touchy!" Melanie shook her head good naturedly and nudged Christina. "Look, Eliza's about to start."
The pair crossed their tracks and rocketed into a canter, heading for the first jump, a standard upright. Flash cleared it easily, Eliza looking like she was attached to her horse at the hips. They continued around the course, a dark comet of tweed jacket and black horse. Christina tried to take in possible trouble spots along the course; places where she'd have to hold Sterling in; where she could let her go. But watching symmetry like Eliza and Flash made unbiased studying difficult. At least she gave in and settled back with Melanie to watch the two take the final jump, a tricky double oxer.
Despite the jump's height and width, the team didn't hesitate. They soared over and across the finish line, completely clean and well under the time limit.
"Yeah Eliza!" Melanie yelped, jumping to her feet and pumping her fists in the air. Christina clapped and whistled more sedately beside her cousin.
"That was incredible!" Christina exclaimed as they descended the stands to work on Sterling.
"I'll say!" Melanie agreed vehemently. Then, sneaking a glance at Christina, "But they don't have anything on you and Sterling, you know."
Christina set her mouth into a thin line. "You don't have to pretend, Melanie. I love Sterling and she loves me and we get along well. But we don't have a bond like Eliza and Flash. Like Me and Star."
Melanie sighed. "I know, Chris. But Sterling's special. Don't let her go all the way."
"Whatever." Christina jogged ahead to her mare, throwing her arms around Sterling's neck. "I don't have to yet."
Melanie shook her head and picked up where Christina had left off, braiding Sterling's mane. "You can have two horses, you know."
"No I can't."
"Why not? Eliza wants two."
Christina had filled her cousin in her earlier conversation with Eliza. "I know," she replied. "But I don't. Both Star and Sterling need so much training, and there's only so much I can give. My heart's with Star now."
"Look, Chris," Melanie said, "I'm not trying to change your mind. You know how much I love racing. But you've wanted to ride shows since I met you. Just think about it, okay?"
"I have!" Christina shouted, throwing down her brush in frustration and startling Sterling. "Easy, girl," she added placatingly, laying a hand on her horse's neck. Then, to Melanie, softer and less annoyed, "I have. It's been eating me up for so long, trying to decide between racing and eventing. And I did. I want to race. Because I love it. Not for you or Mom or Dad or anyone but me, even though I'm excited to have that in common with you guys. But I have enough doubts of my own without yours and Eliza's too."
"Okay. Okay." Melanie threw her hands up in surrender. "I believe you. And I think you do too. Right?"
"Yes!" Christina asserted, picking the soft brush up again and going to work on Sterling's hindquarters. "Yes."
"Okay." And Melanie slipped from the stall so that Christina could cry into her horse's shoulder, hiding from the rest of the show, trying to decide if giving up eventing was really the right choice.
"I love you, Sterling," she sniffled, knotting her fingers through the not quite braided mane. "That's why I'm giving you up. Aren't you supposed to let go of what you truly love?" The rest of the quote went 'and if it loves you enough, it'll come back', but Christina didn't let herself consider that. "You'll be happy at Whisperwood. You like Sam. And you'll meet someone who you connect with even more than me."
The mare sniffed Christina's hair, blowing warm horse-breath into her neck.
"Goose," she muttered, swallowing final tears. "You know you're still my best girl."
It was true. Star was a boy.
"Hey mouse!" Melanie's abrasive voice was loud, carrying down the aisle. "There's only eight horses to go."
A couple seconds later, her head peeked across the door. "And Eliza's coming back. Just so you know."
"You, Melanie, are something else," Christina laughed. She snorted wetly, wiped her eyes, and commenced braiding. A few seconds later, the clip-clop of hooves came down the aisle, and Eliza led Flash into his own stall.
"Fantastic ride!" she called across to the other girl. "Really. I've never seen anything like it."
Eliza still had the glow of riding surrounding her. "Thank you," she replied. "It was just one of those days, you know?"
She saddled Sterling, popped the bit into her mouth, and hoped it would be a day like that for the two of them as well. Shaking the last of her tears away—she couldn't afford negative emotion on her already high strung horse—Christina led Sterling towards the warm up ring and began jogging her around.
"Settle, girl!" she cried sharply, jerking Sterling's mouth more than was necessary as the mare leapt into the air as a popcorn container blew across the ring. "You know that's not gonna hurt you." Again, Christina nudged the mare into a steady trot. Finally, after a couple circuits, Sterling settled down and Christina asked for a slow, collected canter. The gait had gone from choppy to perfect, somehow. Christina crouched over her neck and pointed her towards a low upright.
"You livewire, settle down!" she muttered. Sterling jumped like she was in the Grand Prix, clearing the eighteen inch jump by at least an extra foot. "Cool it."
Without slowing the pace, Christina let Sterling blow off steam, popping over fences in the warm-up ring like they were cavaletti.
"Alright?" she asked after they'd overjumped about six fences. "Now do it right."
Sterling didn't quite jump right, but these jumps were cake compared to what was in the ring. Christina decided she was warmed up enough, and steered her to the edge to just walk as the last two riders went.
For the first time that day, she was genuinely nervous. The anticipation of her last show was gone, replaced by a need to do it right and prove to herself that the past years of eventing hadn't been a waste of time and talent. "We got this, Sterling," she muttered. "Right?"
The mare flicked one ear back to catch Christina's voice, the other one still swiveling around the hopping show area.
"Told you," Christina nodded, feigning assurance. She picked out her Mom and Dad in the stands and waved to them; after a few seconds Mike, then Ashleigh, picked up on it and waved back. Melanie, who had been standing with Samantha against the fence, watching Christina warm up, called,
"Good luck, Chris. Knock 'em dead. All of the rest of them." Then she grinned and headed to sit with Christina's parents.
The last horse before Christina entered the ring; she steered out to stand beside Sam. "Any last words?" she asked wryly.
"Yes," Samantha replied, putting one hand comfortingly on Christina's knee. "I am so proud of you. You've been a real credit to me and Whisperwood, and to Mona before that. Whatever you choose to do, I know you'll succeed. And it's okay if it's not eventing. Anything that makes you happy, Chris."
"Anything that makes me happy," she repeated, impulsively grabbing the reins in one hand and gripping Sam's in the other. "Thank you. So much."
Sam squeezed. "You're a true horsewoman, Christina Reese."
To that, Christina didn't know what to say. Getting complimented and called her mother's daughter was one thing; getting called a horsewoman in her own right was a much rarer occurrence.
"I love you," she finally choked. Sam squeezed Christina's hand again and let go, swatting Sterling playfully on the rump.
"I know. So show me."
Christina nodded and put her show face on, nudging Sterling to the edge of the ring. Number thirty-six came out. It was Christina's turn to go in.
The trotted the original circuit painfully, jarringly. Sterling jigged every which way, leaving Christina a passenger trying to straighten an out of control train. "Come on, girl," she muttered, squeezing with her legs, "Straighten out."
Three quarters of the way around, Sterling lived up to her name and settled into a Dream of a trot. And then they were crossing their tracks and Sterling was in a canter almost before Christina asked for it.
The upright was easy. They sailed over it perfectly, swept around a rolling curve, and darted over the double combination. Sterling was raring to go; she had plenty in reserve. But she was listening to Christina, following the girl's directions at last, and jumping the way she was supposed to. A narrow oxer came next, immediately going into a turn and a water jump. The oxer was simple. But Christina knew the water would be the biggest challenge of all; Sterling just hated anything wet.
They cleared the oxer with room to spare and spun into the turn like Sterling had done it a hundred times before.
"That's my girl, that's my girl," Christina mumbled under her breath, eyes up and pointing to the water jump ahead. Sterling would land in six inch deep wetness, and although the fence wasn't high, she knew she would have to sit tight if she wanted to stay in the saddle. "Come on, come on."
A stride away from the fence, they were hitting it perfectly. Christina gritted her teeth and urged Sterling over. The mare landed well, but leapt out of the water as if it had been another oxer, landing awkwardly on the wrong lead.
"No, no, no," she muttered. There was only a simple wall and the double oxer left, but Sterling's big strides would be off now. She checked the horse, forcing her to take three little ones, but she'd misjudged somewhere, and they approached the fence needing one more huge stride or two tiny, choppy ones. Christina gritted her teeth and kicked Sterling into the longest canter she could ask for. The mare responded, leapt the fence with as much grandeur as the tiny ones in the warm-up ring, and cleared it with room to spare. They careened down the straightaway with speed they'd want for the timed found and cleared the oxer with flying colors. Sterling landed into a gallop that Christina didn't bother to stop as the pair blazed across the finish line. It had been the best show they'd ever had. She and Sterling had jumped clear and a little faster than Eliza and Flash. Even though it would all come down to the timed round, right now, Christina felt like she'd won blue already. She and Sterling had had a rare connection out there, and this was a moment to be cherished.
"You were awesome," she whispered, and dropped the reins and threw her arms around the mare's neck like she had Trib on their very first show. "That's my girl."
Sterling snorted and danced in place as Christina guided the mare out of the ring where Samantha was already waiting for her and her parents and Melanie were picking their way out of the stands.
One look at Samantha's smile, and Christina knew she'd done as well as the ride had felt.
"That was incredible, Chris!" her riding instructor beamed.
"Yeah," Melanie cried, running ahead of Christina's mom and dad, "Best ride I've seen you guys take!"
"It was really something," confirmed Ashleigh with a warm, exuberant smile.
Mike nodded his conformation, a broad smile on his face.
"Thanks, guys," Christina beamed, sliding off Sterling and patting the mare enthusiastically. "She was just on today, you know?"
"Sure do," grinned Ashleigh. "But that was something else. I'm so proud of you."
Christina blushed under her mother's praise. "Thanks," she muttered, dismounting and running up the stirrups. "I better go, um, put Sterling away."
"Before the scores come up?" Mike asked, eyebrows raised playfully.
"Well, I guess not." Christina's grin stretched all the way across her face as her tally flashed across the arena: no faults, and the second fastest time of all.
The only one who'd beat her was Eliza. By two point five seconds.
"It's okay, Cuz." Melanie squeezed Christina around the shoulders. "You rode incredibly."
Irritated, Christina shook Melanie off. "I know I did."
And that was the problem. Not only had she ridden Sterling incredibly, she'd just taken her personal best ride on the mare. And their best wasn't enough. Even the rush of jumping couldn't compare to what she felt working the racehorses, working Star, anymore.
"Time to untack." She smiled tautly to her family and Samantha. "I'll be back to watch the rest in a few minutes."
"You don't want to untack too much," Samantha told her, grinning. "There's only six riders left until ribbons, and with that score, I'll bet you anything that you and Sterling will be right behind Eliza and Flash in the victory gallop."
"Oh yeah." Christina perked up visibly. "Well, I'll stick her in her stall and take off her bridle, anyway."
Of the entire group assembled, Samantha, thought Christina, was probably the only one who came close to understanding the whirlwind of emotion Christina was experiencing. She nodded gently to her former student, and then turned to the stands, leading Christina's parents and Melanie back to their seats.
"It just wasn't enough, Sterling," Christina whispered to her mare. She leaned into the familiar dappled grey neck, defeated; Sterling whuffed into her hair.
Sighing, she said, "Come on. Let's head back." She draped one arm over the mare's neck and together, they walked back to the stall block.
"You guys were magnificent." Eliza popped her head over Flash's stall happily. "Really. I thought you would have us whipped all around."
"Nah. You two deserve to win." Although she said the words politely, something shifted within her as she heard them, as if from another's mouth. For the first time, Christina believed those words with her whole heart. "I'm really glad for you guys. And that was the best show I've had with Sterling, so I'm glad for us too."
As Samantha had predicted, Eliza held first place, and Christina held second. She and Sterling Dream stood staunch and proud in the arena as the judge pinned a big red ribbon onto Sterling's bridle. Catching Eliza's eye, she winked and grinned; Eliza nodded back, eyes shining.
Flash's gallop pounded and shook the arena, as memorable as his rider. But a few lengths behind him, Sterling and Christina fairly floated along. This beautiful, leisurely stride was why the mare could never have made it as a racehorse, and Christina reveled in it. The resounding applause, the rhythm of the hoofbeats, the silky mane tickling her cheeks—everything melded together into the most beautiful victory lap she'd taken. When at least Eliza pulled up at the judge's stand, pulling Christina out of the beautiful dream—the beautiful dream that was real—the only emotion she felt was undiluted happiness. Not just happiness, but ecstatic, near tears joy.
"You and me, Sterling," she said, stroking her horse's neck. "You and me, we've made some pretty good progress together. You and me, we did pretty well."
The mare snorted, shied, and pranced out of the ring like a dancer. Shaking her head ruefully, Christina let herself laugh. She really couldn't have asked for a better show horse.
I know that's pretty long for a oneshot, but if you've read all that, it would mean a lot if you took the time to review. As a longtime reader of the books - I picked up the first one when I was five, stopped devouring them when I was twelve, and remembered them a few months ago - I really tried to stay true to the characters. Thanks for reading =)