Emma and the Cutting Horse
When Emma Dean's parents buy a plain sorrel mare with slightly crooked knees at a prestigious horse sale, Emma isn't sure whether to be elated or disappointed. Cranky and irascible, the mare refuses to warm up to people or other horses. After she dumps Emma in the dirt on her first ride, Emma's dad loads the mare in a trailer and takes her to a trainer to protect his daughter from the bumps, bruises and broken bones that can result from riding a cantankerous 2 year-old.
At first the mare seems like an outlaw, but beneath her plain red coat and independent attitude, the trainer slowly uncovers a surprising streak of hidden talent and an unexpected natural balance and athletic ability. When a well-known cutting horse trainer approaches Emma's parents about training the mare for the NCHA Futurity, the family must make a difficult decision. Should they stretch their already strained budget to pay for training and futurity nomination fees? Could such a hardheaded little mare become a champion cutting horse?
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|Middle Grade / Teens|
It was a bitterly cold day for a dispersal sale, especially for central Texas, but Emma’s excitement level had reached fever pitch, enough to keep her warm in Antarctica. She had never been to a horse sale like this one before. The owner of the ranch that was selling the horses was a well-known attorney who worked in Washington D.C. and had appeared often in news broadcasts earlier in the 1970s. The horses would be beautiful, well-bred and very expensive. Emma knew her parents weren’t in the same financial league as most of the bidders, but they had decided to come and look anyway. It had taken a week of pleading for Emma to persuade them to let her come along.
In the parking lot, Emma saw long lines of gleaming Ford and Chevy pick-ups that looked fresh off the show-room floor pulling horse trailers with built-in dressing rooms. She felt a little self-conscious about her father’s cattle trailer and dusty farm truck. The sale was going to be held at a sports arena, and although it wasn’t going to start for half an hour, a large crowd had already gathered. The frigid wind whipped under the collar of her down jacket as they made their way across the gravel parking lot to the front door. Some of the horses were being ridden in a fenced arena outside the main building in spite of the cold. Their coats gleamed, their manes and tails were perfectly trimmed, and every hair was combed into place.
Emma couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t loved horses. One of her earliest memories was of sitting in the saddle in front of her father as he checked cattle in the pasture. As she got older, she rode beside him on one of a series of young, gentle horses trained by her father. Many of them eventually were sold to other homes, a hard aspect of the ranching business that Emma had struggled to accept at first. For her, there was nothing like the feeling of sitting on a horse and controlling its thousand pound body with a light touch on the reins. Riding a horse was the only time Emma felt powerful and in control. Adults controlled much of her life; but on horseback she made the decisions.
Inside, the sports arena was arranged as if for a fashion show. The horses would be led or ridden up and down a runway in front of the bidders. Emma’s mom led the way to some empty seats, while her father went to look at the horses in the stalls at the back of the building. The front rows were already filled with men in felt cowboy hats and alligator boots. In spite of their western attire, they looked more like businessmen than cowboys. Some had brought their wives and a few kids were scattered throughout the crowd. Emma’s mother opened the sale catalog and began looking at the first horses listed in it.
Emma glanced at the front of her own catalog. The stallion pictured on the cover was an AQHA Supreme Champion, the highest ranking an American Quarter Horse can achieve. He was the sire of most of the young horses in the sale and had won points at halter, in racing and performance. A bright sorrel with a bit of white in his face, the stallion had reached legendary status among quarter horse breeders. The auctioneer checked the microphone and explained the terms of payment, and Emma could see the horses lining up in the hallway leading into the ring with their handlers. Silver-studded halters sparkled in the fluorescent light.
These beautiful, pampered horses were an impossible dream for Emma. Her own quarter horse, Ditto, was shaggy coated and lovable, but he was not a show horse and would never fit in with these sleek, perfectly conditioned animals. Emma began to feel a little depressed. She knew her parents were just looking, but somehow a desperate longing formed in her chest, anyway. If her parents bought one of these beautiful horses she could win at horse shows. She was a good rider. With a few trophies on the shelf in her bedroom and some win pictures in the newspaper the kids at school would have a reason to notice her.
Spotlights came on and the first horse skittered onto the runway. He was a yearling colt with a white blaze on his face and a sorrel coat that gleamed like the finish on a new car. He snorted nervously and pricked his ears at the crowd, trying to see what lay beyond the bright lights. The auctioneer started the bidding at one thousand dollars, but within seconds it was up to twenty-five hundred and then thirty-five hundred. Emma couldn’t tell who was bidding on the colt; the ring men, who faced the audience and kept a sharp eye out for bidders during the sale, just pointed into the crowd and shouted, “YES” each time the bid increased. The meaningless babble of the auctioneer continued for two or three minutes before he called out, “Going once...going twice... SOLD, for forty-two hundred dollars.”
“Who bought him?” Emma whispered to her mom.
“That gentleman in the gray hat sitting in the second row. They sold him in a hurry, didn’t they? I guess if they’re going to sell all these horses in one day, they don’t have time to fool around.”
Emma’s father squeezed into his seat as the second horse, another yearling, came in. The auctioneer read the names of his sire and dam and started him off at one thousand dollars, also. The beautifully groomed yearlings and two-year-olds followed one another in rapid succession. Bidding from the first few rows of seats was brisk and the prices high.
Two hours later, the older, trained horses began to sell. Many of them carried riders onto the runway. There wasn’t much room for fancy footwork, so after walking them up and down and doing some fast turns, the rider dismounted and took the saddle off to let the bidders get a better look at the horse’s conformation. Emma got up and stretched, then wandered out to the lobby to get a soda. She got back just as the auctioneer cried, “SOLD—for ten thousand dollars!” The horse on the runway was a graceful palomino mare that had already earned points in western pleasure classes at horse shows. Her golden coat shimmered in the light like a pirate’s treasure. It made Emma’s heart ache to look at her. She would give almost anything for a horse like that. Even a skinny fourteen-year-old with no outstanding features would get noticed on her broad, golden back. Emma’s father leaned over and ruffled her dark, curly hair.
“Don’t look so downhearted,” he said. “Remember, you wanted to come, and you knew your dad wasn’t an oil tycoon.”
“I know,” Emma sighed, “but it’s hard not to dream. Maybe there IS some oil under one of our old cow pastures.”
“I wouldn’t bet the farm on it,” her mom remarked.
Another hour passed, and Emma’s stomach grumbled. They were still only halfway through the catalog.
“Let’s get some of that barbeque I smelled on the way in,” her mom suggested.
“Are we going to stay for the rest of the auction?” Emma asked as they ate at one of the tables in the lobby.
“Probably,” her dad answered. “There’s a yearling colt close to the end of the sale that I want to look at. The catalog says he’s not in show condition, but he’s got good breeding, and he’s a red roan, which is a very unusual color.”
“Won’t he be too expensive?” Emma asked.
“He might be, but his coat isn’t in good shape, and he hasn’t been started under saddle yet. You never can tell, the tycoons might have spent all their money before he comes in.”
“I doubt that,” her mom said. “I’ll bet there’s more money lining the pockets in here than we can even imagine.”
By the middle of the afternoon, the trained horses had been sold, and some older broodmares were being auctioned off. A few of the oldest ones sold for under a thousand dollars. Emma’s dad sat up straighter in his chair.
“The red roan colt is next,” he whispered, pushing his John Deere cap up a bit on his forehead.
Emma noticed that the people in the first few rows of seats had thinned out a bit. When the red roan colt came in, he quivered all over.
“Now there’s one that hasn’t been standing in a stall with a blanket on all his life,” Emma’s dad said.
The colt was rough-coated like Ditto, a sign that he had been out in the winter weather. His head and legs were dark red sorrel, but his body was shaded with white hairs making it appear several shades lighter. He reminded Emma of the lipstick her cousin Sarah wore, dark red around the outside of her lips with a lighter shade applied in the middle. The colt jumped when the auctioneer spoke into the microphone, starting him at five hundred dollars. Emma’s dad raised his hand just above shoulder level.
“Yes!” shouted the ring man.
“Do I hear seven-fifty?” the auctioneer chattered. “Seven-fifty? Seven-fifty?”
“Yes!” cried the ring man near the other end of the runway.
The auctioneer looked at Emma’s dad. “One thousand dollars?” he asked. “Do I hear one thousand...?”
Emma’s dad nodded.
“Yes,” cried the ring man.
Emma discovered that she was on the edge of her seat and had a death grip on the empty chair in front of her. The bidding climbed in slow motion. Her dad nodded at fifteen hundred, but shook his head when the bid climbed to two thousand. Emma realized that she had stopped breathing. Seconds later, the colt was sold for twenty-two hundred dollars.
“Who bought him? It wasn’t Dad, was it?”
“No,” her mom answered. “He went too high. I thought he acted pretty nervous and high strung, too. Didn’t you think so?”
“I guess,” Emma answered.
She scooted back in her chair and looked around on the floor beside her for the remains of her soda. Then she checked her catalog to see how many horses were left to sell. She didn’t notice her dad raising his hand until the auctioneer pointed at him and said, “Going once...going twice...SOLD.”
Emma was so astonished she couldn’t speak. She hadn’t paid any attention to the horse on the runway until it was all over. Now she looked up just in time to see a small sorrel horse hurrying out the exit gate. She only got a glimpse, but the horse looked young, and plain and scared. She wasn’t sure whether she should feel elated or disappointed. Her parents had their heads together and were having a whispered conference.
“Her knees look a little crooked, but she’s guaranteed to be sound, and I really liked the way she moved.”
“Her breeding is the best. Her mother’s sire is Poco Dell, one of the greatest cutting horses that ever lived.”
“She sure didn’t bring much, considering how well she’s bred. Maybe people were afraid of those crooked knees.”
“She’s worth more than we paid for her, even if she never does anything but raise colts.”
“What did we pay for her?” Emma interrupted.
“Twelve hundred and fifty dollars,” her dad answered quietly. “More money than we ought to be spending on a horse!”
Emma didn’t know what to say to that.
Gathering up jackets and empty soda cans, they made their way out of the building. Horses were still being sold, but the crowd trickled out. In the parking lot, they heard a commotion and turned to see a loose horse, dragging a halter rope, make a dash for freedom between the trucks and trailers. Emma’s dad ran to get between the horse and the highway, and waved his arms to turn him away from the traffic. It was the red roan colt. The white rims showed around his eyes, a sign of fear. Several men with lariat ropes pursued him.
Emma and her mom watched while they drove the colt into a corner of the back fence and captured him again. He danced excitedly as he was led up to a trailer, but refused to go inside. This time the men didn’t give him a chance to pull back and get away. They clasped their arms behind his rump and shoved him into the trailer. Someone latched the door quickly, but Emma could hear him jumping around inside and could see the trailer rocking.
“I hope ours isn’t that wild,” Emma said as her dad walked up.
“Me, too!” he agreed.
Emma and her mom walked back to the truck while her father went to get the horse he had bought. He was gone for quite a while, and the sun shining through the windows warmed the interior and made Emma drowsy.
“Why is he taking so long?” Emma asked.
“He’ll have to sign a form transferring her registration papers into our name, and he has to pay for her,” Emma’s mom explained. “She’s just a two-year-old, so she may be pretty nervous. We’ll wait to make friends with her ‘til we get home.”
When she saw her father come out of the stall area leading the little mare, Emma got out of the truck and opened the trailer’s gate. Her dad had two other men with him. Emma had seen them helping to push the red roan colt into the trailer. Her father walked right inside the open cattle trailer ahead of the mare, and when she hesitated; the two other men stepped up beside her, linked arms behind her rump and pushed her in. She didn’t have time to panic or resist. They closed the gate and then opened it again to let Emma’s dad squeeze out after he had tied her securely in the front of the trailer. He thanked them both, shook hands, and then got into the driver’s seat and started for home. It would be a long two hours before they got there.