Shamrock Stable #5
Not Just a Horse
Sixteen-year-old Cicely Ellis ‘knows’ her parents never wanted her. They abandoned her at the age of four, going off to new lives without a kid like her. They didn’t leave her homeless. They passed her on to aunts and uncles like a pet or a toy when they were done with it – and her. Cicely ‘knows’ she should be grateful to have a roof over her head; she certainly hears it often enough.
Nobody understands the passion she has for horses, or the dream to be a world-famous, international equestrian star. So, Cicely works at Salmon Pond Stable after school and on weekends, watering, mucking, cleaning tack, grooming, saddling – performing any horsey chore just to have the chance to ‘catch’ a ride on the horses. This makes her a ‘catch rider’ and causes some of the regular students to consider her their personal groom or servant or lackey. When the woman who owns Pallas Athena, the ‘horse of Cicely’s heart’ moves the Paint mare to Shamrock Stable, she goes too.
Now, Cicely has new things to learn. They don’t all have to do with horses or riding, but also the secret of the parents who left her behind years ago. Everything comes with a price, and no one rides for “free” in this world, but will the cost she pays be too high?
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Monday, March 10th, 2:15 pm.
It was a long public bus ride from Mount Pilchuck High in Marysville to Salmon Pond Stable outside of Arlington, the premier three-day eventing barn where I worked up to five afternoons a week to earn riding lessons. I groomed, saddled up, mucked stalls and took care of fifty-some horses for Lisa Atchison, a former international equestrian star who’d retired to western Washington State several years ago. I’d watched her performances on the Internet, plus all the ones on the horse channels on TV and practically stalked her on social media when I was a kid hanging out at the school or public library.
She was kind enough to answer my many questions and comments but did look surprised when we finally met in person and she learned I’d just turned nine. She still took me on as a scholarship student and taught me to ride English, never scoffing at me when I shared my dreams of following in her bootsteps to represent the United States in international three-day eventing. This afternoon, before I could pull the cord signaling for my stop, the county bus came to a halt at the end of the long, paved driveway. I adjusted my backpack and headed for the front doors. “Thanks, Barry. See you in a few hours.”
“No worries.” The tall, lanky, gray-haired guy grinned at me. Over the years, I’d learned all about his history of working at the local power company until he retired and started driving for the transit outfit, so his wife didn’t lose it when he was home twenty-four/seven. “I’ll keep an eye out for you, Cicely.”
“Sounds good.” I headed past the elaborately carved, painted sign and up the driveway. It was extra wide with enough space for two over-size horse trailers to drive beside one another to the humongous paved parking lot. The people who owned the expensive horse haulers rarely left them in the adjacent gravel lots. I walked by the vehicles to the huge, off-pink pole structure that held the giant indoor arena and the fancy stalls with their individual turn-out paddocks. No wonder most people referred to the salmon-colored place as the Taj Mahal of barns.
Lisa was in the office, another fabulously decorated room with big chairs, couches, tables, and trophy cases full of glittering medals and figurines. Surprisingly, she sat behind the wooden desk, her attention on the computer screen in front of her. Most days I found her training horses, organizing lessons, or on the landline talking to potential clients. She glanced toward the door when she saw me and smiled. “Come see. Rocky sent some pics of you riding in her ‘Mommy and me’ classes at Shamrock Stable when you were a munchkin.”
“What are you talking about?” I dropped my backpack in the corner behind one of the leather chairs and walked toward her. “You taught me everything I know about horses.”
“I was always astonished by how quickly you caught on and this explains why.” She gestured for me to stand beside her. “Look. These are your first few pony rides when you were two and three years old. On Saturday, you’ll be riding at Shamrock Stable again so take a few carrots for Dream. You’ll know her. She looks exactly like your Paint mare only somebody left the Shetland in the dryer too long and she shrank.”
I laughed like Lisa wanted me to, although I wasn’t sure if I believed her or not. She was obviously in the middle of an online photo album that the other stable owner had emailed but clicked back to the beginning so I could see it all. I sort of recognized myself as the tiny, brown-haired, smiling kid plunked in the middle of a western saddle on a black and white pony that actually did look like the mini version of Pallas Athena, the mare I rode now.
Who was the pretty, laughing woman with a cloud of black hair, holding me in place in the saddle, making sure I had my little pink boots in the stirrups? I didn’t know her. Lisa clicked the mouse and I saw another picture of what had to be me, this time with the same woman helping me feed a long, skinny carrot to the pony. “Who is she?”
“I told you already. Her name is Dream and she’s teaching Rocky’s youngest to ride now.”
“Not the pony. The woman. Who is she?”
Lisa was quiet for a moment, then said gently. “That’s your mom, honey.”
“No, it’s not. My mom went to California ages ago after Grandma died of ovarian cancer. She never visits, or calls, or even sends me a birthday card. It’s why my relatives bounce me around from house to house and now I live with Aunt Geraldine and Uncle Dylan.”
Lisa shifted the mouse, flipping past a couple of pictures and landed on one with me brushing the same pony while the dark-haired woman and a slender blonde about the same age stood nearby, cardboard cups of coffee in their hands. Meantime, a brown-haired guy in a camouflage jacket, fatigue pants and combat boots also appeared in the shot, carrying a tiny saddle and pads.
“That’s my dad,” I said. “I know him.” I pointed to the tattooed, dishwater blonde in the picture. She wore faded, tight blue jeans and a clinging tank top that emphasized way too much of her chest—and she had a lot of it. “That’s my mom.”
“Okay, according to the info Rocky sent, that’s your godmother, your mom’s best friend. She accompanied your folks to the lessons quite a few times. When they were overseas, she and your grandma brought you to ride Dream.”
“What were they doing overseas?” Dread crept through me, my school lunch rising in my throat. I wanted to race from the room. “They had a kid.”
“And they were soldiers in the Army. Your mom intended to get out when her first enlistment ended. She’d just had you and wanted to stay home, but there was a war and her unit was going into combat. The Army kept her and your dad. Your grandma took care of you during their first tour until they got home right before these pictures were taken.”
I backed away from the computer and the photos. I didn’t want to see any more pictures, didn’t want to know what happened to the young mom who obviously loved her kid enough to buy her a cowgirl outfit and take her pony riding lots of times. If they hadn’t been at Shamrock Stable so often, the owner never would have created this album. “We have lessons today. I need to go tack up.”
Lisa nodded, six feet of tall perfection in black breeches, a white turtleneck and dark jacket, she was everything I wanted to emulate and feared I never would. Not when I wore thrift store bargains, was over five and a half feet tall in my riding boots, stick-thin with waist-length cocoa-brown hair, brown eyes and olive skin.
“Okay, honey. We’ll talk later.”
“Not about this. I can’t handle it right now.”
“All right.” Lisa pushed back from the desk and the computer. “Go put Xenophon together for Dani Wilkerson and Xavier for you. She’ll be here in an hour and her folks want to see how much she’s improved. Riding with a senior student like you will give her confidence.”
“But, what about the horses for the five-thirty class?” I asked. “Who will get them ready?”
“Not you, not ever again.” Lisa smiled, but it didn’t touch her deep chocolate eyes. “All those snotty little witches can groom and tack up for themselves. You’re my ‘catch rider’ and you earn what you get. They overstepped when they abused you at that horse show last month and made me and my barn look bad. I heard about it again this morning when the stable owner association met.”
“Exactly. I caught my share of crap when I was competing, and you will too, but not now. Not when you’re barely sixteen and a half. I’ll make sure you’re ready to handle it later when you’re an adult.”
“Okay.” Since I’d changed into denim breeches, a turtleneck and a sweater at school, it didn’t take long to swap out my running shoes for the English boots I kept in the office. I grabbed my helmet from the shelf by the door and headed down the barn aisle to Xavier’s stall. While I loved Pallas Athena, the black and white mare that I rode in shows and whenever or wherever her owner, my sponsor allowed, she really didn’t have the stamina for three-day eventing so that was when I opted for one of Lisa’s huge Warmbloods instead. Xavier, a big sorrel, Irish Sport Horse was the latest I’d been assigned.
A lot of lesson students complained about his macho attitude, earth-pounding trot when he got ticked and molten lava mouth, but not me. He never hesitated when we faced a series of high jumps whether it was in the arena or on the cross-country course outside. Three-day eventing, my personal passion, was working with a horse on what was known as ‘the flat’ riding in the arena and then over fences. Originally, the three-day test was meant for military horses to show off their capabilities, but nowadays it drew all sorts of riders from weekend hobbyists to international competitors like Lisa.
I slid the heavy barred door open far enough to step inside and put on Xavier’s dark blue nylon halter, clicking on the lead rope. “Come on, big guy. Let’s get you groomed.”
He nosed me and I slipped him a horsey cookie. Dani always brought carrots, but I could get more treats for less money at the Co-Op in Marysville and since I had to pay for everything myself, cost was always an option. I often stopped there on my way from the high school to the bus stop. I led Xavier to the grooming stall and hooked up the crossties. “This is a working day for both of us.”
He whickered softly. I picked up a rubber currycomb out of the tack kit and got started. I spent so many hours grooming different horses every day that it didn’t take long to brush and saddle the almost seventeen-hand, well-muscled, twelve-hundred-pound gelding. Riding in a beginning class would allow me to warm him up, so I could work on having him on the bit, but we’d also practice bending and transitions, a major weakness in his training. Once we had the dressage requirements under control, we’d be ready to compete on the show circuit throughout this spring and summer and majorly kick butt. Lisa said if we focused, I could earn enough points to not only complete the two Novice levels, but also be well on the way to Training, or maybe even Preliminary by the time I was eighteen.
I’d just finished saddling Xavier’s younger brother, Xenophon when Dani Wilkerson arrived. I’d thought she was a total snob until she stepped up and helped me at the first horse show of the season when my tack trunk was left in the trailer and I didn’t have appropriate clothes to exhibit Pallas Athena. She’d said she didn’t have to sabotage me or my sponsor’s horse in order to win and Dani made a point of sticking it to the snotty girls I’d considered my friends here, every time she got the chance.
Dani gave a piece of carrot to the flashy chestnut and smiled at me. Her blonde hair was braided under her helmet and she wore denim breeches like mine tucked into older riding boots. Instead of a classic wool jacket, she wore a red Washington State University sweatshirt. “Hi Cicely.”
“What’s going on? Normally you dress for the show ring even if it’s just a lesson.”
She shrugged. “I’m so done with that crap-fest since my parents arranged for the gardener to ‘get rid’ of my puppy. If he didn’t have more morals than they did, she’d have been dead. My dad actually told Pedro to throw her body in the community dumpster. We had a major ‘get over yourselves’ meeting with my grandparents, a counselor and a social worker and right now, I’ve pretty much wrangled everything I want out of my folks.”
I bridled up Xenophon and handed her the reins. “What’s that?”
“Oh, I can wear what I want, stay at my school and hang out with my friends instead of putting what my parents want first all the time.” She gave the door an extra push, then led the big horse into the wide hallway. “And I don’t have to stress over whether or not we leap tall buildings in less than a heartbeat anymore. I can take my time to learn jumping because it’s something I like, not be afraid of what Lisa teaches.”
I shrugged and went to the next stall to nab Xavier. “If you’re not scared, you’ll do better and progress faster. Personally, taking jumps always feels like flying to me.”
“Well, if you tell me where to find my wings, we’ll go shopping. I’ve got a platinum credit card and I’m not afraid to use it for both of us.”