The paved road led from the minor highway back into the trees, leaving the city behind. It was a pocket of quiet surrounded by bustling civilization, somehow untouched yet maintained. The road wound through the trees, eventually leading into the wide green spaces of the horse farm named Sutcliffe Cove.
Gerald Saunders steered his car down the lane, enjoying the difference in scenery, surprised at how nice it was here. He’d have never thought a place could remain so unspoiled here in the heart of Connecticut.
A black-painted split wood fence lined the road up to the cluster of buildings: a couple of barns, a long line of stables, a big old farmhouse, and some smaller outbuildings. He could see the road led beyond the parking area back behind the stables and figured that must be for horse trailers. He pulled up beside a sedan and parked.
Brett Sutcliffe looked up at the sound of a car pulling into the gravel parking lot. His father had resisted paving it, saying asphalt was harder to maintain, and Brett kept it gravel because he liked the warning he was about to have visitors. He leaned on the pitchfork he was using to muck out stalls and watched the long, lanky form climb out of the car. The automatic appreciation of a well-built body brought a smile to his face. The man moved with the same controlled grace as the thoroughbreds Brett loved to watch but would never have the money to own. And there was never any harm in looking. As the man drew closer, he took automatic note of the dark hair and eyes and the surprisingly light complexion. The man must spend most of his time indoors.
“Welcome to Sutcliffe Cove,” he called, drawing the man’s attention to him. “Can I help you?”
Gerald turned when he heard the voice and raised a hand halfway in greeting. “I found your Web site when looking for riding lessons,” he said. “Am I in the right place?”
“You are indeed,” Brett agreed, mentally sizing up a new client. “Have you ever ridden before?”
“Once, and I wouldn’t call it riding. On a trail up at the state park,” Gerald said reluctantly, looking a bit abashed. “But I loved it and thought I might try some lessons.”
“I’m glad it piqued your interest,” Brett replied easily. “Although trail riding in the state parks isn’t quite the same as riding on your own. Those horses could do the trail rides on their own, they’ve done it so many times. Were you thinking group lessons or private lessons? We offer both at various times and with a variety of instructors.”
Gerald shrugged one shoulder, a gesture Brett found quite endearing. “Don’t know enough to have an opinion, really. What would you suggest?” Gerald studied the other man as he spoke, noting how laid-back and friendly he was. He seemed really comfortable in his own skin. His cowboy hat hid most of his hair, but the reddish scruff on the other man’s face made Gerald envious of the freedom not to have to shave every day.
“It’s a question of how fast you want to learn and how much you’re willing to pay,” Brett replied honestly. “You’ll make progress much more quickly in private lessons because they’ll be tailored specifically to your ability instead of to the level of the entire class, but they’re also more expensive.” He glanced over the obviously fit body. “You’ll also get a better workout in a private lesson because you’ll be actively riding the whole time instead of spending part of your time waiting for the other people in the class to do each exercise.”
“Sounds like the way to go then. At least until I decide whether I want to stick with it,” Gerald said agreeably. Money wasn’t a problem; he was comfortable enough to indulge in something like this, and he didn’t have any other plans for the time being.
Always the entrepreneur, Brett started calculating income while he looked forward to the opportunity to ogle the brunet under the guise of helping him improve his form. “So when would you like to start?”
“I don’t have any other commitments besides work right now. I finish up about four most days,” Gerald said, thinking about how long it would take him to get here after leaving the office. “I could be here five-ish during the week and any time on weekends.”
“Then the next question is how often you want to ride,” Brett said, mentally examining his schedule. “I have openings on Tuesdays and Thursdays at six, and several different times on Saturdays and Sundays. Just a warning, though. It’s a lot harder workout than it looks, so you may want to start slow and build up. Beginner riders often find once a week is all their legs can handle for the first few months.”
“I don’t want to ruin it right off,” Gerald admitted. “I’m in pretty good shape. How about Tuesdays and Thursdays?”
“Sounds good to me. We generally ask for the month’s payment up front, but we’ll give you the first lesson free so you can decide if it’s really what you want to do before you commit to the full month.”
“Thanks. That’s really great,” Gerald said, smiling. “I’m Gerald Saunders.”
“Brett Sutcliffe,” Brett replied, pulling off his glove and extending his hand. “It’s Tuesday. Do you want to start tonight or wait until Thursday?”
“Now’s good,” Gerald said, peering at the man who must be the farm’s owner. He looked to be about the same age as himself and tanned from working outside so much. “I’m here.” He shook Brett’s hand with a firm grip. “You look busy, though. I can go walk around awhile.”
“Mucking stalls is a never-ending process,” Brett admitted. “I’ve got some kids who volunteer on the weekends in exchange for free lessons, but during the week, I’m not as lucky.” He stood the pitchfork against the manure cart. “Shah’s out in the pasture. He won’t care how long it takes me to finish up. He’d rather be out there than cooped up in his stall anyway. Let me give you the fifty-cent tour.”
“Sure. Is Shah one of the horses for lessons?” Gerald asked as he followed Brett along the outside of the building.
“No, he’s my pride and joy,” Brett replied. “He’s a purebred Arabian, the only stallion in the barn. I got him when he was a foal and helped train him myself. There he is, along the back fence. The one with his tail high. He’s a proud old man.”
Gerald looked where Brett indicated to see the obviously spirited stallion. Even with his untrained eyes, the horse was gorgeous. “I bet he’s popular with the ladies,” he joked.
“Very,” Brett agreed. “He’s sired about a dozen foals since we started breeding him. We have about fifty horses here on the property. Most of them are privately owned, but about twenty of them belong to the stable, and those are the ones we use for lessons unless the owners are taking lessons. Then they ride their own animals, of course. The farm’s about a hundred acres. A chunk of it’s pastureland for the horses when they aren’t being used, plus the buildings you see here. The rest is forest.”
“Quite a setup,” Gerald commented, turning in a slow circle to look around. “And since you’re pretty much inside the city, it’s convenient. Although to look around, I would think we were miles and miles out of town.”
“When my great-great-great-grandparents bought the land, it was miles out of town,” Brett replied with a laugh. “It was great in high school when I still thought I wanted to pick up girls. They’d come out to see the horses, and it wasn’t so far away that their parents would have a problem with it.”
Gerald chuckled and grinned. “Possibility of rolling in the hay, huh?” He looked Brett up and down, and his lips twitched into a smile. He could see the appeal, though it didn’t register any more than that thought. “Girls go for the rugged cowboy look.”
“I don’t pay much attention to what they go for these days.” Brett chuckled. “I don’t have time for their drama anymore. I did get a few good tumbles out of it, though.”
“Women aren’t the only ones who do the drama,” Gerald murmured, looking back out into the pasture. “But I steer clear anyway. My work gives me enough of that as it is.”
Brett laughed, glad once again to have escaped the drudgery of office life. “No, the horses are pretty damn good at it too. Come on; let me introduce you to Tiny. He’ll be a good start for you, I think.”
“Tiny, huh? That sounds reassuring.” Gerald said, shoving a hand into a jeans pocket. “Maybe,” he tacked on.
Brett snickered and led the other man to a stall at the end of the stable block. A black head poked out through the door at their approach, whickering softly. Brett stroked the velvet nose, batting it away when the horse lipped at his shirt pocket in search of a treat. “After lessons, Tiny,” he scolded affectionately. “You have to earn that carrot first.”
He grabbed a halter and lead rope and stepped inside the stall to fasten them and walk the animal out into the breezeway. Tiny followed docilely, perfectly content to be tied to the hitching post. “Tiny, this is Gerald. Gerald, meet Tiny.”
Gerald sighed and nodded, looking up at the huge animal. “How did I know?” he said drolly. The horse’s back was above the level of his shoulders, and he was just over six foot tall. “You pick him on purpose, don’t you?” he accused Brett. “If a beginner can get over the scary thought of riding him, then they’re good to go?”
“No,” Brett disagreed with a firm pat to Tiny’s flank. “I pick him because he’s the gentlest animal in the stable. He’d rather fall over himself than have a rider fall off. And on the rare occasion when he can’t stop someone from falling, he’s more upset than they are. I swear he cries when someone falls off. His eyes get all sad and his lower lip quivers just like a baby about to start bawling.”
Amused, Gerald patted Tiny’s shoulder, and the horse snuffled and nudged Gerald back with his head, drawing a laugh. “I think we’ll get along fine, Tiny,” he said.
Brett smiled and went to get the tack. Returning with a saddle, bridle, and pads, he quickly tacked Tiny. “If you decide to stick with it, I’ll teach you how to do this for yourself, but for today, let’s focus on the riding itself,” he proposed.
“Okay,” Gerald said amiably, stepping back out of the way to give Brett room to work. He played unconsciously with the zipper on his light jacket as he looked around the inside of the stables.
When Tiny was dressed, Brett unfastened the lead rope from his halter and handed Gerald the reins. “Walk on his left side with your right hand directly under his chin. That way you have control of his head, and you’re out of the way of his feet. We’ll take him down to the end and around to the inside ring. It’s still a little cool to ride outside.”
Following his direction, Gerald started walking, and Tiny went right with him. “Like this?” he asked, holding his right hand about where Brett had said.
“Yes, just like that,” Brett replied from the other side of the horse’s head. With a different horse, he wouldn’t have walked on that side, but Tiny was placid enough not to be bothered by much of anything, and he knew and trusted Brett anyway. As they passed the tack room, Brett snagged a helmet. “See if this fits.”
Gerald took the helmet with one hand and tipped it onto his head. It flopped over loose on his close-cut hair. “A little big, I think,” he said with a chuckle.
Brett smiled and grabbed a half-size smaller. “Try this one instead.”
Switching the helmets got Gerald a better fit, and when he shook his head, it stayed in place. “That’ll work,” he said. “Should I fasten this?” Gerald asked, brushing his fingers along the leather chin straps.
“Yes, right under your chin. You don’t want to choke on it, but you also don’t want to lose the helmet while you’re riding.”
Gerald’s tapered fingers clumsily juggled the reins as he fumbled with the straps, the metal fastening jingling.
“Here, let me help,” Brett said, deftly fastening the strap through the rings. “There; all set.”
“Thanks,” Gerald said.
Brett led the way to the ring and told them to stop. “Put his reins over his head and then go ahead and mount,” he directed.
Gerald was game enough to try. He got the reins in place without any trouble; Tiny even dipped his head to help. He eyed the horse with concern. “I might not make it up the first time,” Gerald admitted. “Tiny’s… not tiny.”
“Lower the stirrup on your side,” Brett suggested, “so you can get your foot in it. Then use the saddle to pull yourself up. I’ll brace it from this side so it doesn’t twist. You can grab Tiny’s mane too. It won’t hurt him.”
“I’m not going to pull on his mane! That’s mean!” Gerald exclaimed as he took up the stirrup and looked at it before fiddling with the straps to extend it.
“He can’t feel it,” Brett assured him. To demonstrate, he reached up and tugged hard on a handful of mane. Tiny didn’t even turn his head. “And it’s far more secure than the saddle.”
Gerald was still unsure, and it showed on his face. “All right,” he said, obviously reluctant, but he slid his fingers into the thick hair and stopped for a moment to pet before awkwardly putting his foot in the stirrup. “Why do I get the feeling this is going to be embarrassing?” he muttered to himself while reaching up to grasp the saddle horn with his right hand.
“You’re going to hurt yourself,” Brett joked. “Grab the cantle. The back of the saddle. And don’t get used to having that horn. It’ll go away in a few weeks when we switch you to an English saddle.”
Obediently moving his hand, Gerald took a deep breath and then shifted his weight, bouncing a little a few times to swing his weight in the stirrup. After a second of struggling for balance he threw his long leg over and thumped into the saddle with a soft grunt of surprise.
“And you thought you wouldn’t be able to get up there,” Brett teased, automatically running his hand along Gerald’s leg to adjust the stirrup to the proper fit. He walked around to the other side and shortened the one his student had lowered to mount. Reaching up, Brett adjusted the reins in Gerald’s grasp. “There you go. You’re all ready to ride.”
“I’m surprised I didn’t fall on my ass, actually,” Gerald said with a self-conscious laugh. “But hey, buddy,” he said, patting Tiny’s neck. “Thanks for standing still.”
The horse shook his head and whickered softly.
“He says you’re welcome.” Brett took a step back. “Move your hands forward just a little so there’s a bit of slack in the reins and tap his sides lightly with your heels,” he instructed. “And no, that won’t hurt him either.”
Gerald did so, and when Tiny obligingly lurched into a slow walk, a huge smile broke across his face.
Brett couldn’t stop his answering smile. He loved that first moment when his students realized they were really riding a horse. He let Gerald enjoy it for a few minutes, Tiny walking obediently around the outside of the ring even without direction from Gerald. Eventually he interrupted their moment of communion. “Ready to learn how to tell him what you want him to do instead of just sitting there and letting him do all the work?”
Breaking out of his little space of happiness, Gerald nodded and looked to the man on the ground. “What do I do?”
“Ask him to halt,” Brett said. “Lean back just a little in the saddle, pull back lightly on the reins, and say ‘whoa’.”
“Whoa,” Gerald repeated as he leaned back and tightened his hold on the leather straps in his hands. Tiny came to a stop with a whuff.
Brett came up to Gerald’s side and adjusted the angle of his leg, pulling his heel down. “If you don’t feel the stretch in your Achilles’ tendon, your heels aren’t down far enough,” he advised. “I know it feels awkward right now, but it’ll keep your feet from ever getting caught in the stirrups if you happen to fall, and it gives you better balance once you get used to the position.” He stepped back to give Gerald and Tiny room again. “Have him walk to the letter B and then stop.”
Gerald watched as Brett moved his foot, his hands pressing along his jeans as he shifted Gerald’s Asics in the stirrup. He glanced up at Brett’s direction to look around the indoor ring. The letters were several inches tall and painted in black against the light gray barrier, easy enough to see. B was halfway around. He loosened his hold on the reins and kicked his heels back.
“Keep your heels directly in line with your hips,” Brett directed as Tiny began moving. “If you pull them back too far, it tips you forward and messes up your balance.”
Shifting slightly in the saddle as well as moving the stirrups, Gerald tried to find the middle ground Brett was prompting him toward. Tiny kept moving, apparently oblivious to the shuffling above him. When the horse started to edge toward a different letter, Gerald pulled slightly on the rein in the direction he wanted to go without thinking.
Brett smiled when Gerald corrected Tiny’s bit of willfulness. As wonderful a horse as Tiny was, he occasionally decided to wander over to Brett in the middle of a lesson in hopes of finding a treat. Gerald had had no trouble adjusting, even without instruction. While his form was still mildly awkward, the stable owner suspected the other man would be a natural given a little time to practice. When Gerald drew Tiny to a halt at the designated spot, Brett smiled. “Good. And you steered him well. Ready for something a little more complicated?”
“I don’t mind trying,” Gerald said, turning his chin to give Brett a pleased smile. Although this was really simple stuff, he knew, it was really, really neat, and he loved it so far.
Returning Gerald’s smile, Brett grabbed a stack of cones and set them in a row down the middle of the ring. “Guide him through the cones, weaving back and forth.”
A look of concentration formed on Gerald’s face as he told Tiny to walk again, this time pulling the reins right and left as the horse clomped around the cones with a few snorts. Gerald stopped him at the other end, that same grin appearing as he turned his chin to find Brett.
Gerald’s enthusiasm was infectious. “Enjoying yourself?” Brett asked, echoing the other man’s huge smile. “Want to try a trot?”
Nodding immediately, Gerald took the initiative to get Tiny to turn around so they were facing Brett. “Not being too ambitious, am I?”
Brett shook his head. “We’re not done, by any means, even with the walk, but there’s no reason not to let you see what the trot feels like. Put both reins in one hand, grab Tiny’s mane with the other, and push up so you’re out of the saddle. Don’t worry about steering, just about keeping your balance. Remember, heels down, directly beneath you. Tiny’s trot is relatively smooth, but it’s definitely a different feeling from the walk. When you’re ready to stop, just pull back on the reins and sit back.”
Standing up in the stirrups proved easier than Gerald expected, especially since Brett had already positioned his feet correctly. By holding on to both Tiny’s mane and the reins, he didn’t feel like he was going to fall anywhere. And before he could think anymore about it, Tiny started moving and then bouncing. He actually bounced a laugh right out of Gerald.
Brett sat back and watched, letting Gerald’s joy warm him. He worked with so many spoiled kids who didn’t have the patience to learn or the experience to appreciate simple pleasures. To work with an adult who wanted to learn and embraced the entire experience was a real treat.
On the second round around the ring, Gerald was feeling much more comfortable, so he sat down as directed, and Tiny came to a slow stop. Turning the horse’s head, Gerald looked around for Brett again. “That was great,” he said happily.
“So have I hooked you?” Brett teased, pretty sure he already knew the answer to that question.
“I’m grinning like a fool,” Gerald said with a laugh. “I think it’s pretty clear I’m hooked.” He leaned over and patted Tiny’s neck again, and the horse nickered and huffed.
“Then we should go look at a schedule and get you on it for the next month,” Brett replied. “Bring Tiny over here, and let’s see if you can walk after all your exercise.”
Gerald raised his eyebrows, looking worried already. “I hope you’re teasing,” he said, getting Tiny to ride over to Brett. “As much as I like riding so far, I’m rather fond of walking.”
Brett chuckled. “Mostly,” he agreed. “You haven’t been riding all that long or hard today anyway, but there’s very little else that uses your inner thigh muscles the way riding does, and so until those get built up, you’ll be stiff and sore after you ride. I’ve been riding all my life, and I even feel it some days if I ride harder or longer than usual.”
“Great. I didn’t fall on my ass getting up here, but I will getting down,” Gerald said, heaving a sigh. “Oh well.” He halted Tiny next to Brett. “Off now?”
“Just do the opposite of what you did to get on. Grab his mane, swing your leg back over and slide down,” Brett told him. “I’ve got Tiny’s head, so you don’t have to worry about him going anywhere on you.”
Gerald took a steadying breath and made sure he was holding on tight before shifting his weight slowly to his left foot and sliding over and off the saddle. He landed unevenly on his right foot, bumping against Tiny before getting the other foot out of the stirrup, and then backed away slowly, hands out to each side of himself in case he lost his balance. “Okay,” Gerald said cautiously.
“How do you feel?” Brett asked, coming to stand at his side, Tiny following along behind like an overgrown puppy.
“Fine, I guess,” Gerald said, straightening up to stand casually. “I guess I’ll see, huh?” Without realizing it, so caught up in the new experience, he offered that pure smile to Brett again. “Thank you. Really.”
“You’re welcome. Let me put Tiny away, and then we can go in the office and get you on the schedule,” Brett said. “You can just wait in the office if you want, although you might find it easier to keep walking.”
“I think I’ll be smart and take your word for it. Mind if I wander around a little outside?” Gerald asked.
“Go ahead,” Brett said. “Just don’t open any gates. There are a few horses out, and I don’t want Shah getting in with the mares. I’d rather choose when and with whom I breed him.”
“Okay.” Gerald watched as Brett turned and led Tiny out of the ring. With a soft harrumph Gerald realized he was watching the man more so than the horse. Something about the way Brett moved caught his eye, but he couldn't quite figure it out. But he liked it. Wrinkling his nose, Gerald turned and started walking.
Getting Tiny settled back into his stall, Brett returned the equipment to the tack room and walked outside to find Gerald after a few minutes. The man was walking slowly back and forth along the fence line, looking out over the fields. Coming to lean on the fence, Brett just watched, smiling at the familiar stiff gait of people who’d ridden for the first time. It would get worse before it would get better, as they worked seldom-used muscles, but eventually, if he kept with it, Gerald would lose that stiffness, moving between horseback and ground with relaxed ease. Brett hoped he’d get to see it. He had a feeling it would be a sight very pleasing to the eye, what with those long legs and lean body. He wondered what Gerald did to maintain that. Run, maybe? Swim? Horseback riding would fit well with either of those.
Gerald spent the time walking and watching the horses. He could feel the muscles in his legs tightening up, just like Brett had warned. He smiled ruefully. It didn’t hurt as much as his first skiing lesson—at least not yet. After some musing, he turned back and saw Brett waiting. He studied him some more as he approached him, noting idly that he really was a good-looking man. Brett had mentioned being done with women. Maybe he was divorced.
“Doing okay?” Brett asked when Gerald reached his side. At Gerald’s nod, he tilted his head toward the office. “Let’s go inside and look at the schedule. You can tell me what days you want to come.”
“Yeah, sounds good,” Gerald said. “Lead the way.”
Brett showed Gerald into the office, sat down behind the desk, and pulled out a large planner. He opened it up and skimmed down the month. “Tuesdays and Thursdays at six definitely work,” he told Gerald. “Private lessons are forty dollars an hour. You might want to start with half-hour lessons though, until you get used to riding. Otherwise, twice a week could be painful, and I don’t want you to get burned out or turned off it. So it would be forty a week, if you want to do it that way.”
Gerald turned his wandering attention from the office back to the man in front of him. “Sounds good. You’re the expert, you know. What do you take? Check, credit?” he asked.
“Either,” Brett replied, amazed at the ease with which Gerald accepted the price. He didn’t look like he was one of the snobbish society types, but some of the other people who came at least hesitated a bit.
“How about I pay a month down, and we’ll go from there?” Gerald said as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket.
“That’s how most of my customers handle it,” Brett agreed, filling the lessons into his appointment calendar. “It’ll make it a hundred sixty for the next four weeks.”
Gerald offered a standard Visa without comment. “So is what I’m wearing okay to start?” He was pretty sure he wanted to stick with it, but he’d learned over time not to jump quickly into committing to things.
“Yeah, jeans are fine,” Brett replied, taking the card and processing it. “If you’ve got an old pair of shoes with a heel, they’re better than gym shoes, but don’t buy anything fancy or expensive. The only time you’d need them is if you were showing. Otherwise, just a beat-up old pair of hiking boots is your best bet.”
Gerald nodded and shifted slightly back and forth on his feet. He was feeling it on the insides of his thighs, just like Brett said he would. It reminded him sort of how he felt after a marathon session with his legs wrapped around…. “Excuse me?” Gerald asked, clearing his throat, realizing Brett had said something.
“Hiking boots,” Brett repeated, a little confused at the odd look on Gerald’s face. “You know, those things you wear in the woods to protect your feet.”
“Yeah. Sorry, got distracted for a sec. Hiking boots. I’ve got an old pair around somewhere, I think,” Gerald said, nodding.