THE AFTERNOON of my sixteenth birthday was spent on a horse—not that being there made it any different than any other day, but people at the show I was competing at had been looking at me a little funny when I’d told them. By 9:00 a.m. I’d stopped mentioning that it was my birthday. I leaned against the old white trailer we’d brought our horses in and drank a soda, my little brother Ben beside me as we hid from the sun and tried not to sneak peeks at our competitors while they warmed up in the ring.
Cleric, my older brother Daniel’s golden gelding, munched on a bit of hay we’d brought while Daniel finished grooming him. Daniel had on his game face, as our dad liked to call it when Daniel got really intense. He was always like that, so I really didn’t notice a big difference and just knew that bugging him in general was a bad idea. He tended to snap faster than a diamondback when he got interrupted.
“Are you nervous?” I asked Ben. At fourteen he was one of the youngest people competing, but our dad had insisted he come along, even though it was only his second season in the show ring.
Ben nodded, and I offered him the best, most comforting smile I could manage. “Don’t be. You’ll do fine.” I took a sip of my soda and tried not to think about my own nerves. Competing in little local barn shows was one thing. We’d all been doing that since we were in first grade. But we’d only just started trying to make a go of it at the state level, and my dad was already looking at the regional competition schedule to see what he could fit in between the other shows he wanted us to attend.
These were all junior shows, so Dad couldn’t compete, but that didn’t stop him from acting as though he would if he could. “Don’t forget to brush out the bottom of his legs,” Dad said as he came around the back of the trailer where the other two horses were tied. Only Daniel had his own horse. Ben and I were using some of the extra horses Dad was finishing up to sell at the end of the month when he took them to the horse auction. I would have loved to have my own horse, but I hadn’t earned one yet. I needed a lot more blue ribbons to deserve that right.
“Yes, sir,” Daniel said, glancing up at Dad as he passed by.
“You two slacking?” he asked, looking Ben and I over.
I shook my head. “No, sir.” Ben didn’t say much ever, so I wasn’t surprised he didn’t respond to Dad now.
He nodded and moved his gaze past us. “There’s some good riders out there. Don’t let that get to you. You three know how to ride and your horses are better than theirs, remember that. You’re showing off the horse but you have to be perfect too. Blaming the horse for your faults isn’t going to happen. Am I understood?”
It was the usual speech he gave before each competition, and I just nodded.
“Robbie, you’re up next. Remember to keep your chin up, your hands level, your heels down.” We knew all of this; we’d been riding since before we could walk, but our dad was big on being competitive, and so we got the same instruction each time we were about to go into the ring, even if that meant hearing it multiple times a day if we were competing in different classes.
At least we never compete against each other. I gave Dad a nod and a quick “yes, sir,” as I moved around him to take the dapple gray gelding I’d been loaned to line up by the mounting block. I could get up on my own, even without a saddle on the gelding’s back to help me out, and Dad considered using the mounting block to be the lazy way of doing things, but most shows had a rule about mounting from the ground. They said it was better for the horse’s back to use the block. I agreed with them, but I’d never tell Dad that. I didn’t know what he’d do, since I generally chose not to disobey or argue with him. It seemed smarter that way.
Maybe that wasn’t fair. Dad wasn’t mean, but he was hard on the outside. Not like Mom. I wish she could have been there to watch me compete at the state level, but she had to work. She was a nurse, and the nursing home she worked in was short-staffed. I tried to be understanding.
At nearly sixteen hands, Slapdash was bigger than I was used to, but I still got on him fine, and once I’d put my boots through the stirrups and picked up my reins, I was ready to go. There had been someone holding his head for me as I mounted, which was nice but not needed. I thought that if you needed someone to hold your horse while you got on them, then you probably shouldn’t be competing at this level.
Some people recited things in their head to keep their nerves down while they were showing. One guy in the old trick riding group that I’d been in when I was about ten used to do the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” I’d liked being in that group. My dad hadn’t thought it was serious enough, since we only competed twice a year, and pulled me out the following summer. After a hard lecture on riding like an idiot, as he called what I’d been doing with them, I’d never done any of the tricks again. Sometimes I missed it.
I don’t sing a little song to keep me focused like some people do. Instead I recited my body positioning. I had to maintain a straight line down from my ears, shoulders, hips, and heels. Looking as good as my horse was important, so I needed to keep my posture. I didn’t need the reminder, but I liked having it in my mind because, when showing, it helped me to not think about anything. I needed a clear, calm head, and in the ring sometimes my mind tended to go places that I shouldn’t let it. I started doubting myself, getting worried, and then I would mess up. And I’d never be allowed to get my own horse if I didn’t do better in the ring.
Slapdash was green broke, and I would have preferred to have a horse with more training under me for such a big and important show. But maybe Dad meant it as a test. I didn’t want to ask. Slapdash lifted his head a little too high when the horse in front of us moved back. It would have been nice to be able to back up, giving the horse in front more room, but the person behind us was too close too. “Easy,” I whispered to Slapdash as he tensed under me. Tensing myself wouldn’t have helped either of us and might have made the situation worse, so I relaxed as much as I could. I looked at the back of the person ahead of us. She was wearing a western shirt similar to mine in the same black and gold minimalist pinstripe pattern. I wondered if she was burning up like I was. I wasn’t completely tuned out to Slapdash, though, and when I felt him relax a little bit, I moved his reins into just one of my hands instead of holding each rein separately. This let me give him a light pat on his neck, and it also let me get into a better position for the class, since I couldn’t ride with both hands while in the ring. If Slapdash hadn’t been so green, I wouldn’t have even been doing it to begin with. But, despite all my years in the saddle, I still felt better holding the reins like that when I was on top of a horse I wasn’t comfortable with.
It wasn’t like Slapdash was a hot horse or hard to handle. He’d been a decent ride when I’d been on him a few times on our farm, and I expected that from him now. But he had little experience showing, and I didn’t trust him not to try to act up in some way. I just hoped it wasn’t while we were in the ring.
We started filing in, and I gave Slapdash as much rein as I was comfortable with. Western pleasure classes required that I let him have a lot of rein so that he could show off how nicely he walked and how in control I was. Yeah right. As soon as we were through the little arena gate his ears started twitching toward the other horses. But he did lower his head and relaxed under me, so I breathed a little sigh of relief and started going through my mantra as I rested my black-gloved right hand on my thigh.
I’d been sent the class description months ago and had memorized it nearly immediately, so when the judge in the middle of the arena gave the girl in front of me a nod, I would go next. I didn’t hope she would do badly—or anyone else in the class, for that matter. I didn’t want to win like that. I could get the blue ribbon if I worked hard enough and was better than them. But I did really want to win, and when I watched her trot her bay quarter horse mare, then easily transition into a lope before seamlessly coming back into a trot and returning to a walk, my heart sank a little. She’d done very well and performed like my dad expected me to. I just wanted to do that well too.
The judge nodded to me, and I kept reciting as I gave Slapdash a little pressure on his sides. His transition from a walk to a trot was a bit jerky but nothing too bad, I hoped. Ears, shoulders, hips, and heels. I kept it in my head as I squeezed him into a lope. It wasn’t great. In fact I think he might have broken stride into a slow gallop for a moment, but I was able to bring him back down from it, and I hope the judge hadn’t noticed. She probably had, though. We returned to a walk, and I tried to keep my chin up, more because bad posture would ruin me faster than having a bad attitude but also because I didn’t want anyone to see how disappointed I was in myself.
When the class finished and I only received a yellow ribbon, I didn’t have to see my dad’s face to know how badly I’d done. He didn’t even speak to me as I dismounted and brought Slapdash back to the trailer. In the silence of our little group, I loosened his cinch and put his halter around his face so that I could remove his bridle and give his mouth a little time to relax without the bit in it. Taking the bridle out from under the halter was a bit of a juggling act, but after years of practice, I think I handled it just fine. Once the bridle was off his face, I adjusted the halter so that it was a bit tighter on his face. I’d left it a bit loose to give me room to get the soft leather of the bridle free.
I got Slapdash a little hay and a bucket of water, and then I joined my dad and brothers. Ben gave me a little wave; Daniel barely spared me a glance as he finished with Cleric. At almost seventeen he was nearly too old to compete at this level, and he wanted to make the rest of this show season and next year count the best he could. If he did well enough, he might have been able to get a grant for college. I know he wanted that.
Ben and I, we were stuck here with my dad for the time being.
Dad shook his head, and I knew better than to keep talking. “Save your breath. If you weren’t going to bother doing anything, I shouldn’t have even registered you for this show. You think it’s free to enter these things? You think I’m made of money? Get your head on straight and don’t for a minute think that you can slack off the way you did in there during the trail class. If you do, you might as well not come down to dinner tonight.”
It didn’t matter that it was my birthday and my mom had promised me chocolate cake and mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert. If my dad said I didn’t deserve dinner or dessert, I wouldn’t get it. Arguing with him would be pointless. So I nodded and looked away, hoping he couldn’t tell how upset he’d made me. Because I did try. I did everything I could in there. Dad said never to blame the horse, but it wasn’t my fault that Slapdash hadn’t been trained enough for me to take him in there and do well. I didn’t train him; that was on my dad, and he should have done better. As soon as I’d brought the thought out, I regretted it. It was wrong to put the blame on Dad. I was responsible for what I did in the ring, not him. I just had to get the blue ribbon for sure when we were in the trail class together. Then maybe Dad would see it was okay, and I wouldn’t be in trouble when we got home.
“Daniel, you’re up. Ben, Robbie, go cheer your brother on.”
I resented Daniel a little bit, but maybe it was Dad that I really didn’t like. Because none of them had gone to the fence to watch me compete, but we had to go line up to watch Daniel go around the ring on Cleric. He’d been able to pick Cleric out four years before after taking home every blue ribbon but one in a local show at the barn down the street from our little farm. Dad had been so proud of him back then, and the same expression was on his face now. It was exactly the same each time perfect Daniel competed on perfect Cleric, and I just wished for once that my dad looked at me like that. I didn’t mean to be whiney, but that’s how I felt standing between Dad and Ben with my arms up on the wood railing of the arena.
Cleric was easily a show favorite with his dark golden coat and long blond mane. He was a classic palomino quarter horse gelding with excellent conformation and an unbelievably smooth trot. Daniel had searched for a horse like him for months and had done all the research to make sure he got a great horse to show. But sometimes I still thought that he had lucked out with him. And then, sometimes, I even thought my big brother didn’t deserve to have him at all. I didn’t like myself when I thought things like that.
“Robbie, pay attention, that’s how you win ribbons.”
I nodded, though I hadn’t stopped watching him, so I didn’t really need the reminder. Daniel rode like he was born to it. That’s what the county paper said when they’d covered a state show last month. Southern Kentucky Heartthrob Wins Horse Show the headline had read. Daniel had the clipping framed in the room the three of us shared. I think being called a heartthrob had gone to his head. If Dad had allowed any of us to date, Daniel would be bringing home girls all the time. I was glad he wasn’t allowed to—I didn’t want even more people in our room. Three was plenty, and most of the time it was too much.
Of course Cleric did beautifully. I didn’t even have to watch to know that. He could probably buck and still get second. If I was allowed to ride him, I was sure I could win too. But Daniel had earned him, and Dad was strict about no one else being able to ride Cleric, even if Daniel said that we could, which he never did. Dad didn’t want Ben and me screwing up and causing him to go lame or something.
When Daniel was handed the blue ribbon, Dad clapped, Ben cheered, and I gave my brother a thumbs-up as I tried to be happy for him. We weren’t allowed to keep anything but blue ribbons, and I needed a lot more of them to have even half of what Daniel had hung beside his bed.
“That was great, son,” Dad said when Daniel came out of the arena. They even hugged, and I forced a smile as my brother looked over at me, probably hoping for something genuine to come out of my mouth.
“Cleric was awesome,” I told him. It was God’s honest truth, and I didn’t think Cleric knew how to be anything else.
Daniel nodded, and when Dad was done hugging him, Daniel put an arm around my shoulders and gave me a sort of awkward side hug. “Thanks, Robbie. If you ever want some pointers….”
“That would be great. Robbie needs all that he can get,” Dad cut in before I could say no thanks. I rode as well as Daniel did, most of the time anyway, and I didn’t need my big brother telling me how to sit in a saddle when he was less than a year older than me and had been riding for about the same amount of time.
Ben was up next, but he wasn’t riding the colt Dad had given him to show. Dad thought Ben needed to grow up a bit before he would let him show one of the horses in training. But even though he didn’t ride the horses when he showed them, his blue ribbons still counted.
Blue, as Ben liked to call him, was a blue roan quarter horse that Dad bought at auction as a stout two-year-old. Now he was nearly four, and Dad was starting him under saddle. I didn’t know much about training horses, since Dad didn’t allow us to help him, but I liked to watch him put the beat-up old leather training saddle on the horses and trot them around the arena so they could get used to the weight of it. I remember him saying he hoped Blue would grow up and get some more leg on him so that he could turn into a nice barrel-racing prospect, and I think Dad was disappointed in him for never doing that. Blue had grown taller as he’d aged, but he was still a short gelding. That would be good for trails, but not much else.
My little brother was nervous going out, but Blue didn’t react to his emotions. Blue didn’t react too much to anything. I was fairly certain I could fire a rifle off his back and Blue wouldn’t do more than lift his head or flick his ear back.
Ben was doing a showmanship class with Blue, and watching him stand next to the colt to show off his conformation made me miss showing like that. I loved showing no matter what I was doing, but there was a sort of system to showmanship that I didn’t get with the classes I rode in. Ben knew the rules plenty well, since he’d done this a few dozen times, but I still went over them in my head from the year I spent doing showmanship classes. He had to keep Blue between himself and the judge and never block their view of the colt. Ben was to keep a slack lead on him to show how well-mannered Blue was, and the colt had to stand squarely anytime he wasn’t trotting to or from the judge.
It was like one of those dog shows I watched sometimes on TV when there wasn’t anything else on, only this was done with animals that were much larger than the dogs running around the ring with their handlers. But it essentially was the same idea, and Blue reminded me a lot of a big, dumb hound we had a few years back. He was the most lovable dog I’d known, but he could never figure out how to get himself out of trouble once he’d gotten in it.
When Ben won a blue ribbon, I realized that left me as the only one who hadn’t won their class yet. We didn’t have much time before I was back in the ring, and I went to work making sure Slapdash looked perfect so that I could score a ribbon like I should. People in Ben’s class came up to congratulate him while I worked on Slapdash’s thin mane. He wasn’t an ugly horse, but he wasn’t that nice either. As far as dapple gray horses went, he was a bit plain, with a thinner neck than would have been good to support his head, and the thin hair of his mane and tail only added to him looking a bit mismatched. I’d do the best I could with him, but I didn’t have my hopes up of winning that ribbon, or of it making a difference if I did.
I glanced around the trailer to see if people were still coming up to Ben and saw my dad put his arm around Ben’s shoulders and give him a hug before ruffling his hair. His helmet smashed it down, and it didn’t help that Dad messed up his hair even more. But my brother’s hair wasn’t the reason I was in a bad mood as I cinched up Slapdash again. I went too fast, and he jerked his head up, rattling the chain of the lead attached to the underside of his halter. The noise earned me a dark look from Dad, and I reached up to pet Slapdash on his face as I tried to silently apologize to him for being in a bad mood. It wasn’t his fault I felt like an outsider in my own family.
I slipped his bridle over his face and latched it under his throat, then undid the halter and pulled it down. People in my class were starting to line up, and I hoped I did well. In general I did better in trail, since it was more about obstacles than anything else, but usually I was with a better horse than I was now.
“You’ll be good, won’t you?” I asked, knowing he couldn’t understand me but wanting to voice my worries to him, since no one else seemed to give a damn.
I tightened his bridle up, checked his tack again, and had to tighten his girth. Good thing I did, since he’d been sucking in air and then released it. I could have gone sideways in the saddle when I got on if I hadn’t looked him over again.
I led him over to the mounting block and noticed with some surprise that my dad and brothers were headed over to the arena that had been set up for the obstacle course all day. A lot of people were coming over to look, probably because trail was one of the more interesting classes, and I thought maybe I’d get to show off how good I actually was at riding in front of these people. Then maybe Dad would see that I was good at riding too and that all the time he’d spent teaching me hadn’t been a waste. He’d never actually said that to me, but I felt like that’s what he was thinking when we were at these shows and I didn’t do as well as he probably thought I should have. I didn’t think I did that well either.
“Number twenty, Robbie Messana, you’re up,” said the woman with the clipboard at the entrance to the arena. She gave me a nod as she put a check next to my name.
I took a breath and squeezed Slapdash’s sides, taking him from a standstill to a fast walk. I didn’t want to be going that fast for this, but it was better to look like I’d meant to get that gait out of him rather than pull him back before even getting into the ring. Besides, he slowed down on his own naturally when I released the pressure and relaxed my left hand with his reins over his neck.
The first obstacle was a poncho on top of a metal barrel. I leaned down and kept my eyes on Slapdash’s ears while I picked up the poncho without looking at it. I then had to straighten up and lift the poncho over my head before putting it back. Slapdash hardly reacted, and I thought for sure he would, so I was feeling pretty amazing right then. With a little smile on my face, I turned him toward the log box. We stepped into it okay, though he did touch one of the long logs with his back foot. I cringed when I heard that sound but got down to what we were supposed to do. It wasn’t a complicated puzzle, but it did take some time to maneuver while being careful not to knock the logs completely out of being in a square or, more importantly, completely stepping out of it. I had to turn him around, which I did in small degrees, carefully doing my best not to mess up.
There were only six obstacles, which I was glad about, and the rest I was fairly confident with, especially since Slapdash was being pretty good for me. When we moved outside of the box and headed toward the low bridge, I felt him tense, but giving him his head and a little pressure on his sides worked to get him across.
Opening a gate while mounted was always kind of hard for me, especially since I didn’t really have a place to practice it at home, but he went through with only a little hiccup when he lifted his head and put his ears back as we pushed the gate open. One horse I used to show on, another of my dad’s training projects, had actually forced the gate open with his chest to help me. That had won me one of my blue ribbons. Slapdash wasn’t nearly that helpful. We closed the gate behind us without an issue and headed on to the mailbox, which I thought was just like the poncho, but I guess not. I felt confident, and aside from his earlier mistake, I thought Slapdash and I were doing pretty well. We walked over a tarp and then over a little jump that had been set up as the final obstacle. It was barely a foot high, but I guessed the point wasn’t that it was easy to go over, but more that the horses couldn’t knock it down. When I was done, I went to the center of the ring and dismounted like I’d been instructed to do in my handout.
Slapdash shook out his mane after I pulled his reins over his head, and the judge a few feet away from me gave me a nod, letting me know I could go. My dad and brothers were still by the side of the arena, which surprised me. He even gave me a little nod that made me feel better than anything else. I smiled and exited the arena with my head high.
I was done for the day, so I untacked my horse, got him cleaned up, and put him back in our four-horse trailer with a bit of hay and water before I joined my family. I didn’t have to be dressed up anymore either, so before going back to them, I snuck into the dressing room compartment at the head of our trailer and changed into a beat-up pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Finally comfortable, I grabbed another soda from the cooler in the bed of the truck and sat on the tailgate while Dad talked to Daniel about something having to do with Cleric’s mane and how it should be trimmed. I didn’t listen too much to their conversation, since I was done and already mentally checking out. I wouldn’t know if I’d won the trail class for another half hour or so while everyone else went through the course, so I was totally content to just sit on my butt and wait. If I won I’d have to get dressed really fast again, but I’d get in more trouble from Dad for being a few seconds late than I would if I managed to get my show clothes dirty by sitting down.
Too bad my dad had other ideas when he got done talking to Daniel. “You know what you did wrong, don’t you?”
I actually had no idea, but I didn’t want to get in trouble either, so I figured a lie would have to be good enough. “Yes, sir.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and stared me down. “And what was that?”
I was ready for this and didn’t look away from him. “I didn’t lead him in slowly enough to start. I rushed him.” I didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t the truth by a long stretch, but it was a decent excuse, which was what my dad was looking for.
“That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all day.” He turned away from me, and I went back to relaxing and tuning out the rest of the show. If I was actually going to tell him the truth, I would have said that Slapdash was too young, too green, to show at this level. He needed a few hundred more miles under his hooves before I would have considered him ready for a show as busy and crowded as this one. That’s what I would have done if I’d been his trainer. But that was just it. I wasn’t his trainer. I wasn’t allowed to train any of them, and my dad had put me on a green horse and expected me to show at Daniel’s level—which I could if I was on a horse in the same league as Cleric. I was mad at my dad before I could stop myself from getting worked up. I jumped off the back of the tailgate, startling Blue into tossing his head. I didn’t get a chance to apologize to my little brother or to help him calm Blue down, before Dad grabbed my upper arm and hauled me into the trailer where no one could see us.
I expected to be yelled at, but I should have paid more attention, because my dad would never have yelled at me in front of everyone there. He pushed me down hard into the hay, forced me to go to my knees, and he walked away, leaving me in the trailer. It would have almost been better to be yelled at. At least then he would have said something to me.
I knew the rules, and I didn’t break them again that afternoon. Once you were put in the trailer, you weren’t allowed to come back out until Dad came and got you. So I sat there waiting. I got a blue ribbon for trail, but I wasn’t allowed to go get it. Daniel did toss it into the hay in front of me, though. He won again, and I wasn’t surprised. I also wasn’t at all surprised when Miss Ducane County Beauty Queen Martia Hallows herself practically threw herself at Daniel when he was getting ready to go. I rolled my eyes, because first of all, she was like four years older than him and nearly out of college, and secondly, my brother had enough girls’ numbers to start his own phone book. She didn’t stand a chance with him.
Maybe he’d let her down gently. Maybe not. I didn’t much care either way.
When Ben had come back with a red ribbon, which was tossed promptly into the trash, my dad came into the trailer. “Learned your lesson yet?”
“Yes, sir.” I hadn’t, but I was done sitting next to Slapdash. I wanted to go home, to get showered, and see my mom, and I couldn’t do any of that if I mouthed off to my dad.
He nodded and held out his hand for me, helping me up. That was rare, but I figured maybe he was being nice to me because it was still my birthday for another five hours. Not that it mattered much. I brushed off my jeans and headed out of the trailer to help pack. We were ready to go an hour later. The four of us piled into our dusty pickup truck, with Ben next to me and Daniel and Dad in the front seats. Daniel was old enough to drive, but he wasn’t allowed to unless we were going to a show that was more than a few hours away and Dad needed a break from driving.
We didn’t speak on the way home, just let the radio’s country music station fill the gap between us, and Ben fell asleep on the way back. It was after ten by the time we pulled into the driveway, and we had at least another half hour of work left before we could go inside. The light was on in the kitchen, so Mom was waiting for us. Ben loaded Blue out of the trailer and into our little four-stall barn just off the driveway. Next came Daniel with Cleric, and then I unloaded Slapdash. We checked the horses over for any injuries while they’d been in the trailer, fed and watered them, and then locked up the barn for the night after turning off the main overhead light.