Dan likes the routine of the job, the rhythm of it all. He likes knowing that the horses expect to be fed at six, two, and eight o’clock, and will try to kick their stalls down if their expectations aren’t met. He likes it that every piece of equipment in the barn has a home, and every piece of tack has its own hook or rack to rest on. And he likes the riding, the “warm up, work, take a break, work, cool down” pattern. It lets him turn his brain off a little, lets him stop thinking and just work on doing. On being.
So he’s not exactly welcoming when something happens to break the rhythm. Molly and Karl both know this and generally try to shield him from intrusions. Not because he’s a prima donna, just because they’re caring people—caring people who don’t like it when their head trainer yells at prospective buyers.
They try, but they don’t always try hard enough, Dan realizes as he sees Molly waving at him from outside the ring. He sighs and brings Chaucer to a walk. They were just getting somewhere, too, with the big gelding finally seeming to realize that his nose doesn’t need to go up to the sky every time he’s asked to change paces. As a final reminder, Dan asks Chaucer to trot on the way over to Molly, and then go back down to the walk. Both times Chaucer’s nose stays where it should be, so Dan gives him a congratulatory slap on the neck and lets him have his head.
Molly is strong and athletic but middle-aged, and Dan isn’t used to seeing her jitter around like a teenager. “The California people are early. Robyn’s getting Monty in from the paddock, but he’s filthy, of course. We need you to help her get him polished up.”
Dan doesn’t like the sound of that. “If they can’t see through a little mud, they don’t deserve Monty.”
Molly’s excitement turns to frustration pretty quickly. “When you’re in charge of the bills around here, you can tell me who deserves what horse. Until then, we need to make a sale, and it’s the horse that’s being looked at, not the buyers.” She turns and heads toward the barn but then stops and comes back a few steps. “You behave yourself. These people have more money than God—they could buy and sell this whole place with their pocket change.” She looks like she might have more to say, but a group of people is coming out of the barn, so she puts her happy face back on and walks over to meet them.
Dan takes Chaucer out of the ring on the far side and avoids the crowd. The gelding is hot from the exercise, and Dan doesn’t want to make him stand still in the cool spring breeze. When they reach the door of the barn, he jumps out of the saddle and quickly untacks the horse, then throws a cooler on him. The light blanket will be enough to keep the animal from catching a chill, but Dan still wants to find a way to cool him down properly. The barn’s hot-walker broke down several weeks earlier and has still not been repaired. Dan spares a moment to wonder just how important this sale is. Molly’s right; Dan has nothing to do with the finances of the place, so he doesn’t really know the state of things. There never seems to be enough money, but that’s always been the case. Have things gotten worse than usual? Dan forces his mind away from thinking about the likely cause of any financial woes. He’s at work—not the place to get maudlin.
Monty is already in the crossties, with Robyn working away at him furiously with the curry comb. The Hanoverian hasn’t lost all of his winter coat yet, so despite being clipped short, he’s shedding hair as well as mud. Dan has to admit it to himself: the horse is a mess, and Robyn could use some help. He runs a hand down Chaucer’s chest, feels the heat and sweat still pouring off him.
“I can walk him, if you need.” The offer comes from behind them, and when Dan turns to look, he sees only a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sunshine outside. The shape moves forward and becomes a man, maybe forty or so, a decade older than Dan, his dark brown hair just starting to gray in the stubble around his mouth. “Jeff Stevens,” the man says, sticking his hand out for shaking. “We’ve met, but only briefly.”
Dan searches his memory. He really doesn’t think he’d have forgotten meeting this guy. He’s got a great face: lines creased in all the right places, warm, intelligent eyes, and from what Dan can see of the body, the guy might be a bit older but he definitely takes care of himself. And he’s dressed for riding, so Dan expects the muscles are from working, not from the gym.
Jeff seems to realize that Dan can’t remember him, and prompts, “Rolex, two years ago. You were a little… preoccupied.” His smile is gentle. “I know you must’ve heard it a million times, but… I’m really sorry. About last year, I mean.”
Dan nods automatically. The guy’s right. He has heard it a million times, but it doesn’t seem to have lost much potency in repetition.
Jeff obviously realizes that a subject change would be appreciated. “I’m the trainer for the Kaminskis—the folks in from California. We’re a bit early, I know. Didn’t mean to catch you all unprepared. So, like I said, if you have something you need to be doing, I can walk this one.”
Dan mutely passes Chaucer’s lead rope to the other man, and then turns toward Monty. He wouldn’t usually trust a stranger with his horse, but somehow this feels okay. “Thanks,” he mutters belatedly, and Jeff smiles easily as he turns Chaucer and leads him back outside. Dan grabs a curry comb and gets to work on Monty’s off side.
It’s a good thing there are two of them working, because it’s only a few minutes before he hears Karl and Molly coming into the barn, their tag-team sales technique in full force.
“Oh, there he is!” Molly coos, as though she’d had no idea that Monty was being groomed. Dan grabs a clean rag and passes it to Robyn, who quickly mists it with show sheen and runs it over Monty’s lean body. He dances a little at the sound of the spray, but isn’t really spooked. He’s used to being fussed over and takes it as his due.
Molly is walking next to a girl who is clearly going through her awkward phase, all angles and braces and shyness. Maybe fifteen, Dan guesses. Prime horse-crazy age, but she doesn’t look strong enough for a mount like Monty. The guy with her, on the other hand…. Dan lets himself take an appreciative look before bringing his mind back to business. The guy would be a great match for Monty. They’re both tall and well-muscled. Dan wonders if the guy bucks when he gets excited, and then has to call his mind back to work again.
The little group draws closer. “I’m sorry he’s not looking better,” Molly apologizes to the girl. “He was outside this morning, and, well, you know how boys are in the mud!”
Robyn looks a little offended. She’d practically performed a miracle on the horse, given the time she’d had, and it must sting to hear Molly dismiss her efforts. Dan catches her eye and shakes his head minutely. It’s just a sales ploy, making it seem as though Monty is usually even better looking.
Molly is encouraging the girl to get closer to Monty, supplying a chunk of carrot to feed him. Dan swallows a sigh. Apparently the girl is the prospective rider after all. He hopes they have sense enough to find another horse.
Karl nods his head at Dan, indicating that he should join Karl and the tall guy farther up the barn aisle. Dan looks at Robyn and says, “Their trainer is walking Chaucer for me. Do you think you could go take over, send the trainer back in?” She nods and heads toward the barn door as Dan walks over to Karl.
“Mr. Kaminski, this is Daniel Wheeler. He’s been riding Monty lately.” Now it’s Dan’s turn to feel a bit slighted. He’s been Monty’s trainer for almost five years, since the gelding was first introduced to the saddle. Everything the horse knows, Dan taught him, and Monty knows a lot. So why is Karl making it sound like Dan is some stable rat begging for rides? He guesses it’s another sales technique, but can’t really figure out what the point of it is—other than to remind Dan of his place.
Kaminski smiles warmly and holds out a hand to shake, and Dan catches himself before he takes it, and holds up his own hands to show how they’re covered in mud and horse hair. The guy is dressed casually, but he looks put together. Dan doesn’t want to get blamed for mussing him up.
“Oh, that’s fine, man; I don’t mind getting my hands dirty!” Kaminski leans in a little. “And my name’s Evan.” He grabs Dan’s right hand and gives it a few vigorous shakes, then looks over Dan’s shoulder. “What do you think, Tat?” he asks. She beams back at him, and he laughs happily. When they’re smiling, it’s easy to see that they’re related, both of them grinning so wide that their hazel eyes are almost invisible. “Looks like she likes him. Where’s Jeff? We should get his opinion.”
Dan turns to look in the direction Jeff should be coming from, and he appears as if by magic. He walks easily and confidently, taking a few steps to the side in order to look at Monty from directly behind, then continuing closer. He glances over for permission to approach the horse, and Dan feels a small satisfaction that he’s the one Jeff looks at, not Karl. Karl takes over, though, apparently deciding that Evan is just along to sign the check, and that Jeff is the one who needs to be persuaded.
Karl moves toward the horse, waving his hand at Jeff. “Please, be my guest! Look him over, and then we’ll tack him up, and we can show you what the big guy is capable of.”
Karl continues with a stream of positive statements about the horse, and Dan finds himself agreeing with most of them. Monty really is exceptional, and Dan will be sorry to see him go. But he’ll be more than sorry if he goes to a girl who won’t be able to handle him, and who could get hurt by the huge animal.
Dan wonders whether he should say something to Evan, and glances over to see the other man watching him closely.
“He’s a beautiful horse,” Evan starts. “My sister, Tat… well, Tatiana, but ‘Tatiana’ doesn’t rhyme with ‘brat’, so it doesn’t seem so appropriate.” Evan smiles to make it clear that he’s joking, and Dan sees a couple dimples appear in the otherwise lean face. “Anyway, Tat’s been wanting an eventer, and we saw the video of this guy, and it’s like she fell in love!”
Dan nods warily, and then Molly is gesturing to him. “Dan, let’s get him tacked up. They need to see him at work.”
Dan isn’t used to the almost manic energy Molly’s projecting today. Monty is a valuable horse, Dan knows, and selling him would certainly be a help for the barn’s finances, but usually Karl and Molly are a bit more laid back about things. They try to sell the horses, of course, but they aren’t generally so frantic about it.
Dan gets Monty’s dressage saddle and bridle. Might as well start slow—if the kid gets scared working on the flat, there’s no point in wasting time with jumping.
Dan puts the tack on under Jeff’s scrutiny, and finds himself appreciating the other man’s attitude. Lots of people forget about a horse’s ground manners, think it’s only what happens under saddle that matters. As the one who worked so hard to train Monty to behave in crossties, Dan is gratified to see that someone appreciates his efforts. He has a slightly unsettling moment when he turns away from the horse to see Jeff looking not at Monty but at Dan himself, with an assessing expression similar to the one Evan had worn earlier. But Monty is ready, so Dan takes the reins over his head and looks to Karl.
Molly starts instead. “Okay, let’s go out to the ring, and we can see how beautifully he moves!” She herds the visitors in front of her, and Dan falls in behind, leading Monty. Jeff watches over his shoulder for a few steps, apparently making sure that Monty’s good manners continue once he’s being led, and then he turns and focuses on where he’s going.
Once in the ring, Dan gives the tack a final check and mounts up. He goes through the basic warm ups, getting Monty relaxed and ready to work, and then takes him through more advanced moves, essentially duplicating a standard dressage test. Monty is a bit shaky on his counter-canter, but he gets it eventually. Dan makes a note to work on that in their next training ride, and then wonders if there will be one, or if Monty will be leaving the barn before they get a chance.
Dan brings Monty to a halt next to the spectators. “Did you want to see anything in particular?” He addresses the question to the whole group, but he’s really talking to Jeff. When Jeff shakes his head, Dan swings down off the horse and holds the reins out, about halfway between Jeff and Tatiana. They’re both dressed for riding, and realistically, they both need to be able to get along with Monty.
Jeff nods at Tatiana and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, let’s give him a spin.” They duck through the fence and walk out into the ring, heading for the mounting block. Dan leads Monty over to meet them. There’s a moment to adjust stirrup lengths and re-check the girth, and then Dan stands at Monty’s head while the girl climbs on. She’s light and graceful, and settles into the saddle naturally, so Dan hopes the ride won’t be a complete disaster.
The horse and rider head out to the rail, and Jeff moves toward the center of the ring. Dan moves toward the fence, but Jeff calls to him. “Dan, can you stick around? Let me know if there’s any tricks we should be using?”
Dan obediently follows Jeff. The older man is watching the horse and rider carefully, and calls out a few suggestions to Tat. He has her work through a dressage test similar to the one Dan had done earlier, leaving out a few of the more advanced skills. Finally, he calls to her, “Okay, your turn, try out anything you want to have another look at.” Then he half turns to Dan, saying, “Okay, now—what do you think, really?”
Dan is torn, so he tries to be neutral. “She’s a good rider. They’re a good match for dressage. For jumping—we’ll need to wait and see, I guess.”
“Is he going to be too much for her?”
Dan can’t bring himself to lie. “I don’t know. Probably. He’s got a lot of heart, you know? And he loves to jump. He needs a pretty firm rider to keep him under control.” Dan rubs his neck. “It’s what makes him such a great eventer; he’s totally fearless, full of enthusiasm.” Dan doesn’t think he needs to explain how that attitude could pose a bit of problem for someone as slight and inexperienced as Tatiana.
Karl has come out in time to hear the last of that. “Fearless and enthusiastic, that’s our boy!”
Jeff smiles politely, but he obviously has doubts of his own. Karl sends Dan into the barn for Monty’s jumping tack. When Dan returns, Jeff has Monty’s saddle off, and they trade burdens so Jeff can have a chance to try saddling Monty. The horse is as good as Dan would expect, and they quickly trade bridles as well. Dan sometimes jumps Monty in just a snaffle, but he thinks Tatiana will need all the help she can get.
They take Monty to the grass ring for jumping, and as soon as they’re out from behind the dressage ring fence, Monty starts dancing. Dan is leading him, and has no trouble maintaining control, but he’s not sorry to see the horse act up a little. It’s only fair for the buyers to know what they’re getting. Monty’s a sweetheart, but he’s also a handful.
When they get to the grass ring, Karl gives Dan a leg up, and Dan takes Monty through his paces. They work up in size, and Dan is pleased with how cleanly Monty is jumping, and how little effort he seems to be putting in. But he can’t deny that the horse is getting a bit worked up, and he only feels a little guilty when he doesn’t do much to calm him. If Tatiana gets a healthy scare over these jumps, there’s less chance of her really getting hurt by trying to ride Monty cross-country, a setting where even Dan has to work hard to control the gelding.
Monty settles well enough for a rider swap, though, and again Jeff asks Dan to accompany him to the middle of the ring while Tatiana rides. This time, Karl comes with them.
Tatiana and Monty take a couple low jumps without much trouble, but Dan can see the horse starting to get a little frustrated. “She needs to loosen up a bit,” he tells Jeff. “I usually ride him pretty soft when we’re jumping—he knows what to do, she needs to guide him, not order him.” Jeff nods and passes the suggestion along, but there’s not much evidence of a response.
“She’s nervous,” Jeff says.
Dan nods. “Monty’s sensitive enough to pick up on that. He needs a confident rider.”
Karl jumps in at that. “Well, obviously she’ll be a lot more confident once she gets used to him! And at her own barn, without an audience….”
Jeff nods politely again, his eyes fixed on the horse and rider. “Circle him, Tat! He’s getting too flat, you need to bring him back a little.” Tat complies, and Jeff calls, “Again! Circle him until he comes back under you, until he listens!”
Dan murmurs, “Have her use her seat a bit more, her hands a bit less,” and Jeff passes these instructions along as well. Eventually, Monty settles enough that Tatiana is able to take him over a couple more jumps, although he charges the second one so fast that only his athleticism allows him to get them over cleanly.
Tatiana pulls him to a dancing, prancing halt in front of a group that is not quite as enthusiastic as they were after the dressage riding. Evan laughs and slaps the horse’s sweaty chest. “He gave you a bit of a wild time, didn’t he?”
Tat grins, and Dan isn’t sure whether to be disappointed or impressed that her enthusiasm seems undampened. “He’s fantastic, though! It was like riding Pegasus, or something—so powerful!”
Dan can’t help liking the girl, but he sees Jeff’s serious expression and hopes that the trainer has some influence over the young Kaminskis. “That’s enough for today, I think,” Jeff says. “Let’s get out of everyone’s hair and let them get back to their day, and we can come back tomorrow if we need to.”
Karl and Molly hear the pending rejection in that suggestion, and start trying to persuade Jeff to try Monty on the cross-country course. Dan is surprised to realize that he already trusts Jeff to stay firm, and he leads Monty a few steps away and adjusts the stirrups back to his length. He doesn’t want the last thought in Monty’s head for the day to be that it’s fun to ignore his rider, so Dan needs to take him over a couple jumps.
Jeff is fielding the comments from Karl and Molly, and Evan wanders over to Monty and Dan. “He’s a really beautiful animal,” Evan says, and Dan is happy to hear a slight wistfulness in the other man’s tone. Maybe Evan isn’t totally clueless about the situation.
“He is. He’s a supercharged sports car of a horse.”
Evan bends a little, his hazel eyes catching Dan’s and holding them. “And a supercharged sports car isn’t a good car for a fifteen-year-old, is that what you’re saying?”
Dan shrugs. “I’m saying you should listen to your trainer. I don’t think he’ll steer you wrong.” He pulls the stirrup leather back into place. “And, Evan….” He pauses. “We have a lot of great horses here. You should have a look at Sunshine—she’s almost as scopey as Monty, but a little less….”
Dan grins. “Yeah, that.”
Evan smiles back, and reaches out to shake Dan’s hand again. “Thanks for the advice, Dan. I appreciate it.” Then somehow the atmosphere changes a little. Evan is still smiling, but there’s a bit of a strange edge to it as he continues. “It was really nice to meet you.” Evan is still holding his hand, but not shaking it anymore. He releases it as soon as Dan starts to pull it away, and steps back as Dan nods and pulls himself up onto Monty.
As Dan takes the horse over a couple easy jumps, he tries to keep his mind on his job, not on whatever just passed between him and the handsome Californian. By the time he’s over the third jump, the visitors are out of sight on their way back the barn, and Dan is able to focus on what he should be doing.
After he gets Monty listening to him, Dan cools the horse off and heads into the barn. He’d been about to have lunch when the Kaminskis arrived, so he’s starving. But Karl and Molly are waiting for him by Monty’s stall, and he has a feeling it could be a while before he gets any food.
He turns the horse in and takes his halter off, then slides the door shut and turns to look at his employers. Karl speaks first, his anger clear. “What did you say to them, exactly?”
Dan doesn’t really appreciate being put on the defensive. “When? I didn’t spend any time with them that you weren’t right there.”
Molly takes over. “When you talked to Jeff, or when Evan got you alone. Did you tell them not to buy Monty?”
Dan just shakes his head. “Come on, guys, do you really think they need to be told that? Jeff’s obviously got a good eye. He could tell that Monty was taking over! And that was just going over a few arena jumps, not even a cross-country course.” He turns and hangs Monty’s halter on the stall door. “If they decided not to buy him, it’s because they could tell he’s too much horse for the kid, not because I told them not to.”
Molly doesn’t look convinced. “Oh, and you don’t think they could tell what you thought? You don’t think that your bad attitude came through clearly?” She glances at Karl before continuing. “Really, Dan, you should know why we need extra money! I just can’t understand why you would sabotage us like this… you, of all people!”
Dan doesn’t appreciate the attempted guilt trip. “Me of all people? You mean because I’ve only been getting every third paycheck for the last year? Or because I’ve been working overtime without claiming for it, trying to get these horses into the best condition they can be in for your buyers? Is that why I should be aware of how much you need money?” He looks at the couple before him, whom he’d been encouraged to think of as parents. “You know what I can’t understand? I can’t understand why the two of you wouldn’t see a problem with letting a kid risk her life on a horse she can’t control.” He backs away from them, and his voice twists in bitter mimicry. “You, of all people!” Then he turns and strides angrily out of the barn. He’s worked every single day for almost three weeks; he’s going to take the afternoon off.