Chapter 9: Natural

I awoke before the sun, got dressed in breeches, a long sleeve white shirt, riding boots, and threw my hair up. I decided to take the van to the track, even if it was right across the street. I grabbed two apples, one of which would wind up in Bumble’s stomach, and headed for my first day as an exercise rider. I was nervous, which made my stomach churn. Was I going to be okay without Rick around?

I first visited Bumble, feeding him his breakfast and his apple, filling his water, and talking to him for a few moments.

“Good morning Kelly.” I turned to see Justin. “Are you ready for your first day on the job?” I hoped that Justin was okay after my rejection last night. He seemed okay, smiling as usual.

“Yeah. Nervous, but I guess I am ready.” I looked around.

“Good, I have you working Cherry. She’s a seasoned, old mare. Her owners retired her last season, but found out she is sterile, and got her back in training. She is six and just about ready to race. I will probably enter her next weekend.” Justin motioned to the big, almost black, mare standing with her groom a few yards away. I turned back to him and he handed me a helmet.  I accepted and I walked toward the mare. I greeted her with a pat on the neck and a soft hello.

“You’ll be fine.” Justin said and helped me with a leg up. My stirrups were a tad short, but not nearly as short as Justin would have preferred them. I didn’t say anything and Justin led me to the track. I got situated and tried to calm my nerves. It didn’t help as the mare danced sideways. She could sense my nerves. Justin looked up at me and tried to reassure me with a smile. I was hoping that his smile meant that he wasn’t upset about last night. I flashed a smile then looked out onto the track.

“Have fun. Mike will be right behind you. You two will gallop together. Take her out, warm her up on the outer rail, and when Mike gives you the signal, angle in and gallop her another lap. Okay?” I nodded quickly as Justin unclipped the lead, letting the mare loose. She kicked into a trot immediately. Mike trotted up on a chestnut that was slightly smaller than my mount. He nodded and we trotted in unison along the outer rail. He kept looking over at me, posting.

“Why not just stand and let your knees take the impact, like you did yesterday?” I looked at him and the back at the track. I stood up in the stirrups and tried to balance over her shoulder, which was easier with the longer stirrups. I looked back over at Mike, who nodded in approval. I smiled to myself and we kicked into a canter. I stayed in my standing position as we finished the first lap at a slow canter.

“Ready kid?” I looked over my shoulder at the track. Our window was open. I looked at Mike, who didn’t give me time to answer. We angled our mounts to the inside rail and let their heads out. The mare jumped out and almost left me in mid air. I grabbed her mane and crouched more, but managed to keep my butt out of the saddle. I looked over to see Mike almost even with me. We rounded the turn and his mount edged up and stuck his head in front. The mare let him, continuing in her steady gallop. She didn’t have a particularly long stride, but it was a smooth one. Along the backstretch, Mike glanced back, but I didn’t urge the mare any. The chestnut he was on continued to inch away, opening up daylight between the two horses. The turn was approaching. I did what I had with Bumble. I collected her just a bit and I dropped her to the inside rail. In the middle of the turn, Mike’s horse started to pull away. I gave the mare more rein, allowing her to extend her stride and she began to catch the other horse. In the stretch, the mare followed the rail. She had running room, which she took full advantage of. She brought me alongside Mike, who glanced over just as I did. He smiled and urged his horse more. I smooched in the mare’s ear and she gave me more. We flashed under the wire. I leaned back against the reins, pulling the mare up.

“What a ride Kelly! You’re a natural!” Mike smiled as we pulled up in the turn. We walked the horses, cooling them out, before we got to Justin. He had a smile plastered across his face. I smiled back at him, as did Mike.

“The kid is a natural. Shorten her stirrups tomorrow!” Mike walked his horse toward the barns to cool it out before the rest of his mounts for the morning. I turned back to Justin, waiting for feedback.

“You did really well Kelly. Tomorrow, shorten your stirrups one notch. We’ll put you on a younger horse tomorrow. Every age group you ride, one notch. Sound fair?” Justin was stern, even when smiling. I nodded and he led us back to the barn. I hopped off and thanked the mare with a pat on the neck. I found Bumble asleep in his stall. He didn’t even hear me walk up. He must have been dreaming because his legs were twitching. What a baby.

I smiled and walked down shed row, looking over all the horses. I wondered whom I would be on tomorrow. I played with the chestnut colt’s nostrils before heading to the grandstands. It was race day and I planned to watch as Rick and Justin had one horse entered today. I hoped I would get the chance to talk to him about our date last night. I wanted him to know that it wasn’t his fault I left him at the door.

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