Victory and the All-Stars Academy, page 4
By the time Avery called out to the riders to swap again, Issie’s legs had turned to jelly from trying to make Woody move forward. This was the third swap and her last chance to try out Victory. She could see Morgan not far away, and trotted straight up to her the moment that Avery made the announcement.
Morgan didn’t look thrilled to have Woody as her third horse, but she made the swap. Issie was up on Victory’s back before Morgan could change her mind.
“Wait!” It wasn’t Morgan stopping her. It was Tara Kelly.
“I watched you on Woody just now,” Tara said. “Was there a problem?”
“He’s too slow,” Issie mumbled.
Tara nodded. “I see. And the problem with Floyd was?”
Issie felt embarrassed. “Well, he was too fast.”
“Who are you?” Tara said wryly. “Goldilocks or something? The first one’s too fast, the second one’s too slow. Well, let’s hope the third one is just right!”
“I didn’t mean it like that…” Issie protested. But Tara wasn’t listening.
“A horse is a horse, Isadora. You should be able to ride anything I put you on. Any of these horses here today should be good enough for you. If a horse is too fast, it’s up to you to use your seat to slow down. If the horse is too slow then you push on with your legs and get it moving.”
Tara lowered her voice as she spoke, so that only Issie could hear her. “You have a good instinct, an eye for horses. Victory is the best horse here. You and I both know that. I can spend some time with you over the next twenty minutes and help you to work him in, but it’s up to you to really focus your energy. When I watch you right now, I’m seeing what I call a fifty per cent effort. I think you’re holding back. I expect my riders to give one hundred and ten per cent! Do you understand me?”
“I think so,” mumbled Issie.
“Do you understand me?” Tara snapped.
“Yes, Tara!” Issie said.
“Good.” Tara seemed satisfied. “Come on. This is your chance to show me that you deserve this horse—so let’s go!”
As Tara Kelly’s expert eyes bored into her, Issie tried hard to ride her very best.
“Show me a trot,” Tara told her. Issie did as she was asked and felt Tara watching every stride, mentally critiquing her position in the saddle. It was making her nervous.
“Stop worrying about impressing me and start thinking about your horse!” Tara snapped. “Now I want to see an extended trot. This horse is a dressage schoolmaster. I’m still getting fifty per cent here. Remember, I want one hundred and ten per cent!”
Issie put her legs on more firmly and asked the brown gelding to push out his trot strides.
“No!” Tara called out. “That’s just a fast trot. I want extension. Huge strides! Make him work! You’re holding back. What are you afraid of, Isadora?”
Issie knew what an extended trot should be like. The horse should float like a ballerina across the arena. But she didn’t know how to get there. She tried again, tapping with her heels, asking for more, but Victory was resisting. His strides were choppy and erratic and his nose was up in the air like a giraffe, not a dressage schoolmaster.
“I’m sensing some frustration here,” Tara Kelly said coolly. “What do you think the problem is?”
“I don’t know,” Issie said. She could feel herself flushing pink with anger—not at Victory, but at herself. She was a better rider than this! The pressure of having Tara Kelly watching and judging her every move was almost paralysing. It was as if Issie had completely forgotten how to ride a horse. To make matters even worse, several of the other riders had stopped working their own horses and were watching Tara and Issie’s impromptu lesson.
Great, Issie thought, so now everyone can see me being a loser.
But they didn’t get a chance to watch for very long. Tara must have had eyes in the back of her head. “Those of you who have decided to take a break from your own riding to watch us—can you stop staring and start concentrating on working your own horses, please?” she told them. “You certainly have enough problems to work on. Stella, are you aware that you keep trotting on the wrong diagonal? And Laura, your horse is looking out on the left rein. Try and make him bend his head more to the inside.”
With the other riders gone, Issie relaxed a bit, but Tara noted that she was still tense. “You’re trying too hard,” Tara told her. “Relax your shoulders, brace your tummy, but don’t forget to breathe.”
This last comment sounded odd to Issie. Who could forget to breathe? And then she realised that Tara was right. Issie had been so nervous, her breath was almost stuck in her chest. She forced herself to take a deep breath in and out.
“Now let go of Victory’s head and stop holding him,” Tara instructed. “Let’s go!”
“But he’s trotting too fast!” Issie was exasperated.
“Don’t worry about that. Use your body rhythm to slow him down, not your reins. That’s it! Much better. Now sit down and ask for extension! Better! Much better, Isadora!”
Suddenly something clicked inside Issie. She felt herself wrapping her legs around Victory’s belly and she completely and utterly focused on the moment, driving him forward into the trot. Victory responded by arching his neck and flattening out his body so that his legs seemed to stretch out and skim the ground like a hovercraft. She was doing it! It was the most amazing extended trot!
Issie had a grin from ear to ear, but Tara didn’t give her time to stay pleased with herself for long. She made her do a collected trot and then a canter, and before Issie knew it, she was doing fancy shoulder-ins and travers down the arena!
“Keep the rhythm! Brace your tummy! Keep your hands up! Watch your breathing! Keep your elbows pointy! Your legs need to tap him in time with his strides!” Tara drilled her riders over and over, and just when Issie thought she was going to collapse from exhaustion or burst into tears, Tara finally told them all to stop. The session had been gruelling—but rewarding. Issie felt as if her entire style of riding had changed under Tara’s expert tuition. She could see now why Tom Avery said that Tara was one of the best instructors in the world.
Tara was engrossed in conversation with Emily, explaining how to get a better canter transition, when Issie rode up to say thank you.
“That felt amazing!” she said as she pulled her horse up in front of Tara with a huge grin on her face. “Thanks for all your help. Victory went brilliantly, didn’t he?”
“It was never Victory that I was worried about,” Tara said flatly. “You showed some improvement in that lesson, but we’ve still got a bit of work to do, haven’t we?”
Issie didn’t know what to say. She had been hoping for a little more enthusiasm from Tara. Her lukewarm appraisal was a bit deflating, especially when Issie felt like she really had given it one hundred and ten per cent. In fact, she felt like she’d been put through the wringer. Her hair was wet with sweat beneath her riding helmet, her legs were rubbery with exhaustion and her arms were shaking, and she had only been riding Victory for less than twenty minutes!
“Victory is a schoolmaster, capable of so much more than the performance you got out of him today,” said Tara bluntly.
Ohmygod, Issie thought, she’s not going to let me have him. She thinks I’m rubbish and she’s going to give Victory to Dee Dee and I’ll be stuck with Woody the slug!
“He’ll be good for you,” Tara continued. “This horse already knows all the moves and he’s got talent to burn. You’ll learn a lot from him over the next two weeks.”
“So you’re going to let me ride him?” Issie couldn’t believe it. “Oh, thank you!”
“I’m expecting big improvements,” was all Tara said. And then she was off, working her way through the other riders, allocating their mounts.
In the end, everyone pretty much got who they wanted. Kate stayed with Costa and Stella was given Woody. Charlotte had been swapped back on to Kanga and Laura was now matched with the chestnut, whose
“These will be your horses for the Young Rider Challenge,” Tara told them. “Now I want you to check your girths and tighten them if necessary, and then take your stirrups up two holes.”
“What for?” Stella was puzzled.
“Because it’s cross-country time,” Tara said. “Buckle up, girls. We’re going for a ride.”
Issie was certain that she had the best horse in the stables at Havenfields—until she saw the mare Tara Kelly was riding. Tara’s horse was a jet-black Hanoverian, seventeen hands high. Her name was Demeter and she had been loaned to Tara for the duration of her stay in Australia by Minka Klein.
Tara stood before the squad on Demeter and explained that even though she was about to take them out for a cross-country gallop, she did not expect them to behave “as if this were a wild free-for-all”.
“This is a crucial part of your training,” Tara stressed. “Cross-country riders must be able to do a controlled gallop between fences. You need to get your horses listening so that you can speed up or slow down as required. The aim is always to use as little energy as possible and save your horse, but still make it around the course without time faults.”
Tara led the way out to the dirt road that ran past the paddock gates. “We’re going to stick to the road and ride the perimeter of the first two paddocks. The road surface is compacted dirt, which is perfect for galloping.”
“Will there be any jumps?” Stella asked.
Tara shook her head. “Not today. This is just about letting the horse find his stride and learning to judge your gallop speed. When we reach the end of the lane, we’ll finish our gallop and then ride them over the open fields back to the stables. The whole ride should take us a little under an hour. OK? Everyone taken their stirrups up? Then gather up your reins and let’s go!”
They set off at a gallop right from the stable gate. Issie had caught a glimpse of the incredulous looks on Stella and Kate’s faces and knew that they were all thinking the same thing. Avery would never have been so wild as to take eight new riders on unfamiliar horses out for a gallop on the very first day. Tara, on the other hand, rode with the fearless passion of a daredevil, taking the lead and urging them to keep up or be left behind.
A moment ago Issie had been trotting round a sawdust arena, talking about leg yields. Now she found herself galloping at breakneck speed, crouched low over Victory’s neck as his hoofbeats drummed like thunder beneath her.
If any of the riders were scared, they didn’t let on. With Tara Kelly in charge, you didn’t dare show fear. Issie was beginning to understand this now. Luckily, she wasn’t nervous about galloping—she had done her fair share of race riding in the past and Avery had given her lessons on how to stand up in the stirrups like a jockey, pressing her knee into the saddle to hold her weight and keep her balance. Victory was a pure Thoroughbred, built to run, and Issie didn’t need to urge him on. Instead, she just sat quietly up on the horse, perched over the withers, keeping her weight off his back and allowing him to run.
Some of the other riders hung back, nervous about maintaining control of their horses at a gallop. One of these, surprisingly, was Morgan. She was a bold rider, but she was more at home in a showjumping ring. The only galloping a showjumper did was in short bursts between closely constructed fences. Being out in the open countryside like this with a galloping horse was totally new to her.
Charlotte was rigid on her horse too, a look of grim determination on her face as she kept him constrained at the back of the pack. Laura and Emily, on the other hand, were up at the front next to Issie and both of them were smiling and chatting with each other as they rode, clearly accustomed to regular gallop work. Issie remembered Avery mentioning that the sisters were cross-country whizzes, so it made sense that they felt at home, standing up in their stirrups to stay off their mounts’ backs as their horses galloped on.
They were a couple of kilometres down the road, and still in full stride, when Issie began to feel things starting to slip. Her reins were becoming slick with sweat from Victory’s neck and she was increasingly losing her grip on them as the leather turned slippery in her hands. Victory was strong—he kept fighting for his head, and her fingers were beginning to cramp from holding on so hard to keep him under control. Her legs too were starting to chafe from the rubbing of the stirrup leathers, and her shoulders ached from the strain of perching like a bird over the withers.
Hang on, Issie told herself, not much longer…Up ahead, about 200 metres away, Issie could see the point where the road broadened into a turning bay and became a dead end. They must be stopping there. She just had to hang on until then.
As they drew closer to the end of the road, Tara raised her hand to signal that they were slowing down and the riders eased to a canter and then a trot and, finally, a walk.
Issie let the reins loosen at last and felt her arm muscles twitching and shaking from the effort of holding on for so long. Her heart was hammering in her chest, more from adrenalin than exertion.
“That was wild!” Stella said, pulling Woody up next to Victory. “I can’t believe we’re all still alive! It was like being on a race horse!”
Tara, meanwhile, had already leapt down off her horse’s back and was unbolting the gate to the left of the turning bay. It led to the fields that they would be riding across to return home. She stayed dismounted to let all the riders through, before closing the gate behind them and getting back into the saddle.
“You can ride back at your own pace,” said Tara. “Stick to the tracks and you won’t get lost. Does anyone want to gallop a bit more?”
Laura and Emily both put their hands up.
“Fine. You can come with me,” Tara told them. “We’ll meet the rest of you back at the stables. The farmland that we’ll be riding over belongs to Havenfields,” she continued, “but it borders Digger Murphy’s property, so be careful not to go beyond that line of gum trees over there, OK? He’s a sheep farmer who apparently doesn’t like horses on his land so he’ll shoot you on sight.”
Tara didn’t smile as she said this. Issie was beginning to wonder if her instructor was completely sour-faced and serious or if everything was just a joke to her—Issie really couldn’t decide which.
Laura and Emily both rode forward to pull their horses up beside Tara. Issie was thinking that maybe she would join them, but when she saw Dee Dee ride Floyd up to the front, she decided to hang back instead.
“If Dee Dee is going to gallop then I’m going to walk,” she told Stella and Kate.
“Right,” said Tara. “Those girls who are staying behind make sure you keep your eyes peeled for snakes. The riders who are coming with me—can I have you up the front ready to gallop? All right? Let’s go.”
As Tara, Dee Dee, Emily and Laura took off, Issie and the others had to hang on firmly to their horses to stop them bolting too. Horses hate being left behind and Victory acted like a racehorse in the gates for a moment or two, cantering up and down on the spot, desperate to be let loose.
However, once the galloping riders were out of sight, they were out of mind as well. The remaining horses quickly calmed down and forgot about them. Pretty soon the girls were walking along with their horses on a loose rein, as easy and relaxed as trekking ponies.
“Did Tara mean it? About looking out for snakes?” Charlotte asked. “Was she serious?”
“Oh, totally,” Stella said. “There are millions of them. Australia is full of snakes.”
“Poisonous ones?” Charlotte’s eyes were wide.
“Not all of them are poisonous,” Kate said.
“Most of them are,” insisted Stella. “It’s the brown ones that are the most dangerous apparently. And the spiders. You have to look out for the spiders. Redbacks are the worst.”
“What do they look like?” Issie began to feel as if there were
“They have red backs—obviously!” said Stella.
“What about crocodiles?” asked Morgan anxiously.
“Yup!” Stella was warming to her theme. “There’s loads of crocodiles in Australia—and great white sharks.”
“There’s not going to be a great white shark in the middle of a paddock though, is there?” Kate said sarcastically.
“No,” Stella admitted, “but there’s lizards—some of them bite too. And wombats and koalas.”
“Koalas?” Issie frowned. “I’ve never heard of anyone being attacked by koalas.”
“Well, dingoes then,” Stella said. “Wild dogs. They roam everywhere.”
“What do they look like?” asked Issie.
“They’re kind of yellowy and skinny,” said Stella. She was clearly loving her new role as the resident expert on Australian wildlife. “And wombats are big and furry, and dark grey.”
“Do snakes attack horses?” Charlotte asked nervously. No one answered, and a silence momentarily fell over the group as they all peered anxiously at the grass beneath them.
It was crazy, Issie realised. A few moments ago they had been galloping at breakneck speed down a dirt road, totally fearless. And now they were wigging out about walking through the grass to get home!
They had reached the border of the property, the line of trees that Tara had pointed out that ran like a tall, leafy spine between Havenfields and Digger Murphy’s farm.
Stella was still talking loudly about snake bites, and at first the girls didn’t notice the howling noise that was coming from the blackberry bushes up ahead. In fact, the horses were the ones who alerted the girls to it. Arista and Kanga began snorting and shying back, their ears flattened against their heads.
“Hoi! Arista!” Morgan growled as the grey gelding spun around and tried to bolt. She pulled on the reins hard, bringing the horse to a halt. Kanga had done a half-rear and Charlotte was doing her best to settle him.
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