Shooting Star Stables
~ Chapter 1~
“Helloooooo, sunshine!” Jennifer declared to the bright blue sky above her.
It was a gorgeous sunny day at Shooting Star Stables. Jennifer took in a deep, satisfying breath of the stable smell surrounding her. She rested her cheek on her horse’s shoulder, feeling the warmth of the sun on his hair. She pulled up the saddle flap to tighten Firefly’s girth one more time before mounting, and the leather felt hot to her touch. Jennifer was ready to enjoy the first afternoon of true springtime weather Albany had had this year.
She swung into the saddle and began her lesson warm-up in the ring. Jennifer was always the first one ready for the after school semi-private lesson she shared with her best friend Holly and a few others. Today Holly had told her she would be running late, which was no surprise. Holly tended to get distracted by just about anything, which often turned her grooming time into long beautification sessions of her stunning bay mare, Aphrodite.
Jennifer looked up after a lap or two to see Holly leading Aphrodite out of the white, weathered barn. Close behind her followed Casey, one of the sweet younger girls, with her horse Blaze. Jennifer contemplated how they wished Casey could truly call Blaze her own, but he was only a lease-horse, meaning Casey paid his owner a certain amount each month for the chance to ride him and help care for him.
“Hey, Jen! We’re almost ready!” Holly called across the ring. She helped Casey mount Blaze, and then swung lightly onto Aphrodite. It looked like Holly had helped Casey saddle up Blaze that afternoon, too, because Jennifer could see the tell-tale signs of pink ribbon in Blaze’s mane that meant Holly had definitely been there.
Casey needed a little extra help sometimes because she had cerebral palsy, making it difficult for her to do some of the tasks required in horseback riding. Fortunately, Jennifer or Holly was almost always at the stables to help her out, and neither girl minded. Casey was one of the sweetest, most genuine girls they knew, and they cared about her almost as if she were their little sister.
Holly trotted over to the round pen next to the jumping ring where Jennifer rode, and deftly unlatched the gate to let Casey through. Casey rode Western because it provided a little more stability in the saddle, and she would work Blaze while she waited for Holly and Jennifer’s jumping lesson to finish.
Holly and Aphrodite entered the jumping ring just as their instructor, Katie, strolled out of the barn.
“Geez, Holly, it’s about time! I thought you were never gonna get out here!” Jennifer teased.
“I know, me either! I couldn’t wait to ride today, especially after such a stinky day at school. Algebra totally blows my whole afternoon,” Holly complained.
“Well, you don’t have to think about it anymore. I’ll see if I can help you with it later,” Jennifer said. She knew Holly’s worries needed to be assuaged ASAP or she would just continue to think about her troubles until they had swelled to blinding proportions.
“Okay, girls! Let’s see whatcha got!” Katie said briskly as she stepped through the rails and headed to the center of the ring. “We won’t wait for Angela. She can join us when she’s ready.”
Holly and Jennifer didn’t need to be told twice, and they began a sitting trot around the ring. Holly made sure to keep a couple horse-lengths between Aphrodite and Firefly, and she settled in to the soothing rhythm of her mare’s gait. It didn’t take long before all thoughts of Algebra were gone, and she could enjoy the beautiful, pure connection between horse and rider. After they had gone twice around the ring, Katie asked for a posting trot. Holly made sure she was on the correct diagonal, and looked up to see Jennifer rising and sitting with each step in near perfect form.
Jennifer had been riding all her life, and was one of the most advanced young riders at Shooting Star Stables. Holly found herself getting jealous of Jennifer sometimes, as Holly had started riding only a few years ago and wasn’t quite as experienced. Holly usually managed to push those thoughts aside, though, because Jennifer was one of the best friends she’d ever had.
Katie’s request for a canter jerked Holly out of her thoughts, and she once again fell into the rocking motion of Aphrodite’s stride. Holly concentrated on keeping her inner thighs tight around Aphrodite’s middle so that she did not need to depend on the stirrups. She still needed to check her form fairly often to make sure it was correct, as it didn’t come quite as naturally yet as she would like. Jennifer had reassured her that even the best riders still needed to check their form, even those who seemed like they were born riding.
As the girls cantered, Katie explained what they would be working on that day. Jennifer would be doing a full course of jumps, while Holly would practice sets of two jumps. Both of the girls would be working on evening out their horses’ strides in preparation for the jump. Holly was eager to get started, as jumping had become one of her greatest joys since she had started learning how a few months ago. She trotted Aphrodite over some cavelletti on the ground to get her in the right mindset of pacing her steps, before asking for a canter again and turning her toward the first jump.
“Five, four, three, two, one, jump!” She counted down each stride in her head. The next jump in her set of two was only four strides away, and she and Aphrodite took the jump smoothly.
“Good job! Do it again; this time, let Aphrodite come up to you a little more instead of leaning quite so far forward,” Katie called as Holly cantered away from the jump. Holly nodded and headed around for a second try.
Just then, Blair stalked toward the mounting block with her horse Godiva, a stunning dark bay. He was a championship-winning warmblood that Blair’s parents had bought her after she had grown tired of her previous jumping horse. Blair’s perfectly straightened long dark hair made her and her chocolate-colored horse a stunning pair. Unfortunately, Blair’s less-than-beautiful personality spoiled any admiration she might have received from other riders.
As sometimes happened when Blair couldn’t make her weekly private lesson, she would be joining Holly and Jennifer’s semi-private lesson today. Holly groaned inwardly as Blair entered the ring. She always felt so self-conscious about her riding abilities when Blair was around, as if Blair was judging her every move (which she probably was). Holly tried to ignore her as Blair began warming her horse up by focusing instead on Jennifer. Jennifer’s series of jumps was kind of complicated, but she was doing well. She looked confident and serious as she approached each jump, and Holly tried to channel some of that confidence she saw into her own riding.
The rest of the lesson passed with the usual number of Blair’s snooty comments to Holly as she glided by. Holly did her best to ignore them, and ended up significantly improving the evenness of Aphrodite’s strides by the end of the lesson. She was almost relieved when the lesson ended, though, because it meant she and Casey and Jennifer would get to go on their requisite talk-about-the-school-day trail ride.
“Thanks Katie!” Jennifer called as she headed Glo toward the gate.
“Yeah, thanks!” Holly chimed in. She really did feel grateful to have such a devoted and knowledgeable instructor.
Katie smiled at them as they headed out. “No problem, girls! You both did great today. See you Saturday?”
“Of course!” Holly replied, thinking they would probably see Katie at the barn several times between today and Saturday’s lesson.
Casey was waiting for them at the gate of the next-door round pen. She smiled her sweet, genuine smile that somehow made everything seem okay no matter how big Holly’s worries loomed.
“You guys are awesome. I love watching you jump!” she said.
“Thanks, Casey. How’s Blaze today? It looked like you really had him in line today,” Jennifer replied. Although Blaze was incredibly sweet and calm, he would sometimes get a little lazy.
“Yeah, he did good! He is such a good boy. I think we should see which trail the horses want to ride on today,” Casey suggested.
“Oh yeah right! I know what Blaze will do- head straight back to the barn for his evening feeding!” Holly laughed. Blaze loved to eat, which explained his endearing but rather rotund figure.
The girls laughed and turned their horses toward the trees on the west side of the barn. Shooting Star Stables was lucky enough to be right along the edge of a park with some of the most beautiful equestrian trails in the state.
They ended up deciding on their old favorite, Oak Trail. Something about this path was so comforting, and the girls chose this trail more often than most of the other trails. It had the perfect flat-to-hills ratio that made the ride feel like an adventure, and enough trees and foliage to feel perfectly in tune with nature.
As they rode, Holly spilled all her school troubles to her friends’ listening ears. Aphrodite’s ears flicked back and forth at the sound of Holly’s voice, too, making Holly love her new horse even more. Holly was a perfectionist, which resulted in her frequently agonizing over her grades, looks, riding, etc. Today she was hooked on the quadratic equation they had learned that day in algebra.
“Math is just so hard for me! It’s like it always takes me two weeks longer to get anything than it takes anybody else,” she groaned.
Jennifer and Casey looked at her sympathetically. Casey was really good at math and was usually one of the top students in her pre-calculus course, but she definitely understood what it meant to be frustrated about something. She also knew that when she felt frustrated, she appreciated it most when others just listened. She tried to do the same for Holly.
“I’m sorry, Holl. That stinks. Just think, though, there’s only two more months of school and then you can be done with it!” Casey said.
Jennifer grinned. “Yeah, and then you can suffer through pre-cal with me. We’ve got to try to get the same teacher next year!”
“No kidding. And maybe genius over here will share her notes since she’s already taking pre-cal,” Holly said, feeling better already.
“Well, you might have to give me something in return for those notes,” Casey teased. “It might be a little hard for you to read, too- they’re written in ‘Casey-Code.’”
The girls laughed in agreement. It was true; because of Casey’s cerebral palsy, writing was also a difficult task, making her letters a little hard to read. Fortunately, Jennifer and Holly had been friends with Casey long enough to be able to read “Casey-Code” with little trouble.
All too quickly the trail ride came to an end and the girls found themselves back at the weathered white barn they loved so much. The sun was getting lower and the air was cooler, so they hurried their horses inside to untack.
Holly whipped out her iPhone as soon as Aphrodite was haltered and tied to the outside of her stall. The pink rhinestone case glittered in the lingering light as she called her mom to come pick them up. The girls carpooled on lesson nights, as they all lived within about twenty minutes of each other.
For as much chatting as they had done all afternoon, Holly, Jennifer, and Casey were quiet as they untacked and brushed their horses. They always enjoyed this soothing time of communing with their horses before putting them away for the night. Casey’s mom had come to pick her up separately tonight, as they would go straight to church from the barn, so she was helping Casey unsaddle Blaze.
“Hi, Mrs. Davis!” Holly and Jennifer greeted her as she entered the barn. She smiled and asked them how they were doing before hurrying over to Casey to help with Blaze.
Holly and Jennifer returned to the horses, which were about six stalls away from each other. Holly put her brand new Stubben hunter-jumper saddle in the tack room, and returned with her tack box. Aphrodite was alertly checking out her surroundings, as always, her pretty ears perking up at every sound. Holly loved that about her. Aphrodite never wanted to miss anything going on around her, and her bright spirit always put Holly in a joyful mood. Holly lovingly brushed Aphrodite’s rich brown coat with a soft brush. Holly sighed with satisfaction. It was these moments she loved the most, more than the trail riding with friends or the jumping fences. Aphrodite was quickly earning a large spot in her heart, Holly realized.
Holly knew her mom would be getting there soon to pick them up, but she lingered over her mare as long as she could before hearing the crunch of tires on the gravel.
“I think Mom’s here!” Holly called down to Jennifer, who was brushing through Glo’s tail.
“’K! Just gotta get this last tangle out and I’ll be ready,” Jennifer replied.
Holly led Aphrodite into the stall, and circled her around to face the door before taking her halter off, just like she’d been taught. As Holly slipped the dark pink halter off Aphrodite’s head, she kissed her soft nose and let the mare nuzzle her shoulder.
“Love you, girl. See you tomorrow,” she whispered.
Holly latched the door behind her and walked down to Firefly’s stall to meet Jennifer. The two girls walked happily out to the car together, completely content after the long afternoon with their horses.
~ Chapter 2~
The next day at school proved to be a challenging one for Holly. Her algebra teacher gave them a pop quiz right when class began, so there was no time to even get into the algebraic way of thinking. Holly did her best, knowing that there were far too few questions she actually knew how to do. She hated quizzes because even if you only missed one question, you might barely get an eighty percent. Holly knew she definitely didn’t miss just one on this quiz.
“Whatever,” she mumbled as she passed the quiz down the row. She glanced down instead at her pink patent leather heels that added the perfect amount of “spice” to her outfit. At least she could dress stylishly, even if she couldn’t do math, she thought.
“How’d you do?” Holly heard from behind her. She turned around to answer Michael, a boy who ‘d had a crush on her since the beginning of the year.
“Ugh. I’m so bad at it,” she replied quietly, careful to not let the teacher hear. She hated getting in trouble.
“Want me to help you after school? I pretty much get this stuff,” he offered. Holly cringed inside at how uncomfortable that would be. Michael already irritated her with his over-eagerness to please, and to combine Michael and algebra into the same situation would be just miserable.
“Oh, umm, I actually was going to start having Mr. Coleman help me after class,” she fibbed. It didn’t have to be a fib, Holly reasoned with herself. She probably should start going to get help before or after school.
Michael nodded, a hint of disappointment in his face. Holly felt a little guilty letting him down like that, but he needed to learn rejection sometime, right? Besides, it wasn’t worth it to let him think there might be a possibility of her liking him back, or he would cling like a cocklebur. She had learned that one in fifth grade.
Holly turned back to the lesson, and realized with a spark of frustration that she was already lost. She checked the industrial classroom clock to see that they were only nine minutes in. She groaned inwardly, picked up her mechanical pencil, and started taking notes. Though she was writing and looking at the overhead, her mind was on Aphrodite, where it always went any time she let it.
She and Jennifer were going to give their horses a bath today since it was finally warm enough out. Holly thought of how pretty Aphrodite’s coat looked when it was all shined up, and imagined which color ribbon she would lace through Aphrodite’s tail. Holly loved anything glamorous and feminine, and she thus had quite a collection of little embellishments to doll up her mare. She went through the different colors in her head, envisioning which would look best with Aphrodite’s coat at this time in the year. She hadn’t quite lost all her winter fur yet, and was thus a little lighter than she would be once she shed. Holly decided on the light purple, and glanced back up to the overhead. Mr. Coleman had apparently gone through several transparencies of notes, because now the problems he was working looked nothing like the example she had written down last.
“Shoot!” Holly thought. Maybe she would have to take Michael up on his offer just to get the notes she’d daydreamed through. No. She would take her book home tonight and figure it out herself. She was intelligent enough, she reasoned. Maybe Jennifer could even help her at the barn this afternoon.
Holly was lost in another reverie about the barn when the bell rang. She gathered up her pink spiral with its blank page that was supposed to hold the day’s notes, and stood up. She quickly checked that her skirt was pulled down enough. Goodness knows Michael didn’t need any more reason to trail her around, she thought. One more class until lunch, and this class she had with Jennifer.
Holly said goodbye to a hopeful-looking Michael, and hurried off to her tarnished and worn old locker. She and Jennifer had managed to snag lockers right next to each other at the beginning of the year, so she reapplied lip gloss in her locker mirror while she waited for Jen to show up.
“Hey! Guess what?” Jennifer said as she approached. As usual, Jennifer was dressed in her comfiest pair of jeans and a cute but unassuming casual top.
“I got an A on my English paper!” Jennifer cheered.
“Yeah, girl! I knew you would! That paper was really good, and you worked hard on it. Good job! We can celebrate at lunchtime,” Holly suggested.
“Sounds perfect. I can’t wait for this day to be over so we can get out to the barn,” Jennifer said. Jennifer had the same continual longing to be at the barn 24-7 that Holly had.
“I know, me either! I just hope it doesn’t rain. I saw clouds earlier,” Holly said as they slammed their lockers and headed toward class.
“Yeah, but I was reading an article in Horse magazine about how it’s really important to ride even when it’s raining so that your horse becomes more versatile,” Jennifer reasoned.
Holly thought about that. It made sense, but she knew Aphrodite had a strong dislike for getting wet, and for thunder and lightning as well. She continued to send positive thoughts toward the heavens in an attempt to ward off any rain.
They found their usual seats toward the middle, on the right by the door. Holly plopped her books down and pulled out her world history spiral, which was just barely a darker shade of pink than her other one. It was pretty obvious to everyone that Holly was just about as girly as you can get.
Melanie, a friend who sat nearby walked into class just after them and sat down in front of Holly.
“Hey, guys,” she said. The girls smiled and said hey back. “I hope he doesn’t give us a bunch of homework tonight!”
“Me too!” Holly replied. “I hate digging through the book trying to find obscure answers.”
“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed. She turned and settled into her seat as Mr. Bingley began his lesson. An hour later had produced a page full of horse-themed doodling, along with some interspersed notes. Jennifer admired her handiwork, and held up the page to show Holly a particularly fat cartoon pony she had drawn.
Holly giggled as Mr. Bingley dismissed the class. As much as school seemed like a drag sometimes, she really did enjoy the time with friends that school offered. Like most afternoons, Holly would be at the barn rather than the mall or the local drive-thru like most of her casual school friends. Holly didn’t care, though; she wouldn’t trade her horse-time for the world.
Within thirty minutes the girls were arriving at the barn. Jennifer and Holly rode to the barn together on lesson days, which made those days even more exciting than they already were.
Holly’s mom’s champagne-colored Lexus SUV rolled to a stop in front of Shooting Star Stables.
“Bye, Mom! I love you!” Holly called as she dove out the door.
“Bye! I love you too! I’ll pick you up at 5:30,” her mom answered.
The girls hurried into the barn to change into their riding clothes. They had less than a half hour to get themselves and their horses ready for their lesson at 4.
Jennifer zipped up her riding boots and speed-walked to Firefly’s stall. She knew better than to ever run in the schooling barn, what with so many young students around whose horses might spook.
She called Firefly’s name a couple times as she neared, and he popped his finely-shaped gray head over the stall door.
“Hey, buddy! I missed you today at school!” Jennifer told him, pulling her long curly hair back into a low ponytail. “Let’s go get you ready for your lesson.”
She slipped inside his stall, slid the light purple halter over his nose, and led him out to the cross-ties. This was going to have to be a speed-brush if she was going to make it out to the arena with a few minutes to spare like she wanted.
Luckily, Firefly was fairly clean and it didn’t take long to brush him down. Soon Jennifer had him saddled up and ready to bridle. As always, Firefly stood still and sweet while being readied, and he accepted the bit easily. Jennifer knew it was because she was always careful not to clank the metal bit on his teeth, and had it fitted just right to not cause discomfort. Plus, Firefly was just a really good boy.
They walked out to the arena. The sun was still high in the late summer sky, and Jennifer tried to appreciate it as much as possible, knowing that in just a few months it would be setting during their lessons.
Holly was out a few minutes later, and they began trotting around the ring like Katie liked for them to do to warm up. Soon their perky instructor with chin-length dirty blond hair strode out of the barn.
“Nice form, Jennifer! Ask Firefly for a longer trot now, please; remind him he’s working today!” she called. “Holly, beautiful position! Your hands are getting much steadier. I would tighten up your reins just a little bit more and Aphrodite will tuck her head prettier.”
Holly did as she was told, pleased with the compliment and determined to do well this afternoon.
“Good! Now keep that tension the whole time, giving just enough when you go over a jump,” Katie praised her.
The girls did a warm-up fence a few times each, practicing collected, even strides with their mounts and a slow, non-rushed landing. Holly could feel herself rushing the jump in her head, which caused Aphrodite to do the same in real life. This caused their landing to be hurried and rougher than it should be.
“Holly, remember to breathe! Focus on feeling Aphrodite as she approaches the fence; be in the moment.
Your body knows what to do on the landing so let it do the work without overthinking,” Katie advised.
Overthinking. It wasHolly’s major problem with just about everything, including algebra and apparently horseback riding, too. She felt discouragement creeping into her heart and head as she watched Jennifer’s near-perfect jumping style. Thank God Blair wasn't out here to make her feel even more self-conscious. She tried to push the negative feelings aside as it was her turn again, and remember what Katie had just said about being in the moment.
She counted down the strides in her head as Aphrodite rocked toward the jump. I’m ready for the jump, she told herself. She leaned forward preparing to meet Aphrodite’s bay neck mid-leap.
“Whoa!” Holly exclaimed as Aphrodite took a giant leap from way too far back. They made it over the fence, but it was a jolting, unbalanced landing that led to several very quick cantering strides. Holly regained her seat and began pulling Aphrodite back in to an acceptable speed. She was humiliated. That should never happen to a good rider, she muttered to herself.
“You all right, Holly?” Katie asked, looking at Holly’s face in concern. Holly saw Jennifer looking worried across the arena. Great, now I suck at jumping AND they feel sorry for me, Holly thought sadly.
“Yeah, I’m fine. I just can’t believe I rushed that jump right after we talked about it!” she said in frustration.
“It happens to everyone,” Jennifer called reassuringly. “I used to do the same thing all the time; I promise!”
Katie suggested the girls each take one more jump and then work on dressage. She wanted Holly to end on a good jump, even though she knew taking another fence was probably the last thing Holly wanted to do.
She was right. Holly did not want to risk rushing poor Aphrodite through another fence, but she knew Katie had her best interest in mind. Holly watched Jennifer take the jump once more, observing how she and Firefly seemed to be like one being. She longed to ride like that . . .