You could say it was my birthday present. First, Mom said that I could go to the big show for both weeks. This didn’t mean Monday through Friday, like school, but a class on Thursday, a class on Friday, two classes on Saturday, and then watching Abby take Gee Whiz over some big jumps and out onto the outside course on Sunday, then the same the second week. After that, it was like Abby was polishing me and polishing Tater, my pony, and making sure that we were clean as a whistle inside and out. Mom even sent the black show jacket that Jane gave us (used but in good condition) to the cleaners. Now it was the second week. The first week had gone pretty well--Tater and I got a third, a fourth, and a fifth. Did he have fun? No one will ever know.
Tater and I had been practicing since Christmas, when Mom and Dad gave him to me, the best Christmas present ever--that was six and a half months ago. Since we now live fifteen minutes from Abby’s place, I get to go there three days a week. Mom and Dad pay for two lessons, and I pay for a third one by mucking stalls, cleaning tack, sweeping the barn aisle and the tack room, and, yes, standing around and staring at Ned in the ring, out in the pasture, in a stall every once in a while. He is, as Abby’s dad said, “coming along,” but he’s still mysterious and hard to handle. If I said that he’s not mysterious to me, Abby’s dad would think I am out of my mind, so I don’t say anything, but I keep my eyes open. Tater is much more grown-up than Ned--he has already “come along,” and riding him is always safe (Mom would say, “Thank goodness for that!”) and always fun. It’s safe because even if I fell off (which I did once), it isn’t very far to the ground, and it’s fun because I learn something new in every lesson.
Dad likes making the trip back and forth to pick me up, because one of his jobs at the Ford dealer is driving cars around--especially the trade-ins, to see how they run and what repairs they might need. (When someone wants to buy a new car, they give the dealer the old car and get some money for it, which the dealer subtracts from the price of the new car.) It’s fun--I never know whether he’s going to show up in a Fairlane or a Mustang or an old Chevy. Once, in the spring, he showed up in a car just like the first car he ever owned, a green Studebaker from 1950. He and Abby’s dad stood around and talked about the car for ten minutes, and then looked under the hood. It wasn’t like any car you see today, long and straight and sort of flat. The Studebaker had little round headlights like eyeballs. In fact, it was rounded all over, as if it were made of clay.
Abby’s dad drove us to the show, which is at the stables where I first learned to ride, where Jane teaches riding, and is about half an hour from Abby’s ranch. I sat in the middle. Abby sat by the window. I listened to her and her dad talking about every little thing, and I thought it was exhausting. But when we got there, and Rodney came out to greet us (and handed me a scone that he had made) and Jane gave me a hug, and then Blue saw us from the first stall in the barn and whinnied loud and clear, all the tired part went away. And I realized that here I was, eleven years old, and whatever might happen, I was going to have the time of my life.
I went to Tater’s stall and gave him a carrot. He didn’t nicker, but he did come over and take the carrot nicely, and everything was fine until I looked up, and there was a kid by the roof sitting on one of those beams that goes from one side of the barn to the other. He was looking down at me, and when I saw him, he burst out laughing. I shied, but Tater didn’t. I pretended not to be looking at the kid, but I was. Soon he was tiptoeing along the beam like a tightrope walker in a circus. I walked out of the barn; Jane was explaining something to Abby, who was standing there with Gee Whiz, and I said, “Do you know there’s an intruder?”
“An intruder?” Jane looked out toward the arena.
“In the barn.”
“Oh, that’s Da. He’s not--” Then her eyes opened wide, and she said, “What is he doing now?”
I said, “He’s up by the roof, walking along the beam.”
Jane ran into the barn and I followed her, but by that time, this kid, “Da,” was sitting on the bench by the tack room, pulling on his boot. Sunshine was coming in the windows, and I could see him better. He was small, maybe smaller than I am. He had long legs and big hands, and was a little strange-looking, and I knew right then and there that he was one of those bad boys like Jimmy Murphy. (Jimmy isn’t a bad boy anymore, or at least is trying very hard not to be, since he won the county spelling contest at the end of the school year by spelling “efficacious” and he also said what it meant, which you have to do in our spelling contest.) But unlike every bad boy I’ve ever known, as soon as he got his boot on, Da jumped up, gave me a big smile, and said, “You’re Ellen! Jane said you were coming. She said that you’re almost as hard to put up with as I am!” Then all three of us laughed.
And maybe it wasn’t very nice of me to say, “Da? Why would you be named Da? It sounds like ‘Duh.’ ”
Jane gave me a look, but Da said, “It’s really David, but I like Da better.”
And, to be honest, I like people who know their own minds, so that was enough for me.
Then the business of the day began. At first, there was fog everywhere, gray and dense, hiding the trees and settling over the jumping arena like smoke, but a few dots of blue appeared up above, and the fog began to flutter and rise and float away. I went to Tater’s stall, put his halter on, and led him to the cross-ties. I started grooming him with the soft brush--we’d given him a bath the day before, and he’d worn a blanket overnight, so what I had to do was smooth him all over. One reason I like brushing him is that he’s a red roan. His head is red-gold, his mane is mostly brown, with some white hairs, and his body is mostly white, but sprinkled with red. He likes being brushed, which is a good thing, since when he’s dirty, you can see it a mile away, as my grandma would say. I was thinking all of these things when Rodney came and asked me if I needed any help, and without a second thought, I said, “No thanks.”
A lot has changed in the last year. When I started coming to the barn and riding Melinda’s pony, I was only seven, and for three years, I thought that Rodney was supposed to do everything--clean the horse, carry the saddle, hoist me up, lead me to the arena. Now I am so used to doing it all myself that it was easier to keep at it. (Abby can’t do everything, and she has plenty to do, since at their ranch, they don’t hire anyone and do all the work, and they have twelve horses.) Rodney brought me the saddle and pad, gave me a wink, said, “Now ye’ll be doin’ me out of a job, miss.” But we both know that isn’t true.
I took the saddle and pad and lifted them onto Tater, up by the withers, then eased them backward, till they settled in against his spine. I went around behind Tater, staying close to his haunches, petting him a little though he never kicks. Then I checked that everything on the right side was even and smooth, let down the girth, and went back to the left side, reached under Tater’s chest for the girth, and buckled it tightly enough to hold the saddle in place. Tater pinned his ears for a moment, but some horses kick when you buckle the girth, and Abby says, yes, it is uncomfortable; would you want a strap around your chest? Then I undid the cross-ties and put on Tater’s bridle, which has a French link snaffle bit (I love those words); buckled the noseband and the throatlatch; and led Tater out to the mounting block, where I tightened the girth, climbed the two steps, and got on. The whole time, Rodney was shaking his head in his funny way, as if he disapproved, but really meaning that he was happy that I was growing up. Everyone is happy that I’m growing up, including me.
Our class was a pony hunter class. Da was already in the practice arena, also on a pony. There are three sizes of ponies--small, medium, and large. Tater is a medium, which means that he is more than 12.2 hands but less than 13.2. Tater is 13.1 hands plus a half inch. If he stood on his tiptoes, he might be a large pony. A hand is four inches, so at the top of his withers, he is 4'5½". (I always wonder, why don’t they train them to rear up and measure them from the tops of their heads, the way they do people?) I am 15 hands to the top of my head, or, as the nurse says when she measures you, 5' tall. At least, I was when I went for a checkup in the spring, but my show pants do seem a little shorter now than they did in March.
I walked toward the practice ring. Da and his pony were trotting, but then they started rocketing around the ring. The pony was a dark gray with a long tail. I paused at the gate to watch. Da sat up, the pony made a sharp turn, then went down over two jumps, an oxer and a panel. Jane said, “Nicely done, now--”
And just then, Da turned again, this time to the left, and raced toward the coop at the end of the practice arena and jumped over it, onto the outside course. After two seconds, I couldn’t see him anymore. Jane shook her head, put her hands on her hips, shook her head again, and here he came, back over the coop, and I know that coop is three feet three inches high. I’ve looked at it lots of times but never dared to jump it because it seems like if you did, you would be heading out into a big, scary world--jumping out at a gallop gives me a little shock every time I think of it. Da stopped in front of Jane and said, “I’m warmed up now,” and he walked over to the show arena. This I had to watch. Jane followed him, so obviously she had to watch, too.
He stood by the gate--and why didn’t he just jump over it to get in? Pretty soon the gate opened, and the announcer said, “Number nineteen, Little Bighorn, ridden by David Chance.” And wasn’t that the perfect name for that boy? I wasn’t the only one watching--Tater had his ears pricked, and when Da and LB circled at the trot, then moved up into the canter, his gaze followed them. Was Tater memorizing the course? I wouldn’t put it past him.
I expected Da and LB to be wild and out of control, but it was like Da turned into a different person. He sat up, slowed down, and paid attention. The course was not very complicated--two jumps along the rail to the right, then one at the far end, then a turn across the middle, over a two-stride in-and-out, then turn to the left and an oxer at the near end, then three nicely spaced panel jumps down the long side. That was eight jumps (an in-and-out counts as one, not two), good for Thursday, which is basically a warm-up day, nothing too difficult. LB looped to the left, came down to the trot, circled, down to the walk, long rein, and then the gate opened and they came out, looking relaxed, sashaying, as if to say, “Top that!” Tater watched them. I was not sure I could top that, but Tater was.
Two rounds later, it was our turn. I’m bigger than Da, and Tater is bigger than LB, and I’m probably older than Da, and Tater is surely older than LB, so we walked into the arena just like we knew what we were doing (and we did win a blue ribbon in March, at a schooling show), but I kept that picture of how David Chance did it in my head, and I watched that picture every step of the way. It was really weird--I could see what he did from afar, and I could see what I was doing up close (my hands on the reins, the bill of my hard hat, the center of the jumps between Tater’s ears, the trees and bits of fog in the distance, the railings of the arena, people looking at us, Jane and Abby standing together, blue sky), and then it was over, and we were walking out through the gate. Tater sighed, which means he is relaxed, and I tried not to smile too much. I tried to look as if the best show ride of my life was no big deal.
And then, ten minutes later, they called six of us into the ring, and I did win, and David Chance was second, and why that was I could not begin to tell you, since he obviously knew much more than I did, but Jane would say that you don’t know how the judges will think--you just have to hope for the best.
That was my one class of the day. I walked Tater out, untacked him, put him back in his stall, which I did not clean, and left the barn. Da was nowhere to be seen, which was maybe a bad thing, but not my business. Abby and Gee Whiz were in the warm-up. He was white as snow and Abby had on a new jacket, new boots, and new breeches--thanks to Jack So Far, who was in his second year of racing, and had run ten times and won $44,000. (I heard Abby’s dad and my dad talking about it when they were looking at the Studebaker.) Most of it went into supporting Jack So Far at the track, and the rest into savings, but Abby did get some boots made specially for her, and the rest of her outfit, too. Someday he would return from the track and end up like Gee Whiz, who raced all over the country, won a lot of money, and retired at nine ready to jump jump jump. He was ready to jump now. Abby had been working with him for a year and a half, and he’d learned to do a thing that racehorses don’t have to learn, which was to turn a corner, and then another corner and then another corner--racehorses leap out of the gate and go in a long oval to the finish line, and then they are exhausted so they slow down and walk back to the barn. Since Gee Whiz is very tall and very long from nose to tail, it took him a while to learn to turn, but now he is smooth and flexible like a cat.
Copyright © 2020 by Jane Smiley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.