The Dutch voice coming through my headset hit maximum intensity. “No, stop, walk!”
My sweat and fatigue both muttered, “With pleasure” and Dewey relaxed to walk like a balloon deflating. The moment Lotte Bakker strode across the sand of her indoor arena toward us, my horse reinflated and I could feel the tense choppiness of his stride. He probably hadn’t forgiven her for yesterday where she’d made us work on our transitions from piaffe to passage to piaffe over and over until I thought Dew was about to collapse or lie down in protest. He wasn’t one to hold a grudge, but I was pretty sure Lotte would be at the top of his list if he had one.
A quick mane scratch and a murmured, “Good man” relaxed him again. I bent my head to wipe sweat from my face onto my polo sleeve and tried not to look as exhausted as I felt. Before arriving in Europe three weeks ago to compete in the high-level international events essential for Olympic-team selection, I’d spent years riding six or seven horses a day, on top of spending an hour in my home gym daily. My riding fitness was at its peak. But a forty-five-minute session with Lotte made me feel like I’d spent the last ten years couch-potatoing.
Lotte walked alongside us, keeping her distance from Dew’s inquisitive nose. “Caiiittttlynnnnnn.” Shit. When Lotte drew out your name like that you were in trouble. “Why did I make you stop?” she asked crisply.
I resisted the urge to wilt. Despite the fact I had the experience and competition results to justify my place on the shortlist for the US Olympic Dressage Team, Lotte could still make me feel like a novice equestrienne. “He’s wriggling his butt. His hindquarters,” I quickly corrected. Wriggling was an evasion in piaffe and Dew just being lazy—easier to wriggle than fully engage his hindquarters.
“Exactly. If you know what he is doing and you know this is incorrect, why are you allowing it to happen?”
Telling Lotte “Because I’m so exhausted I can barely sit upright” was definitely not the right course of action. Thankfully her question seemed rhetorical because she barreled on, gesturing emphatically. “He starts with a good piaffe—not great, but adequate—and then you allow him to wiggle and wobble until it looks like he is…what is that dance thing?” She paused, brightened and blurted, “Tweaking.”
“I think you might mean twerking?” I ventured.
She gave my suggestion a moment’s thought. “Yes. He moves his hindquarters like he is twerking. This is not how a Grand Prix dressage horse should behave. It is laziness, pure and simple.” She pointed at Dew’s butt. “He has so much power back here.” Lotte’s index finger moved to point at Dewey’s head. “His problem is in here, in his mind. The piaffe work is hardest for him so he does what he can to make it easy. Logical. But never correct.”
“You let him be lazy and then all your hard work is lost. A wriggling piaffe is not a piaffe that will score nines and tens. Stop it before it happens. Hold him together. Legs legs, hands hands. Tighten that core and seat. You have the skills, both of you, now stop being so soft on him. If he does not respond, you make him respond. You do not need to be rough, we know this, but you must be consistent.”
“Good. You must always train and ride the horse in a way that sets them up to succeed. I know you are aware of this.”
I wouldn’t dare contradict her even if I’d thought she was wrong. Considering Lotte had won multiple Olympic and World Equestrian Games medals and was consistently at the top of the rankings during her dressage career, we were lucky she’d agreed to work with us shortlisted team members while we were in the Netherlands. I nodded. “Mhmm, yeah.” Though I’d only had a handful of lessons with her, I’d learned early on that apologies were worse than not apologizing. Lotte didn’t care for apologies—she cared that you did what you were told, utilized her expertise and learned from your mistakes.
Her voice dropped to unnatural-for-her quietness. “In my years of dressage, I have never known a horse with this one’s natural talent. You both have every skill, every movement. But this piaffe is the weakness, and we must refine it and make him want to do more. We must take you from your eighty percent scores into eighty-five-plus percent and then into ninety percent. You are on the cusp of making world records, Caitlyn. You can do this, easy. But tell me, what is a world record dressage test if you know you could have done better?” Another rhetorical question. “Now two minutes more of walk break before we tackle the piaffe again.”
I let Dewey have a little rein so he could stretch his neck. Lotte was absolutely right. Dew could be lazy. The sweat trickling down my back and soaking my armpits was testament to that fact. Dewey—Midfields Adieu—adored the mental stimulation of work but wasn’t as enthused by the physical exertion, especially in the piaffe where he had to sustain an elevated and collected trot basically on the spot. It wasn’t so much that he was unwilling but he had a knack for trying to take the easy way, almost as if he was asking me, “Are you sure, do I really have to?” and hoping one day I’d say, “No, Dew, you don’t have to do this movement perfectly, let’s go back to your stall and eat a bag of licorice.”
I knew sometimes I was too soft with him. But…he was my first Grand Prix horse, my riding partner, my goofy pal. I’d bred him, was there when he was a newborn and had spent every day of the past twelve years turning him from a gangly youngster to internationally competitive. And of my four horses, he was my unquestioned favorite. I patted him again. “We’re almost done, just keep trying for me. Good boy.”
“What was that?”
Shit, the headset was still live. “Nothing, sorry. Just talking to the horse.”
The headset crackled with a moment of static. “He does not speak English. Show him he is a good boy by helping him do the work and then his reward is your releasing the aid, a pat and then rest and food when he is finished trying.” Lotte’s expression softened. “The connection you have with him is so important, but you must think equally with head and heart. You can both go to number one in the world. His walk? Perfect. Extended trot? Magnificent. And his canter pirouettes are the best I have seen, and you deserve every nine and ten you receive for them. But it is not enough to only have the talent, you must do the work.”
Oh, I was doing the work. I was working my ass off to make it look like I wasn’t working at all and it was starting to wear me down. I’d had no downtime in Europe and I was starting to feel the mental and physical strain. We’d landed in France to compete in Compiègne, earning first place and a respectable score of 79.800%, which I knew helped our cause of making the Olympic team.
Then we’d made the four-hour road trip to Lotte’s dressage barn in Oud Gastel near Roosendaal in the Netherlands and settled into what would be our home for a month. The US Dressage Federation grant monies covered only part of my international competition costs and exchanging accommodation and Lotte’s expert training for me working for her was a no-brainer. But if I made the Olympic team, the financial thing would hopefully get a little easier.
Dewey and I had two more mandatory competitions to qualify for a place on the team: the Roosendaal four-star event in one week, then the Rotterdam five-star event three weeks later. Then, if we made the final cut, it was on to the Olympics in Rio at the start of August. Not that I was counting down the days until what might be my first Olympic Games. And I was only shitting my breeches a little.
Lotte worked us hard for another twenty minutes, during which I could hear the muted approvals from the two people sitting beside the arena—Mary McDonald, the Chef d’Equipe who would manage the team, and Ian Hargrave, the team coach. When Lotte finally dismissed me, after gently scolding then effusively praising me, I thanked her, acknowledged Mary and Ian then guided Dewey toward the gate on the short end of the indoor arena.
Dakota Turner, another shortlisted rider, snarled something under her breath as she rode her imported Westphalian gelding, Pierre, past me into the arena. Pierre, his coat usually a bright white, was dark gray with sweat and foam lathered his neck. Dewey, who had no concept of social boundaries for humans or horses, thrust his head forward to say hi to Pierre who might have returned the greeting if Dakota hadn’t yanked his head around and jabbed her spurs into his ribs. “Keep that mongrel away from us,” she snarled as Pierre surged away with a grunt of displeasure. “Grandma Reserve,” she threw over her shoulder.
I almost wanted to call after her to get some new material or make up a stupid nickname to call her, like Widdle Baby Dakota. At twenty-six, she was by far the youngest of the shortlisted riders and despite what she’d said, my thirty-seven still put me at the younger end of our team. Dressage was not ageist at all. And given my scores were the highest of everyone’s, the likelihood of Dewey and I being the team’s reserve pair was slim. But Dakota thought calling me Grandma Reserve was demeaning. She loved being demeaning. To me at least.
I tried to push Dakota out of my mind. She wasn’t worth the brain power. Or so I tried to tell my brain. In addition to constantly trying to make out like I didn’t deserve to be on the team, Dakota had started adding jibes about how uneducated I was—technically true if you went by the traditional measure of education being college—and also making fun of my supposed hick accent.
My family had moved to Tennessee for my dad’s job when I was thirteen and I’d left the state at almost-eighteen to work as a Bereiter in a German dressage barn. I got a similar job in Florida before building my own dressage facility just outside of La Grange, Kentucky. I knew my accent was less hick and more bland American, reflective of someone who moved a lot as a kid. But according to Dakota’s phone conversation with her twenty-years-her-senior Texas oil tycoon husband—which she may or may not have intended for me to hear—I sounded like a redneck. Most likely she’d Googled me and discovered my sojourn in the South and decided it was good meanness fodder.
I leaned forward to tug Dew’s ear affectionately. “You’re not a mongrel, and always remember you’re imported too. Well, your dad was. Kind of. In a tank full of liquid nitrogen.”
He snorted and shook his head, sending foamy saliva flying in every direction, including backward onto my breeches. My groom, Wren, met me on the path to the huge barn housing Lotte’s box stalls. As she walked alongside she held up the video camera. “Nice,” was her assessment. “Once you tightened up the piaffe it was—” Wren chef-kissed her fingers, “prime.”
Wren was misnamed. The only thing she had in common with the small flitty bird was constant chatter. Chasing six-feet tall, with bright blue hair I’d never seen out of a ponytail—though she promised she was going to shave just one side of her head and have an American flag colored in if we made the Olympic team—Wren was boisterous, witty and one of the most intuitive horse people I’d ever known. I was beyond lucky to have found someone with such vast knowledge of horses who for some reason didn’t enjoy competing with her own.
I unfastened my gloves. “Yeah. I’m just glad she stopped going on about it. Like, I know it’s his weakest movement and I’m busting my ass to convince him to work harder at it.” Smiling, I suggested, “Maybe we need a carrot on a stick.”
“Maybe. Though knowing Dew he’d figure out how to cheat and get the carrot without improving the piaffe.” She smiled up at me. “Guess we can’t expect him to be perfect at everything.”
Wren lowered her voice. “Grapevine. Lotte told Ian if he ruined the work she’s done with you, she’d make sure he never coached another Olympic team.” She gave me a pointed, eyebrows-raised look.
“I can totally believe she said that.” A surge of excitement at both Wren’s gossip and that You know what I mean look had the butterflies in my stomach flapping their wings. Apparently Lotte thought my selection was a sure thing. “She probably has the connections to make good on her threat. But I have to make the team first.”
Wren offered a dismissive, “Semantics.”
“Mmm. At any rate, all her coaching is doing wonders. And if we get to work with Ian, it’ll be even better.” Despite her long legs, Wren had fallen behind and I turned in the saddle to face her. Dew knew work was done and it was time for carrots and naps and was speed-walking back to the barn. “If I can just keep away from Dakota’s laser eyes and razor tongue I’ll be set.”
I’d become pretty good at ignoring her, or faking enthusiasm and good humor on the rare occasion we had more than a one-sentence conversation. Like any sport, dressage had a mix of personalities and when I’d first started at the higher levels I’d been dismayed there were the same bitchy bitches I’d encountered in Pony Club as a teenager. And I was even more dismayed that despite my success I still felt like the shy outcast as I had all those years ago.
Wren glanced around. “Poor Pierre. Having to cart around Dakota and her four pounds of fake boobs on his back.”
“Wren!” I admonished her, though I was laughing.
“What? She’s gross and cruel.”
I couldn’t argue. Dakota really was the epitome of spoiled, stuck-up dressage queen and treated Pierre like a machine not an animal, and a machine she didn’t particularly like at that. Obviously I’d never ridden Dakota’s horse, but I lived firmly by the principles I’d had drilled into me from my first dressage lesson as a kid—harmony and lightness above all else, because a horse that is cowed and forced to work will never show joy for that work.
The moment I halted Dewey in the tack-up bay, he swung his head around and lipped at my right stirrup. He held it between his teeth, shaking my foot, until Wren poked his neck. “Let go, you clown,” she said affectionately, taking the reins to move his head away and make him release my stirrup. It took some persuasion.
The moment Dew released me I swung down to the ground. He turned his head expectantly and I pulled off my helmet then gave him a kiss right on the black dot floating in the middle of his pink nose before wrapping my arms around his neck for a hug. “Who’s my best guy? My best very sweaty guy.” He nosed my back and nibbled my belt loops before I let him go.
Wren handed me the video camera then pulled the reins over Dewey’s head. She worked quickly to get his bridle off, halter on and him clipped in the cross-ties. Dew played with the leads clipped to either side of his face while Wren removed his saddle. There was plenty for him to keep himself amused, but nothing to injure him. Lotte’s training barn was beautifully equipped and mercifully with enough space that Dakota and I could mostly avoid one another.
A small nervous flutter started in my stomach when I thought about the equestrian facilities in Rio. Word was that construction was behind schedule and with the general vibe of crime we kept hearing about, well…I was worried. Assuming I made it, I reminded myself. But I wanted so badly to make it. I’d had international competition success, but the Olympics were different. Special. The thing I’d been thinking about almost since I’d first clambered onto a horse at the age of five.
Decades of work, sacrifice, money, and time and I’d finally made it. Well, kind of. All that was left to do was make the US Olympic Dressage Team. Then keep Dewey sound and happy, keep myself fit and healthy and keep our training on track so that we hit our peak in Rio.
Wren shoved at Dewey who’d drifted closer, undoubtedly hoping to get one of the carrots he knew she carried in her pockets. She obliged him. “Brandon messaged me while you were riding. The vet came out to see Antoinette and agrees it’s probably arthritis. They’re going to increase the frequency of her joint injections and the dosage of feed supplement. But she’s still moving around and eating everything in sight so not too worried.”
I set my helmet on its hook to dry out. “Sounds about what we expected.”
Brandon, my other employee and also Wren’s fiancée, stayed home to take care of things whenever Wren and I were away. His competence eased one stress point of this months-long stretch away which was not only full of homesickness, but financial strain. If I was home in Kentucky I’d be training local horses as well as boarding and training others. But they had all gone back to their owners, which meant no money. Not to mention I wasn’t earning from coaching. And I wasn’t training my own horses. Brandon would keep them in light work until I returned, but putting the brakes on their training sucked.
Wren crouched to remove Dew’s protective leg bandages. “Don’t forget to eat. There’s leftover pasta in the fridge.” Once she’d taken off all his gear, Wren would walk Dew until he’d cooled down then wash off the dried sweat, groom him, and settle him in his stall with a snack.
I sketched a salute. “Yes, boss.”
Wren and I were ensconced in one of Lotte’s employee cottages and we ate what we—or more accurately, Wren—could make in the cottage’s tiny but functional kitchen. At her request, she did ninety percent of the cooking because I could mess up toast. We’d spent enough close-quarters time during events that we’d developed domestic-like harmony. I skirted the edge of the outdoor arena, passed the runs attached to the box stalls then continued alongside one of the fields to get to the cottage.
I’d just opened the front door when I heard Lotte yell something unintelligible at Dakota. Given how far I was from the indoor arena, and the fact we had headsets so Lotte didn’t have to yell, yelling meant oops. I slipped inside before I heard anything more. Though small, the space was modern, clean and perfectly suited to Wren and me and came with a bonus cat who technically lived in the barn but had figured out pretty quickly that Wren and I were cat people. I unzipped the long brown boots I wore for everyday riding, eased them off and gave the leather a quick wipe over before storing them in their bag.
Once I’d tossed sweaty socks into the laundry and nabbed a fresh, dry polo—sponsor’s name on the chest of course—and fixed my hair into a tighter, albeit still sweaty ponytail, I felt almost human. There was no point changing out of breeches because I’d be riding some of Lotte’s young horses once she was done with Dakota. Lotte now bred and coached more than she rode and had jumped on the opportunity of having me around to ride for her.
While the microwave dealt with the pasta, I transferred the video of my lesson to my tablet. I studied the footage around forking up mouthfuls of food. Dewey looked as good as he’d felt, and though Lotte’s hammering hadn’t been pleasant at the time, I could see a definite improvement in the piaffe. Worth it. I scrolled the video back and forth and decided that after almost thirty-three years of riding, and five at the highest level of Grand Prix, I might have actually figured out this dressage gig.
The barn cat, Poffertje—or Lil’ Pancake as Wren called him—sprinted through the open door and sprung onto my lap. He reminded me of Rasputin, the black and white stray who’d wandered tatty and bleeding into my barn seven years ago. I’d found him curled up in the corner of Dewey’s stall, being nosed by ever-curious Dew. Multiple veterinary visits later, and Rasputin returned to Dewey’s side.
Rasputin was a blessing and curse. My world-class dressage horse loved “his” cat and I let them be because Rasputin helped Dewey turn off his overactive mind when he wasn’t working. But the flipside was that Dew fretted whenever we traveled without Rasputin. Case in point? The scratch on Dew’s nose. Dewey was trying to reconcile the fact that Poffertje was not Rasputin and despite being a barn cat, he did not like eleven hundred pounds of Warmblood horse nosing him, nibbling him, and sniffing in his face.
Wren hopped up the steps moments after the cat had made his grand entrance. I pushed my empty plate back on the table, away from paws. “All settled?”
She rummaged in the fridge. “Yep. Also, Mary wanted me to tell you that the new team veterinarian will be here midday-ish the day after tomorrow. There’ll be a meeting.”
There was always a meeting. “Noted. Any word on David?”
“Last I heard this morning was he’s stable but still unconscious.” She opened a can of Coke and took a sip. “They’re still not committing to whether he’s ever going to wake up.”
My stomach fell. “Damn. That really sucks. Note to self, don’t ever have a massive heart attack.”
“You’ve got that right. But the show must go on and all that.”
“True. This new vet has some pretty big shoes to fill.” I smiled up at Wren. “But I’m sure they’ll be great.”
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