I can still remember the day I met my best friend. I rode my bike past her house a few days after she had moved in. The afternoon air was clear and crisp, and a few fluffy white clouds danced over my head in the breeze. There had been a storm that morning, so the essence of rain swept softly over my skin, and stray drops of water hung from the trees.
I noticed her horse right away. That was the first time I laid eyes on her horse, the most beautiful animal I had ever seen in my life. He was very tall, that was the feature that stood out to me. Though I was only in first grade, and too small to understand how big he was in hands, I could easily tell that my head wouldn't come even to his shoulder. His coat and mane were a black that was blacker than the night. A black that wasn't miserable or sad, but happy and cheerful. Just looking at him put a smile on my face. His stride was perfect. The way he trotted was as smooth as butter, and when he cantered, I could see the delight in the eyes of the rider. That's when I noticed the girl. She looked about my age, with her neat blond hair pulled into a ponytail under her velvet riding helmet. Her form was absolutely perfect. Her back was straight, and she sat deep in the saddle, with her heels down and her hands gripping the reins just right. Any fool could tell that she was a great rider. I couldn't help watching the girl, and eventually she realized I was there. I kept coming back to watch her ride, day after day, until finally she agreed to give me lessons. She told me that her horse's name was Sultan and her name was Amy.
* * *
I set off on my bike toward Amy's ranch in the summer of our sixth grade. She had invited me over for the day, and we were going on a trail ride. My personal favorite horse was a gray mare, seven years old, named Lily. She was kind, sweet and seemed to understand that I was uncomfortable at anything other than a walk, therefore she never acted up. I hated even trotting on horses. I had never had the courage to canter a horse. I was a beginner, though I had been riding for many years under the instruction of my best friend. "You are ready to advance, Kara," she would tell me every day. "What's stopping you?" Physically, I was ready to advance. But I was a timid girl by heart.
I arrived shortly to find Amy in her front yard holding two horses, saddled and ready to go. One of them, I was happy to see, was Lily. The other horse standing next to Amy was Sultan.
"Ready to ride?" inquired Amy, as she tossed me a helmet, and strapped one on herself. Her eyes flashed with a daring sense of adventure. How she and I ever got to be anything more than instructor and student was still a mystery to me. Amy and I were two very different people.
"Yeah," I said confidently, but Amy knew better. She laughed, which made her entire face glow with amusement, and handed me Lily's reins. We mounted and headed for the trails.
It was an incredible day. The air was mildly warm and the sun was shining brightly. The sky was a blue you can't imagine, with no clouds to disturb it. We rode into the forest near the ranch. Amy held her head high as Sultan strode along through a woodland carpet of leaves. Lily and I were beside them and Amy and I chatted as we always did on trail rides.
Soon we came to a fallen log. It must have been four feet in height, perhaps five feet in width. A smile crept over Amy's face. Just the sight of that log gave me goosebumps, but Amy had other ideas. She stopped Sultan about twenty feet in front of the log. I knew exactly what she was thinking. "Amy," I warned her, "that log is huge, are you sure Sultan can clear it?"
Amy gave me a look. "Of course Sultan can clear it, he's the best horse around!" she exclaimed, patting him on the shoulder. Amy wasn't exaggerating, Sultan really was the best horse around. Amy could prove it when she rode him in shows. She and Sultan always took home a blue ribbon. When Amy rode, it was as amazing as watching the sun set. But she never gave herself any credit for her ribbons. "It's all Sultan," she would insist. Then when she got home, she nailed the ribbons to the walls of his stall.
I put Lily into a walk, and we went around the log. Nothing could make me jump it. I stopped Lily about fifty feet from the other side, giving Amy plenty of space. "OK," Amy shouted. "Here I go!" She urged Sultan into a perfect canter, and approached the jump gracefully. Sultan's ears were perked forward, all of his attention fixed on the jump. Amy urged him on, and Sultan leaped. He sailed over the jump. Suspended in the air above the log, I relaxed, but my heart acted too soon. Just as they were coming down for their landing, Sultan's foot caught on a hole in the log, and he came crashing down on top of Amy.
I gasped for my breath. "Amy!" I screamed, jumping off of Lily. I ran to the spot where she lay. Sultan was flailing his hooves madly. I grabbed his reins and forced him up. Amy was crying, the only time I had ever seen her cry. At least she was alive.
"Kara," Amy sobbed, "I can't feel my legs."
My heart skipped a beat. "Try to stand up," I encouraged her. I helped her to her feet. But the second I let go, she collapsed. "Oh no," I whispered. I knew what was wrong with Amy. Amy knew it too. It only took one terrifying second to leave my best friend paralyzed.
Amy got home from the hospital five days later in a wheelchair. Many thought her condition was bad, but Sultan's, in my opinion, was worse. No one had the heart to tell Amy about Sultan. I went over to Amy's house every day to see her. Her mother sent me up to her room, where I would always find her trying to stand. Her arms were still quite strong, as they always had been. Amy would lift herself out of the chair using her arms, only to collapse again once her weight was shifted onto her legs. I hated to see my best friend falling apart like this.
"Kara," Amy begged me one day, "Please tell me, what's wrong with Sultan?" I could tell she was truly worried, because simply bringing up the subject of her beautiful horse brought tears to her eyes. I looked straight at Amy, studying her face. Her skin seemed so much more pale, her hair tangled. Her lips were cracked and dry, but the saddest thing about Amy was her eyes. Once so full of beauty and happiness, they now expressed an undying sorrow.
"OK, Amy, I guess you should know," I admitted reluctantly. My voice dropped to a whisper. "Sultan was badly traumatized by the accident. Now he's gone crazy, he bucks and rears whenever anyone comes near him."
"Where is he?" Amy asked.
"In the paddock," I replied, and before I knew it Amy was out the door. "Amy, wait!" I screamed after her.
She stopped just outside the paddock gate and gave me a cold look. "I can see your concern, Kara. But Sultan trusts me," she said, waving me away, "he won't hurt me." Amy opened the gate. I watched closely, holding my breath as she approached Sultan. "Hey, boy," she murmured, "don't be scared, it's me." Sultan immediately reared up in anger, hooves flailing inches away from my best friend.
"Oh God," I prayed, "get out of there, Amy." Sultan reared up again, but this time he was closer to Amy, and she wouldn't back away. Before I knew what I was doing, I ran into the paddock and pulled Amy away from the angry horse. I pushed her out of the paddock and slammed the gate behind me. Sultan galloped in furious circles around the ring.
"Kara!" she yelled, "I was doing fine!"
I was losing my patience, "No, Amy, you were not doing fine! He could have killed you!" I exclaimed.
Amy stared down into her lap. "You don't think I can do it, do you Kara?" she muttered.
I had no idea what she was talking about. "It depends on what you are going to do," I replied. I desperately wanted to take my words back, ashamed of myself for yelling at Amy after all she had been through.
She glared at me. "I'm going to ride Sultan again," she said with a determined look on her face.
My mouth dropped open again. I wanted to yell at her, tell her she was out of her mind, but instead I whispered, "Amy, you are my best friend in the whole world," my mouth went dry, "but I can't let you hurt yourself."
Amy exploded. "You still don't think I can do it! Well, I'll show you, Kara, I'll show everyone! And if you aren't going to back me up, just go home, Kara. Go home and forget me." Her cruel words pierced my heart like a thousand knives. I was only worried about her, but I hadn't the courage to yell at Amy anymore, so I turned on my heel and walked down the driveway of her house.
I worried about Amy all night, tossing and turning as I was unable to sleep peacefully. Visions of my best friend on a stretcher blew through my head and the sound of sirens and panicked voices filled my ears. I had to oversee her riding somehow, to protect her. "But how?" I argued with myself. "She would be furious if she found out you were watching her. She's mad at you." Around midnight I got an idea. I figured I could hide in the woods just outside her backyard, that way I could watch her, and she would never know I was there. I made up my mind to stash myself in the woods so I would be able to keep an eye on Amy.
When I arrived at Amy's house the next morning, I had just enough time to steal away before she came outside at six-thirty. Sultan was still in the paddock, running around in mad circles. Amy trudged along in her wheelchair, holding a halter, lead rope and lunge line. She slipped into the paddock quietly. Sultan reared up in fright, bucking and kicking wildly. "Oh please, Sultan, don't hurt Amy," I said under my breath. Thankfully, Amy was quick, even in her wheelchair. She easily avoided Sultan's flailing hooves, and swiftly slipped a halter over Sultan's nose, which impressed me. He fought, but Amy was clever, and held her ground bravely. My heart pounded at every second that Sultan was close to her. Amy made her way to the center of the paddock and shooed Sultan to the rail. Tapping him gently with her lunge, she began a familiar process known as join-up. I had seen her do join-up many times before with new horses. Join-up developed a trust between a horse and a rider, in which the rider could prove to the horse that she wanted to be friends, and was no threat. Sultan cantered in smooth circles around Amy. When she signaled it with her lunge, Sultan changed direction or speed. After a few hours, Sultan let her get near enough to pat him tenderly on the shoulder. I was amazed at Amy's progress in a single day. For a single split second, I thought Amy glanced in my direction. My heart skipped a beat. Was I just nervous, or did Amy really know I was there?
I secretly watched Amy every morning for an entire year. I thought about her every day. When school started again, I hoped and prayed that we could somehow be friends again. But every day, I got the same angry glare from Amy in class, the same cold shoulder at recess, and the empty loneliness in my heart as the long hours ticked by.
One harsh winter morning in December, I sat in my corner of the woods, my eyes glued to Amy like a hawk. Normally, I had no idea what Amy would do that day, but today I knew. Sultan had a saddle on his back and a bridle in his mouth. She was going to ride. My heart pounded like never before, and my breath was short. Amy grasped the saddle and pulled herself into the seat. Oh my, I thought, Amy's got nothing to support her, she'll fall! But Amy was smart, and had thought of that ahead of time. She pulled the stirrups up and over her lap, intertwining them tightly. "OK, Sultan," I heard her say, "this is it."
With a click of her tongue, Sultan was walking slowly. He seemed to understand that Amy needed to be handled carefully, and he couldn't act up. Amy held on to the horn of her English saddle, her knuckles white with effort. She put Sultan into a slow trot, doing careful circles around the paddock. "Oh, Amy, you're doing it!" I whispered. "You're riding!"
A determined look crossed her face, as she gently urged Sultan to canter. Sultan's smooth gait allowed Amy to relax. Her once-frightened face now expressed a joy that can't possibly be described in plain words. "Come on, Sultan!" she yelled. "Let's fly!" Sultan's canter quickened, as Amy aimed him for the paddock fence.
My heart seemed to stop completely and tears of fear welled up in my eyes. "Please don't, Amy," I begged her to myself, hoping somehow she could hear me. But she didn't stop. Closer and closer to the fence they approached. In one mighty leap, Sultan cleared the fence, and landed safely on the other side, where he and Amy galloped across the field into the rising sun. It was a beautiful sight. The profile of two happy spirits that had overcome their own disabilities illuminated the sky, as even the clouds seemed to rejoice at Amy's success.
"You did it!" I screamed without thinking, jumping out of the woods and running toward Amy. Once I did it I couldn't stop myself, I was so proud of my best friend.
"Kara!" Amy exclaimed, a smile spreading across her face. She and Sultan cantered across the field to where I was standing. Amy lowered herself carefully into her wheelchair, and once she was settled, she and I embraced for the first time in over a year. "Oh, Kara, I'm so sorry," she cried. "I know you were only trying to protect me."
"I'm sorry too Amy," I replied, as I spilled the whole story about how I had been watching her work with Sultan. We released and she looked at me carefully. For one horrible moment, I was afraid she was mad at me.
"You mean to tell me," she inquired, "that you cared enough about my safety to get up at six every morning just to make sure I was OK, even though the chance of getting caught was at risk?"
Relief spread through me. "Of course," I whispered. "You are my best friend." Suddenly, Amy burst into tears. I couldn't help it, I cried too. We both knew that we weren't sad at all, but deliriously happy, and never again would our friendship be tested.