Jessica Terry sat in the front seat of the truck, her window half rolled down, willing cool air to come in and blow the sweat off her face and hands. Her thick, dark hair blew, untamed, around her pretty face and large, dark eyes. “How much longer, Dad?” Jessie asked, and felt a sudden flutter in her stomach.
This was what she had been working towards for the past many months. This was what she had driven for, and a lot of labor and sweat had gone into her hope for success at this event.
But now, Jessie was seriously questioning her ability to go into this. She had changed overnight from the sensible, stubborn, and never-give-up girl she was into an emotional wreck. She tugged on her dark hair again, waiting for her father’s response.
“Not too long now, hon.” He looked into her worried eyes and let out a soft chuckle. “Don’t worry, honey. You and Bailey are only the most fantastic performers in the country! You’ll do fine.”
Jessie gave him a wobbly smile. “Sure,” she said. “And someday pigs will fly,” she huffed under her breath, so soft even her father’s keen ears did not pick up her doubts.
* * *
Thirty minutes later, Jessie was in the warm-up ring. Bailey felt fresh and distant beneath her, like he was one being and she was another. Her face closed and annoyed, Jessie watched other riders canter their horses perfectly over a small warm-up course of three-foot jumps. Jessie warmed up at a trot and then a canter, but Bailey wasn’t going well for her. Deciding to ignore it instead of deal with it, Jessie urged him over a low two-foot vertical. He launched himself into the air at an off-stride and sent Jessie flying into the dirt on the other side of the jump. Her face literally burning, Jessie picked herself up and went to go catch her pony. Bailey had an evil glint in his eye when she angrily grabbed his reins.
Settling down, Jessie began to trot Bailey around the ring. It wasn’t a good trot, though. It was an unconnected, novice trot, and although Jessie knew it looked fine, she realized that her many years of hard work, learning how to trot perfectly, were really nothing compared to the beautiful, framed, airy, and connected trots others were warming up on. Jessie picked up a canter, but it was flat and bored, not the springy, exciting-to-watch canter it should have been. Jessie was getting ready to jump a two-foot oxer when her father came running over.
“Jessie,” he called, “you’re up in two riders!” He obviously saw the shock and horror on her face as she brought Bailey to a walk before he added, “Get to the arena, hon. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
“But Dad,” Jessie objected, “I haven’t even warmed up over a low cross-jump! How in the world will we jump four feet?!”
“You’ll do fine,” he repeated, obviously unable to add any more encouraging words. With a grunt and moan of frustration, Jessie followed him to the show arena.
* * *
“Your next rider is Jessica Terry on Bailey Star, number 897. Jessica Terry on Bailey Star, number 897.”
Jessie barely heard the announcement, so nervous was she. She trotted in, circled once, and pushed Bailey into a rock-solid canter. She waited until she had momentarily tamed the butterflies dancing in her stomach before heading towards the first jump. For a second, she felt the old Jessie coming back, just a little bit. This was it! This was what she had been working towards! Then a sudden shudder of nerves ran through her stomach, and Bailey faltered. She retrieved him immediately with a firm squeeze and then focused on counting down the strides towards their first jump.
Three, two, one. Jessie felt Bailey lift up into the air. He soared over the jump, landed on light feet, and, to Jessie’s instruction, turned towards the three-foot-nine oxer. The stubborn, irritating horse he’d been in the warm-up ring was gone, and Jessie thanked the heavens for it, even if she wasn’t in the time and place to puzzle over why exactly he was all of a sudden a dream to ride.
Jessie was so concentrated and focused, she forgot there was anyone in the world but her and Bailey. The next few jumps passed in a blur of flight, suspension, and the soft thud of hooves on sand. But even Jessie could detect the crowd hush as they made their way towards the wall. This jump was large, solid, and terrifying. They hadn’t been permitted to warm up over a wall, and that was part of the drama of it. Jessie had to get this right!
A spider of self-doubt began to crawl into her stomach. She didn’t have time to shoo it away, and before she knew it, Bailey had launched himself into the air! Caught off guard, Jessie was thrown forward into the saddle. She sat back hard, trying to regain her balance, but made Bailey’s hind end so suddenly heavy that his back hooves knocked the jump and a few bricks went flying. Jessie tasted bitter disappointment as they landed, but she knew what she had to do. If her riding coach had taught her anything, it was to continue the round as if everything was perfect, even if she’d messed up big-time.
Jessie put all her concentration in getting over the last few jumps spotlessly and effortlessly. They flew over the last jump, and the crowd broke into applause as Jessie brought Bailey down to a walk and exited the arena. Jessie bit her lip. She knew they’d done well, better than many, but the knock on that wall was driving her crazy.
“Jessie! Jessieeee!” Jessie looked up to see her father running towards her. His eyes were lit up with absolute pride and joy. “That was fantastic! I’ve never seen you ride so well!”
“But we chipped the wall,” Jessie protested, surprised. They hadn’t done that well, had they? Jessie had done much better rounds at home, practicing.
“I’m not talking about that,” her father said. “I’m taking about the way you rode Bailey! It was like there was a hidden connection between you two. He did everything you asked him to, and he seemed to practically float above the ground. I’ve never seen anyone, ever, ride their horse with so much passion, love, and dedication. It’s obvious he can feel how much you do for him. You two rode like you were one being, flying up into heaven.”
Jessie was overwhelmed by these words, and looked down to Bailey’s neck. He stretched around and nibbled her boot, but Jessie swore she could see a glint in his eye. The good kind of glint. The kind of glint people have when they’ve been to heaven and back again.