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Denali

I could hear my heart pounding in my chest, the sweat dripping into my eyes. Terrified, I steadied my mount. Her black and white patches reflected the August sunlight into my eyes, until I had no choice but to give in to the sun's luminous rays and shut my eyelids. "Denali's ready!" Michelle shouted in my ear. "Emma, you can do this!" Laura called to me encouragingly.

The sun was streaming relentlessly through the large airy windows in the arena. I was at the Lancaster County Fair Show, preparing for my first class with my beautiful Paint mare, Denali. I was already having doubts that we would be able to make it through the competition without embarrassing ourselves, even though we had been training for the event two years. Maybe Illusion was right, I thought. Illusion was the first trainer to whom I had entrusted my beloved horse. Maybe it was her way of being that had made me feel so- so small. So helpless. Out of everything she left for me, a good impression was not one of them. Her voice rang loud and clear in my head. The same phrases over, and over again. I paused to reminise as her harsh words came back to me: "sell her. You can't control her!" Or, "she's just too much for you! You will never jump with her!" My ears burned with the memory of her words. After training with Denali for another year without a trainer, we found Michelle. It was only then that we really started to see results. A dream come true. Perfect horse, perfect trainer, I decided.


"Emma!" My train of thought had been interrupted. I threw my head up. How long had I been sitting there, reminiscing? "Take her over that practice jump." Michelle commanded. My ears were really starting to ache. "Okay," I replied, sounding much more confident than I felt. I turned Denali towards the line of riders, each sitting tall and proud on their horses, waiting their turn to take the jump. Even at 2' high, the jump made my stomach turn. Calm down! I commanded myself. Beneath me, Denali felt the tension and tensed. "Whoa, easy. Sorry" I apoligized. The sticky day was getting to me, frustrating me more than I would have ever thought possible. Clouds of dust filled the air every time someone landed a jump, which, in the crowded arena, was nearly every fifteen seconds. I pulled my helmet off of my head to brush off the dust. As I did so, I calmed down enough to look around at my surroundings for the first time. Only maybe 150 people in the audience. I thought nervously, doubting myself. I scanned the crowd, looking intently for Michelle, but instead, my eyes landed on Illusion. What was she doing here?! I asked myself, tensing again. All the training and lessons had been to succeed with Denali, and to my family, that was all there was to it. But to me, there was an underlying issue that couldn't seem to decay over time. A rebellion had been brewing beneath my skin, boiling hot every time we landed a jump. Every time I slid my feet into the stirrups, past all the excitement and vigor of being astride my 'UN-ride able' horse, was anger. I was frustrated with Illusion for telling me I couldn't do it, and held potent remorse in the back of my mind each time i thought of how close I had come to giving up. Realization struck me in half a second, like lightning hunting down and striking the tallest it can find; charring it beyond recognition. Before i had time to fight it off, the rebellious thought was in my head. Maybe I'd finally show her how far we had come.


Someone yelled. I looked up to see the faces of my fellow riders watching me. The line before me was gone. Oh jeez. . . I'm next. Where had the time gone? Denali saw the jump and immediately calmed down, and with her, I finally allowed myself to relax. All of the tension disappeared. I sat tall on my mare and looked out at the practice jump, which now looked like it was nothing. Stepping over a twig! I told myself. I cued Denali into a canter. Suddenly, I wasn't worried about the show, about the crowd, about anything. It was just me, Denali, and the jump. If there was ever another definition of 'being at peace,' this was definitely it. I eased myself out of the saddle and then we were airborne, soaring well over 2 feet clear of the jump. We hit the ground running. I smiled to myself. "Good job!" I told the eager mare, and settled back into my saddle. She frisked back into the line, like an eager foal being released into the paddock to greet the sunshine for the first time.

Twenty minutes later, my division was being called. The loudspeaker cracked. "Anyone who wants to use the show arena for a practice round, go now!" I looked through the hundreds of people with horses in the arena, searching for Michelle, a task that would have been impossible on foot, but atop a 15 hand horse, it was easy. (A 'hand' is the form of measurement used to measure the height of a horse. Each hand is 4 inches, and to get the proper measurement, you must measure from the ground to the withers, or 'shoulders' of the horse. Denali measured 15'1, which in feet would be 5'1".) Michelle spotted me and waved me over. We trotted to our group of riders calmly. "Emma, you'll go first. Caroline, you'll go......" Their voices were drowned out by my heartbeat, pounding in my ears, making my head spin. If I had just been asked to go second, maybe everything would be okay, but not first. I could hear my heart aching to explode, screaming. Going first would mean I'd set the bar. Every person in the audience would be watching. Adults, children, fellow riders, and trainers. Illusion would be watching. Denali started walking; had I asked her to do that? I didn't know, I was too engulfed in my thoughts. We wandered listlessly for half a minute until I was snapped out of my daydream once again.


Michelle coaxed me fully awake with a sharp tap on the arm. I flinched. "Emma, are you ready?" I jumped at the relaxed tone of her voice. How was it possible to be so calm when i was so nervous? "Yes, I think I'm ready. I'm just really nervous." I knew by now that my expression reflected my mood exactly; my hot, exasperated look had mixed with the exhaustion from the past two days of heavy preparations; cleaning, packing, and hard training, and was sure to have broken through my formerly structured complexion. "Emma, it's alright." She paused at my dubious expression and added "Denali's ready!" Laura stopped by to wish the riders good luck. She too must have noticed my frightened expression. "Emma, you'll do great!" Her words were mixed into the sea of voices surrounding the show arena. Michelle led Denali into the show arena and released her. We started trotting. As we rounded the long side of the arena, I urged her into a canter. All worry was gone, except for the 150 people staring down my back. Someone "oohed" and I heard a child somewhere in the crowd, slapping his knee in rhythm to the carnival music outside the doors.


Before I knew it, we were halfway around the arena, and the first jump had crept up on us more quickly than I thought possible. I lifted myself out of the saddle and held my body over the horse's neck, a feat that took more strength than anyone could imagine. Before I knew it we were flying. I was one with the horse for a split second, but a moment later, the mares' front feet met the soft clay ground and the jumps were behind us. I lowered my body back down into the saddle and slapped my horses' neck proudly. "Great job, girl!" I praised her, enthusiastic. Suddenly, the audience began to clap. I looked around for the source of their excitement as I walked out of the arena. "What are they clapping at?" I asked Michelle as I rode out, still looking. She started laughing as if I was crazy not to know. "They're clapping for you! You did a great job!" I stared at her in amazement. "They are?!" I asked, my heartbeat accelerating. "Yes! Good job, girly! Now let's go through the routine again. Which jump comes first?" We went through the routine until all the other riders had had their shot at the practice jumps. One horse had refused to jump, but overall, all the contestants had ridden wonderfully. My stomach turned in a way that made me grip the reins so tightly my knuckles started to turn white. I was so nervous I had to grip Denali’s mane and close my eyes just to stay upright.


Before I could quite comprehend what was happening, we were in the show arena again. Okay Emma, time to focus. I told myself, and my mind leaped into action. I began to calculate the distance to the first jump, and the number of strides Denali would need to get over it. She'll need an extra stride right before takeoff if we want to get clear. I reminded myself. At the precise moment the judges asked, we moved into a canter that was so smooth, an infant would fall asleep to the rhythm of it. Rounding the corner, we prepared each other for the jump. Suddenly, it was before us. I remembered she needed an extra stride, and let her go. She soared above the fence, and in that moment, when everything was at a standstill, I relaxed and breathed in the air. Up here, above the rest of the world, it was clean. No dust to irritate my allergies, nothing but pure, country air. Then we hit the ground. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Illusion. Her jaw was dropped open. I caught her eye and smiled, then looked back just in time to take the next jump beautifully. By the time we left the arena, all seven of the jumps had been cleared with finesse.


Denali, full of excitement, trotted playfully out of the arena and up to Michelle. She applauded us. "That was great!" I smiled enthusiastically. "Thank you! That was amazing! I had no idea we could do that well!" Disbelieving in accordance to everything that had just happened, we stumbled back into the arena for the second half of the class. The flat class. The flat portion of the class involves no jumping, simply riding around the arena at a walk, trot, and canter. This part we were veterans at. I looked around and examined the other horses, and tried to imagine the small chance I would have to beat them. Slim to none, My subconscious said. We went through our paces in the flat class, completing each transition and rounding each corner perfectly. At the end, it was time to line up in the middle of the arena for the placings.

Suddenly full of doubt despite our perfect performance, I lined up with the other riders. They began to call names, and as they neared the end of the list, something was wrong. They hadn't called my name off yet. I had done well, but I didn't think I had done that well. I was preparing to raise my hand to ask why I hadn't been called off with the lowest placings, when they did call me. I raised my head and looked around. I was the last person in the arena. The last one standing. "And number 4137 riding Bonanza Bar Queen will be our Grand Champion today." I sat there, trying to prove myself wrong. Bonanza Bar Queen was Denali’s show name, although there must be a mistake. For a split second, I let my imagination think we had won. I imagined the look on Illusions' face as we were handed the polished trophy. I imagined doing a victory gallop around the arena, trophy in hand, hair flying behind me. I sighed. But, wait. What was my number? I pulled the tag off the back of my shirt, ripping right though the thick paper. It read: 4137. That really was the number pinned my pristine white shirt. As I looked up, someone was walking towards me with a trophy. Our trophy. We had won.



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ChaseThisLight said...
Mar. 5, 2010 at 2:22 am
oops, forgot i wasn't signed in. I'm new at this!
 
ChaseThisLight said...
Mar. 5, 2010 at 2:19 am
I know nothing about competitive horseback riding..but your passion is so captivating throughout your entire story that i found myself rooting for you. So, way to put illusion in her place and thanks for sharing such a cool memory. Exciting story. Also thanks for the comment on mine, I appreciate it and check sometime to see if i've written anything else. (p.s.--grace like rain, love that song.)
 
GraceLikeRain replied...
Mar. 5, 2010 at 7:06 am
Thank you! I'm a bit frustrated that I don't know how to do italics, because it would have made it easier to read. (My thoughts were in italics, but they didnt post that way.) Thank you for the comment though! And yes, I enjoyed your story! :)
 
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