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Chapter 1 - Spring


THE MARE stepped into a puddle, and mud splashed on to Ann Henderson’s brown boots and jodhpurs and on the vent of her green jacket. Pushing her black velvet skull cap more firmly on to her head, she shortened her reins, thumped with her heels, and drove the mare at the fence. With a violent switch of her tail the mare propped, and swerved to the left, then shot forward in a ragged canter.

Unbalanced by the swerve and shaken by the jolting prop, Ann swayed in the saddle. Her hands lost their contact with the mare’s mouth.

Feeling this, the mare increased her speed away from the line of jumps. She thrust herself down the long field while the girl struggled to regain control with the reins. Ann sat down in the saddle, elbows against her ribs, and used her wrists. Slowly she collected the mare again, pulling her back into a trot, and turned once more to the jumps.

The mare flicked her ears forward, measuring the fence. As the girl’s heels touched her flanks she shot away, easily clearing the jump. With head bent neatly at the poll, ears forward, she calmly jumped down the timber fences.

Ann pulled the mare back into a collected walk and rode over to the two spectators, her husband and her father, who were standing by the gate. Jim Henderson uncrossed his long, blue-jeaned legs and stepped towards his wife as she rode up, her warm blue eyes smiling back at him and her fair hair sticking out from under her cap. She seemed to him even more attractive than when he had first met her. In one swift, graceful movement she swung out of the saddle.

“I thought you were coming off again, Ann,” said Jim.

“I nearly did! Easter moves so quickly I all but lost my balance.”

“Did you notice that when she means to refuse at a jump she always switches her tail?” asked Jim, turning to Ann’s father.

Mr Barton puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “Yes, I have noticed that but it’s not much help to the rider,” he said, with a short laugh. He turned to his daughter. “Just how many times has she had you off?”

Ann smiled as she patted the mare’s neck. “Twice already this week and three times last week. She props, then turns so quickly that each time I lose my balance. But when she wants she can jump beautifully.”

“She’s having you off too often, Ann. She’ll only develop bad habits. What about you, Jim? Have you been thrown?”

“Couple of times. That’s all, but I must admit there’ve been a few very near misses. When she makes those sharp sideways turns it’s nearly impossible to stay on.”

Mr Barton looked at the piebald mare standing rubbing her nose against Ann’s jacket, leaving white froth marks on the green wool. Ann and Jim had great respect for Mr Barton’s judgment; he was solid, reliable, experienced — and he looked it. He was a broad, heavily-built man, red-faced from the outdoor life he led, and with a brown, tweedy, prosperous air — the very opposite of the lithe, lean Jim with his casual appearance. One thing only spoiled the sober, well-groomed, gentleman-farmer effect of Mr Barton and that was the battered old felt hat he wore. For years Ann and Mrs Coe, the housekeeper, had been trying to lose this hat but Mr Barton always created such an uproar at its disappearance that they had to find it again.

He frowned and drew his pipe out of his mouth.

“Do you always use a snaffle bit on her?” he asked.

“We’ve tried the lot but it makes no difference. If Easter decides that she’s not going to jump, then she won’t,” said Ann.

“Well, if it’s not bitting trouble, and her general health is good then all I can suggest is that it’s pure temperament. You did have difficulty with Pilot when you first had him, Ann. Remember how he used to be a runaway? And don’t forget how impetuous he was at jumping until that bad fall when you were hurt. That steadied him down. There’s the same strain of blood in both animals’ breeding so the problem could well be one of temperament. The mare should come right eventually.”

Jim was glad of the note of optimism, but it was his wife, not the mare, he was chiefly worried about at the moment.

“We don’t want any more accidents to force cures,” he said. “Easter’s five now. She should have sense; but as she is now, she’s quite unreliable. I wonder, Ann, if we should just keep her as a brood mare and forget about show jumping? Easter is a good dam. If she can produce more foals like Night Storm, she could even become a valuable foundation mare for the stud.”

“I suppose we could do that, but I did want to do some show jumping this summer. If she did any good as a jumper it would always enhance her breeding reputation,” said Ann.

“Well, we’ll persevere a little longer, and see . . .” Jim respected his young wife’s determination, and he found the role of chief worrier a thankless one. “We’ll showjump her — if she is agreeable,” he said, with a smile.

Ann swung back into the saddle and Easter fidgeted in anticipation of further exercise.

“I’ll just ride over and look at the colt and Pilot,” she said, and cantered off across the field.

Mr Barton watched her progress and turned to Jim.

“I’m surprised Ann wants to go in for show jumping. She was never very interested as a girl. It was always hunting.”

“I think that’s just why she is interested now, because she’s never done it before. After all, she’s hunted all her life, she’s had the excitement of training Pilot for steeplechasing, and I think she’s suddenly wakened to the fact that where show jumping is concerned, she’s a novice. I don’t mind as long as she doesn’t get hurt with that mare. I think it’s only a passing whim. She’ll go back to hunting once she’s had a try at show jumping.”

Mr Barton grunted noncommittally as he watched Easter’s tail waving in the distance.

“And how’s Mike’s son and heir?” asked Jim. Ann’s brother and his wife had gone to live with Mr Barton.

“Yelling his head off when I left. Susan’s got her hands full. He certainly is an imp.”

Ann cantered the mare slowly up the long hill and halted at the top. She swung round in the saddle and looked back down the hill.

Ann and Jim had purchased Leysham Farm just before their marriage, and it was here that they had worked hard training the large piebald gelding Pilot to be a steeplechaser. Ann had originally bought Pilot as a hunter in the local sales. She had never contemplated racing until she had met her brother Michael’s friend, Jim, who had suggested point-to-pointing and then steeplechasing the large gelding. Ann had soon found sympathetic equestrian understanding with Jim Henderson. She had also soon found that her own feelings for the tall, young man were getting stronger each day. Both her brother and father had been delighted at their marriage.

They moved into Leysham Farm and worked hard training Pilot. Their efforts had been amply rewarded when Pilot had triumphantly won the Grand National. With their prize money they had developed the farm until it now bore little resemblance to its former self.

The old stone house had been decorated inside and out. To the right of the house stood the new stable yard which replaced the older boxes. A neat gravel drive led into the large yard which had brick stables built on three sides. Standing apart were two large foaling boxes, the saddle room, and the medical stores.

Behind the buildings, the fields stretched into the distance. Each field had a neat hedge or solid fence, and piped water flowed into galvanised troughs placed at strategic intervals. A considerable part of their winnings had been spent in reseeding the land with high quality grass, liming the soil, and in replacing barbed wire by other kinds of fencing.

Their final expenditure had been in the careful selection and purchase of a dozen thoroughbred mares who formed the basic foundation of their stud.

Down below on her left she could see Tom Reeves walking back from his daily inspection of the mares, and Ann smiled to herself.

Good old Tom. He really was their right hand now. Tom had once worked for Mr Barton on Charnford Farm but when Ann married, Tom decided to follow her example. Very shortly he and his wife Miriam moved into the large cottage at Leysham, leaving Mr Barton to find other assistance. Tom had a rare quality for understanding horses and, although not interested in riding, he had flung himself wholeheartedly into the work of the new stud. Both Ann and Jim considered themselves lucky to have such a loyal and reliable stud groom.

Ann bent forward and patted Easter’s piebald neck affectionately, and the mare ducked her head up and down. Ann’s father and brother had bought Easter, when she was a young filly, as their wedding present for herself and Jim. Already she had given them a splendid colt foal, but though Ann was fond of the mare, her first affections were for Pilot.

Thinking of him, she urged Easter into a canter and rode briskly down the hill.

Easter sidled while Ann unfastened the gate, and needed little urging to canter forward into the field.

Ann called only once, knowing that she would be heard. At the bottom of the field the two horses pricked their ears, whipped around, and galloped wildly to her. Easter dithered in excitement until Ann spoke to her and patted her neck.

With pricked ears and flaring nostrils, Pilot, hunter, chaser, and Grand National winner, slithered to a halt on the damp grass. Snorting, he softly extended his lips for the lump of sugar which Ann held in the palm of her hand.

Not to be outdone, Night Storm thrust forward for his treat, and Easter flickered her ears backwards. Ann grinned and, leaning forward, gave the mare a sugar lump. She sat back again in the saddle and looked at the horses in some amusement: the large, piebald gelding, Pilot, who was out of the same sire and dam as Easter herself, and the young, still leggy two-year-old, Night Storm, who was Easter’s first foal. The black and white piebald markings of the mare and gelding stood out in startling contrast to the plain, almost dull black of the colt. The only white on the colt was in his thin blaze and four stockings.

Easter nickered to her colt but, grown up now and independent of his dam, Night Storm whipped aside. In high spirits, he bucked a few paces. With a squeal Pilot swung round, and in his own peculiar, bullying way, threatened to nip the colt’s quarters. Ann shouted and, almost guiltily, Pilot trotted aside, stiff-legged, tail high, nostrils flaring.

Ann laughed to herself, and frowned as she studied Pilot’s near hind leg. The gelding had always had exceptionally clean limbs, but since his Grand National win, a small curb disfigured his near hind leg. Although he was now sound enough to hunt once a week, it was the presence of the curb which had decided Ann and Jim not to race the horse any more. Pilot had received expert attention from Mr Barton’s veterinary friend, Bill Garner. The curb had been blistered and for a whole year Pilot rested, until now he was sound again.

Ann was happy just to ride her horse as a hunter or hack. She did not want Pilot to race again. The sudden strains on a horse’s hocks when jumping at speed from twisting or deep approaches had given Pilot the curb. And as he had won the big race for his owners there was no need for him to be risked in steeplechases any more.

Ann’s thoughts switched back to Easter. The mare’s obstinacy was a problem against which Ann set her jaw firmly. She had never bothered to compete at show jumping and now that she had decided she would, her mount had other ideas. Although nowhere near as fast as Pilot, Easter had definite jumping ability when she chose to display it. With her smaller and more compact body she was far more adept at nimble turns than Pilot.

Ann collected the reins, heeled the mare, swung her briskly to the left, and cantered towards the hedge. Ann shortened her reins further, drove hard with her heels and Easter faced the hedge.

Two paces from the hedge Ann used her heels again. Easter swished her tall, propped to the left, and shot aside in a violent refusal.

Ann jolted in the saddle, lurched to the right and only retained her seat by seizing the mare’s mane for balance. Easter grabbed the bit to bolt in excitement. Ann swiftly released the mare’s mane, took another firm grip on the reins and whipped Easter round in a tight circle to face the fence again.

Urging, bullying, driving with her legs, Ann shouted at the mare. With sudden co-operation Easter stood back and effortlessly jumped the hedge, landing neatly on the far side. Without giving Easter time to think up any more mischief, Ann rode her round in another tight circle and relentlessly drove her back at the hedge. Two paces from the hawthorn twigs, Ann eased on the reins, thumped with her heels, shouted again, and Easter pressed with her hocks to jump back easily into Pilot’s field.

Satisfied, Ann pulled up and spoke soothingly, patting the mare’s neck. Easter really could jump very well and she certainly had a fast speed in tight turns which would be invaluable in a showjumper competing against the clock in a timed event. If only she would jump regularly. If only she could be persuaded to stop refusing. Ann sighed as she walked the mare back through the gateway and over towards the stable yard. Because she was so deeply engrossed in the problem of Easter, she failed to see the car standing in the yard, and had swung out of the saddle before she realized that her brother and his wife were there.

“Hullo, sister dear!”

“Mike! Susan! And hullo, little Robert!” she added, as Susan held up her small son to pat Easter’s sweaty neck.

“We’ve not come to see you,” Mike said to Ann. “We’ve brought Robert out for an airing.”

Mike was not at all like his sister. He had a dark thatch of hair and a cheerful face with mischievous grey eyes. They were fond of each other, though neither would have dreamed of showing this affection; it appeared only in their good-humoured teasing and bickering, and perhaps also in the friendship which had sprung up between Ann and the small, attractive girl her brother had married. Secretly Susan was a little in awe of Ann who was so good at riding, so good with horses in every way, but the two girls got on famously together.

“You do go in for funny-looking horses, don’t you?” said Mike, as Robert patted first a black and then a white patch on Easter’s neck. “ ‘Glory be to God for dappled things —’ ”

Ann laughed. “Quoting again!”

“How’s that other ‘Pied Beauty’ of yours?”

“Pilot? He’s sound and well now. Easter’s the problem, I’m afraid.”

“Ah! Problem female, eh? Have you tried other bits on her. You have? Well, how about spurs then?” suggested Mike.

Ann looked sharply at her brother. “Spurs? I’ve never gone in for using spurs, but it’s an idea.”

“What’s that about spurs?” asked Jim as he walked over to join them.

Ann explained Mike’s suggestion to Jim.

“It’s certainly an idea. I know you’ve never cared for spurs, Ann, but you should try. Don’t forget, the spur is the one artificial aid which a horse can’t anticipate.”

“Why can’t he?” asked Susan interestedly.

Jim turned to her. “Because he can’t see them coming as he can a stick. Here, let me hold that boy.” And Jim took the wriggling child from Susan. Robert at once grabbed at his uncle’s brown hair, making conversation rather difficult for Jim.

“You keep Easter straight at her fences, use the spurs properly, and I bet she soon stops refusing,’’ said Mike.

“It’s worth a try,” agreed Ann.

“I don’t know what you would do without your big brother,” teased Mike affectionately.

Later that evening, after their tea, they all strolled in the mild spring air.

“Robert should really be in bed,” said Susan thoughtfully as she saw the little boy yawn. Mike picked him up, and set him on his shoulder.

“It won’t hurt him to stay up for once,” said Ann. “Come and look at the mares. We’ve acquired two foals since you were here last.”

“You certainly have altered this place. How much better it all looks. Quite prosperous!”

“Thanks to Pilot’s winnings,” replied Ann.

Jim and Mike walked ahead, smoking and talking, as dusk came.

“How many mares do you have now?” asked Susan.

“Twelve, all registered thoroughbreds. Six more are in foal, two have just foaled and we think that two of the others might be in foal, though it’s early days yet.”

“Are you going to use the local premium stallion at all?”

“Occasionally. It’s better to send the mares away to the more important stallions, but the fee is higher. Two of the mares don’t have very fast speeds in their pedigrees, so by putting them to a fast stallion we hope to have fast foals in turn.”

“But you’re not racing yourselves?”

“No, you can’t do both very well. We prefer to breed horses, handle them sufficiently for the sales, and perhaps keep the odd youngster to break here. Dad’s Baron is getting on a bit now. It would be nice for Dad to have one of our youngsters to ride.”

“What do you plan for Night Storm?” asked Susan.

“We’re getting him up this week and are going to start breaking him. He has been handled quite a bit of course, halter and stable broken, but Jim wants to get him backed this summer. He has a hope that the colt might just be fast enough for flat racing. He’d have to go away, of course, for proper training, but if he did any good at all on the flat he might even eventually become our home stallion. That’s a long way in the future, but that’s why he hasn’t been gelded.”

“I didn’t know he was still an entire,” said Susan in surprise. “Can’t they get difficult to handle — entires, I mean?”

“I think it depends a lot on how they’re handled from foals and upon their own temperament. Look, see the mares!”

The four people and the child stood watching the mares and foals in the large field. Suspiciously, the mares with foals at foot lifted their heads, flared their nostrils, and sounded a low warning as they caught the people’s scent.

Clean-legged, wide-eyed and intelligent, the boldest of the mares walked towards the fence, switching their silky tails. The late evening sun shimmered on the fine skins of chestnut, bays and browns. Slowly the mares and foals gathered at the fence. Extending their heads, the mares took the offerings of sugar as only their royal due, while the foals clung warily to their dams’ flanks.

“See that mare, Susan, the chestnut with the flaxen mane and tail? Well, we’re pretty sure that she’s in foal, and as the sire was another chestnut we think the foal might be almost a palomino. And that bay mare over there, the small one, had a grandsire who won the Lincoln Race so she should have speed.”

“She is rather small compared to the others, though,” said Susan.

Ann nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, she’s only just the fifteen hands.”

“They stay out all the time now?”

“Yes, now the weather’s better, except when any foals are due. I think we’ll have to get more help later on. Tom and Jim won’t be able to manage because foals — like babies — always seem to arrive in the middle of the night.”

Susan laughed. “Heavens, yes! I’ve never seen Mike move so quickly as the night Robert came. For once he didn’t even have a quotation ready!”

Mike heard Susan’s last words.

“But I have one now,” he said, with a grin. “ ‘The curfew tolls the knell of parting day’,” and with a sweeping gesture towards the last thread of light in the western sky he turned and began walking back to the farm.

The girls followed slowly. Susan glanced back to the field and remarked, “I like that bay foal.”

“Yes, he is a beauty. Lovely sloping shoulder, beautiful legs, good quarters and short back. Jim says that he thinks he has real potential.”

“A Derby winner!” said Susan.

Ann smiled. “Who knows?” she said gaily. “Anyhow, we mustn’t be greedy. We do have a Grand National winner.”

After the Bartons had gone, Ann and Jim sat on the settee in their sitting room listening to the music on the radio.

“Mike and Susan make a good pair,” said Ann.

Jim ran his fingers through his wife’s hair. “Just like us, then.” Ann snuggled against him.

“You’re really set on this jumping, Ann?”

She nodded. Now that she had set her heart on show jumping she wanted to succeed, but she couldn’t do this without the mare’s co-operation. Normally she was confident of sticking on any jumper over any type of fence, but Ann felt a doubt in her heart at the thought of always having to battle with Easter’s refusing and bolting. Could she hold the mare? Was she strong enough? What if the mare galloped off and she was a helpless passenger? The thought frightened her a little.

Lifting her head, she spoke her feelings to Jim. His arm pressed her tightly to his side, and bending forward he kissed her.

“You’re not listening!” said Ann.

“Yes, I am! We’ll sort that mare out all right. Leave that worry for another day.”

Ann felt the warmth and confidence of his support. “Oh Jim! I would like to make a success of show jumping.”

He smiled back at her. “You will, then.”

“I couldn’t without you to encourage me.”

“You need never be afraid, Ann. I’m here; I’ll always be at your side. I could never have ridden Pilot to win the Grand National if it hadn’t been for you. Together we’ll beat that obstinate Easter!”

Comforted and reassured, Ann stifled a yawn. She was tired. It had been a busy day.

To order your copy of Easter The Showjumper see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.