Her eyes darted from side to side to side, then down at Cindy – who returned a steady, smiling look in the eye – and then finally back up to the framed view between two dapple grey ears flicked to attention. As the jitters in her gut began to march upwards and outwards to her shoulders and limbs, she felt herself hunching forward, fighting to keep her grip on the reins firm as the gelding tugged lightly from the bit, bobbing his neck and skipping in place. At least he was ready to go.
Then the horn blared they were off, zero to 25 mph with a tap of the heels before it had even finished its toot. The muscles in his neck plunged forward, as his hind legs kicked up into third, fourth, fifth and sixth gear. Her body shifted into autopilot, shoulders easing back into place, long legs gripping his torso and hands steadily steering him forward.
“Here comes our fifth rider in today’s cross country event, Kelly Gardiner on Alaska,” the loudspeakers called. It was the first time Kelly had heard her name put together with the horse’s, and she couldn’t help but smile as they swooped by the announcer’s stand. The name had come so naturally – that white coat, almost like an overlay covering a charcoal grey coat underneath, offset with a black mane and tail. It immediately brought back to the Alaskan cruise – a 20th anniversary trip that, as hindsight would show with such crystal clarity, the last obstacle in a course that led to bitter divorce.
Her daughter had thought it morbid that Kelly would choose to link such a monumental part of her new life – the seven-year-old warmblood she bought as soon as the settlement money arrived – with the downfall of her past life.
“Just keep the name he’s got –Silver suits him,” Emily had implored. “You’re torturing yourself.”
But Emily didn’t understand. Silver was not an uncommon name for a grey horse, and Kelly had known another Silver – full name Sterling Silver – before Emily was even born. Call it morbid, but it reassured her to think her big return to the horse world was somehow linked to her departure from David’s world. Of course there were the days when she woke up thinking of Alaska and cursing herself for creating a speed dial to both her ex-husband’s betrayal and her big rebound. But then again, connotations with the new Alaska were steadily replacing those with the old.
That moment in which her new life surpassed the old appeared to be now. In these next eight to 10 minutes, speeding across the Fairfax County pastures, Kelly was setting her big return in stone.
Alaska’s legs rumbled as they shot over the long green path, firing bits of mud into the air behind them. Kelly soon spotted the first jump – a pile of dry sticks assembled inside a trough – and automatically eased her weight back, shifting him down from a flat out gallop to a bouncy canter. Four, three, two, one – over – and on to the next, just a few strides away. They bounded forward, Alaska following her stare and regulating the accelerator according to the tightness of her legs, nudges of the heels and shift of her weight.
In those minutes, Kelly had forgotten everything but the riding. It was her and her horse, rushing across country through a course of logs and bushes. Just as she’d done dozens and dozens of times before. Breathing in step with his strides, shifting her focus to the next jump each time his front feet landed from the one below.
Then she hesitated, and he flinched. The water jump loomed ahead of them faster than she had expected. Her toe had slipped after the last jump, she’d glanced down to adjust it and re-balance herself, and there it was. Three strides away. “Shit!” she yelped, crouching forward just when she was supposed to sit back and guide the horse ahead.
As his driver wavered, Alaska came face-to-face with the water jump. Instead of stopping, he chipped in an extra half-stride – giving Kelly enough time to steady herself and – with a kick of the heels and a tap of the whip – push him over the jump. They cleared the jump with an inch to spare, splashing with a crooked landing into the water. Alaska broke into a trot for a second, but seeing the path ahead he flung back into a gallop, leaving the near-fall behind.
Kelly, on the other hand, couldn’t shake it quite so quickly. She slowed Alaska back to a canter while she readjusted the balls of her feet in the stirrups, and took a deep breath. The thick, stiff foam hugging her breast and torso seemed to be tightening, the shoulder straps squeezing her armpits and collarbone. It was like playing water polo in a life vest.
What if she’d been wearing one of these vests the last time she rode Sterling? Would she still have heard the crack as she landed? Or would it have padded the fall, perhaps even bouncing her back onto her feet? She knew she shouldn’t, but for a moment Kelly let the image flash across the scenery, replaying it as if it was happening to another rider on the track up ahead. A limping mare, a sobbing mother, a 20-year-old girl being lifted onto a stretcher, her trainer – Cindy – quietly gripping her hand.
If only she’d been wearing the life vest, Kelly thought. No months-long stay in the hospital, no surgery, no back braces, no physical therapy. No handsome 37-year-old physical therapist named David Gardiner. She would have finished college and moved to the DC suburbs – smack in the middle of city lights and horse country. She would have made it to the Olympic trials. Fast forward a couple of decades, and she might plausibly be preparing for her third or even fourth Olympics.
Instead she was here, two-thirds through a local competition on a horse formerly known as Silver. A 44-year-old divorcee, competing against a string of college kids younger than her daughter. She saw the next hurdle – a pile of logs – up ahead and wondered if she had the strength for four more jumps. She had told Cindy she wasn’t interested in competing anymore, but Cindy had signed her up anyway. From the day Kelly had run into Cindy at the supermarket in Fairfax – on a rare outing from the fortress of her parents’ home in the days after the divorce was finalised – she had steered and guided Kelly back into the saddle and onto the cross country course. Cindy set the pace of training, the size of jumps and the schedule for competition. Kelly felt like a teenager again, following the track laid out by her mentor.
But now Kelly really didn’t have to jump this jump if she didn’t want to. She leaned back heavily, pressing on the breaks. Alaska slowed a notch, but resisted anything further, his ears perked towards the jump, his hind legs already preparing to propel them forward. Kelly complied and squeezed him on, zeroing her focus on the obstacle.
Three more to go.
One more lift-off, and they were done. She eased the grip on the reins, letting him bound forward to the finish line. The chilled October wind pricked her face, her toasty pink cheeks radiating heat while her eyes watered from the cold.
“I could burn my fingers on those rosy cheeks of yours,” David had said, arm around her as they looked out at the Alaskan glaciers – like stark white skyscrapers rising from the opaque sea. It was the last nice thing he had said to her; before she had picked up his phone to call Emily; before she read the first line of that unread text message; and before he had admitted there was another physio patient.
“That’s our fifth rider, Kelly Gardiner, finishing in eight minutes and 48 seconds on her seven-year-old warmblood, Alaska. Let’s all give Kelly and Alaska a round of applause,” the speaker blared, as Kelly leaned down and hugged the horse’s damp neck.