The cork gun fired in the air, and I leaped forward into a gallop. The noise had spooked me, but I didn’t break stride. Apricot’s bright eye gleamed beside mine, keeping pace with me. Not far behind, I heard the rhythmic snorting of the cob mare from the South Notts team.
At our home meets in Carmarthenshire, the starter always dropped a flag to begin a race. But today we were guests of the Eridge Hunt Pony Club, over the border in Sussex, England. This was fox-hunting country, and the ponies here were used to the sound of a gunshot.
I focused ahead, to the wooden buckets standing in a row at the end of the roped-off meadow. My ten-year-old rider, Gwen, slowed me as we drew near. She kicked her feet out of the stirrups and slid down from my back before I had fully halted.
“Whoa, Lily, stand,” she said. I was riled from the race, so I couldn’t help pawing the grass a little. But I didn’t really
move from the spot.
Holding my reins in one hand, Gwen kneeled in front of a bucket brimming with water and apples. She plunged her face into the water. I couldn’t help wishing it were the ponies, not the riders, who competed in this part of the game. I’d have gotten two or three apples by now!
Apricot’s rider, Susan Padmore, was bobbing for an apple, too. I wished Gwen would hurry up. Apricot was my rival on the Eridge Hunt team. She was a fine-boned chestnut mare who looked, and ran, like a miniature Thoroughbred. She had won the Pony Jumper championship at the summer rally. Now I was eager to even the score.
At last Gwen lifted her dripping face from the bucket. She had an apple clenched in her teeth. A moment later Susan bit into an apple, too. Almost at the same time, the two girls mounted and galloped us back across the meadow.
Apricot and I were neck and neck again. We could have been hitched in the same harness. I strained to lengthen my stride. Inch by inch, I managed to pull ahead—and nearly crashed into my teammate’s rump as we crossed the finish line. Good show, Lily! You looked ready to race in the Epsom Oaks.
Cadfael, a bright bay Welsh Mountain pony, reached out and gave me a friendly nip on the flank.
“Stop being a beast, Caddy!” His rider, Gwen’s best friend, Rhiannon Kiffin, tugged his reins to turn his head away from me. But Cadfael wasn’t being mean. It was just his nature to nibble on everything. Nearby, fussy Arian laid back his ears. He wore the red ribbon of a kicker in his tail, so everyone knew not to pass too close behind him.
Gwen dropped her apple into a bucket near the finish line. The next pair, Catrin Pritchard and Seren, took off. Like me, Seren was a registered Welsh pony. His name meant “star,” and his palomino coat gleamed like the golden horse atop a trophy. We even had the same great-grandsire, Dyoll Starlight.
Seren stood like a rock while Catrin splashed around for an apple, then galloped hard on the homestretch. They finished with a few lengths’ lead over the other teams.
Rhiannon was next. She gave Cadfael a big kick as they bolted across the chalk line in the grass.
“Quiet aids!” called Rowena, our instructor.
She had driven us here early this morning in her green truck and rust-colored trailer. All day she kept her hawk-sharp eye on the team to ensure that everyone was riding safely and showing proper Pony Club spirit. That meant our riders must help out anyone who needed it and not be sore losers or gloating winners. It also meant that we ponies mustn’t lay back our ears or make faces at the other teams’ mounts to intimidate them.
Cadfael and Rhiannon set a blazing pace. But Cadfael was overexcited and didn’t stop when he reached the buckets. He kept galloping across the meadow. When Rhiannon finally got him turned around, he trampled in circles around the bucket, and I was afraid he’d knock it over. That would disqualify our team!
But Rhiannon bit into her apple quickest of all. Carmarthenshire still had a small lead by the time Cadfael flashed across the finish line.
Unfortunately, the last pair was little Nan Hughes on Arthur.
Each race had four laps, and our Pony Club had nine members. It was only fair that even the youngest and newest riders got to have a turn. But to send Arthur out for the anchor lap? It seemed a poor strategy. He was so wide, and seven-year-old Nan’s legs were so short, that her kicks only managed to coax him into a reluctant trot.
“Your stick, Nan, use your stick!” hollered Gwen. Nan didn’t like to use her riding crop, but it was the only tool with the power to make Arthur canter. Now she lifted her arm and gave the pony a firm swat on the flank. Arthur broke into a reluctant canter.
Nan had trouble biting into the slippery, wet apples, but eventually she got one. We ponies stamped and whinnied to Arthur as he lumbered down the homestretch. Look sharp, Arthur, stout lad!
nickered Seren. For Pony Club, for glory!
called Huw. Churn those hooves, Old Blossom. . . .
It was only this last cry from Cadfael that urged Arthur into a true gallop. You see, Arthur had a piebald color that, combined with his large girth, made him bear a striking resemblance to a black-and-white milk cow.
Cadfael’s nickname was the only thing I had known to annoy good-natured Arthur. As a result, he thundered toward the finish line with a speed that would be unremarkable to most onlookers but was astonishing to those who knew him. It was enough. Arthur’s spotted nose crossed the finish line a whisker ahead of Eridge Hunt’s pony.
The riders cheered for Nan. Her round face blushed to the tips of her ears. Arthur arched his neck with pride and looked almost regal.
But I was distracted from his moment of glory by the pail of apples near the finish line. The fact that they were bitten and bruised only made them smell sweeter. Gwen didn’t notice the reins sliding through her fingers. . . .
Copyright © 2018 by Whitney Sanderson; illustrated by Ruth Sanderson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.