Blue Ribbon Summer
BROOKE RHODES YAWNED AND POKED her glasses farther up her nose as she walked across her backyard. It was early, probably not even seven thirty, though Brooke wasn’t sure, since she’d forgotten to put on her watch. Already, though, the heat made her feel lazy and sluggish, as if she should kick off her sneakers and cool her feet in the dew-damp grass.
There was a muffled thump from inside the small barn at the back of the tidy patch of lawn. Swallowing another yawn, Brooke hurried forward and shoved at the barn door. It resisted, remaining stubbornly shut. The humidity, Brooke’s stepfather said. He’d promised all last summer
to sand down the door so it worked better, but the chore had never quite made it to the top of his to-do list. Brooke wasn’t holding her breath for this summer either.
Another thump came from inside the barn, followed by a surprisingly deep nicker. Brooke smiled.
“Relax, Foxy girl. I’m coming,” she called.
She shoved harder and the door finally gave way, letting Brooke into the tiny barn. Well, Brooke liked to call it a barn, anyway. The Amish builders who’d come from St. Mary’s County to put it up had referred to it as a shed. It was a long, low wooden structure with a corrugated metal roof. Half of it was enclosed into a combination feed, tack, and general storage room, while the other half was an open stall where Foxy could come in out of the rain, heat, or wind, and where her food and water buckets hung. Brooke liked to call the two sections the pony part and the people part.
Foxy was staring over the Dutch door between the two halves, ears pricked, when Brooke let herself into the people part of the barn. “Don’t worry, breakfast is coming,” Brooke said, reaching out to rub the pony’s nose as she hurried past. “Just hang on. . . .”
She grabbed her battered old feed scoop and opened the metal trash can in the corner that held Foxy’s grain. The scoop had been a gift from the neighbors when Foxy had first come home four years earlier, and Brooke wouldn’t have replaced it with a newer or fancier one even if she could afford to, because it reminded her of that day—one of the best of her life. She scooped out the proper amount of feed in one expert movement and headed for the Dutch door.
“Out of the way, Foxy.” Brooke poked the pony in the chest, and Foxy moved aside as Brooke let herself into the stall area. After dumping the feed into Foxy’s pink plastic bucket, Brooke stepped back to allow the mare to dive in.
Brooke stood with Foxy for a moment, a hand on the pony’s glossy chestnut shoulder. This was always one of her favorite times of the day. It was even better now that school was out and Brooke didn’t have to rush off to meet the bus.
“What should we do today, girl?” Brooke murmured, picking absently at a spot of dried mud on the pony’s coat. “Maybe go for a ride before it gets too hot?”
Foxy flicked an ear her way, though she didn’t lift her
head from the bucket. Brooke’s gaze wandered out the open front of the shed. The sun was already burning the last of the dew off the grass. On the far side of Foxy’s three-acre pasture, Brooke saw that the neighbors’ retired draft horses had already taken up residence under the big oak tree on the property line, dozing and flicking their tails against the flies. It was going to be a hot one. Maybe it would be better to wait and ride after dinner.
A few minutes later Brooke let herself into the house through the back door. The kitchen smelled like coffee and toast. On the TV tucked under the cherrywood cabinets, a local newscaster was blabbering about the traffic. At the table, Brooke’s five-year-old twin brother and sister were chattering at each other, though Brooke couldn’t hear what they were saying over the sound of her stepfather’s booming voice. He was standing at the counter, his cell phone pressed to his ear with one hand while he fiddled with the coffee maker with the other.
Stepping over to the toaster, Brooke grabbed the bread someone had left nearby. Her mother glanced at her.
“Oh, sweetie,” she said. “There you are. What’s on
your agenda for today? Are you okay staying by yourself for a while? I’ve got an open house in . . .” She glanced at her gold watch and her eyes widened. “Less than forty minutes. I’ve got to go!”
At that moment Brooke’s stepfather hung up the phone. “I’m off,” he told his wife, stepping over to give her a peck on the cheek. “Got a hot lead on someone looking for a classic Corvette, and they want to come in right now.”
“Can you drop the twins off at day camp on your way to the lot?” Brooke’s mother asked. “I’m running late.”
“Sure.” Brooke’s stepfather ruffled Ethan’s hair. “Come on, twins. First one to the garage gets to ride shotgun.”
Brooke’s mother rolled her eyes. “No shotgun! I keep telling you, Roger, they’re too young. Backseat only, you two. In your car seats, straps buckled.” She bustled over to the table, efficiently packing Ethan and Emma into their Velcro sandals and sun hats.
Brooke’s stepfather grabbed his keys. “Need me to drop you off anywhere, Brooke?” he asked.
“No thanks.” Brooke shrugged. “I was just going to hang around here today. Maybe go for a ride or something.”
“Good, good.” Brooke could tell her stepfather wasn’t really listening. He had his cell phone out again, scrolling through the messages.
Moments later the others were gone and Brooke had the house to herself. She wandered over to switch off the TV, waving a hand to shoo away the flies buzzing over the crumbs the twins had left everywhere. Why did it sometimes feel as if her family forgot she was even around?
She shrugged off the thought. Her family was busy, that was all. Her stepfather’s used car lot was the most successful one on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Let Rhodes put you on the road—that was his slogan, and everyone Brooke met seemed to know it. Sometimes she wished she still had her old last name, Bradley. But when Brooke was six years old, her stepfather had officially adopted her, and her mother had insisted they all have the same last name, saying that would help make them a family. Brooke didn’t really mind, especially since her real father had died when she was too young to remember him. But she sometimes wished she’d at least been given a choice.
That was how Brooke’s mother did things, though.
When she made a decision, she stuck to it: no second thoughts. She was the type of person who couldn’t stay still for more than two minutes at a time unless she was asleep. She’d gone back to selling real estate the moment the twins started preschool, and when she wasn’t at the office or visiting a sale property, she was tidying her own house or shopping or doing any of the zillion other things she did every day.
Brooke got tired just thinking about it. She definitely hadn’t inherited her mom’s energy level or need to be involved in everything. In fact, she loved nothing more than spending an entire afternoon lying in the grass watching Foxy graze, or curling up for hours to read a book, whether it was a horse care or training manual or her very favorite classic story, Misty of Chincoteague. Brooke had read the story of the Beebe children and their special pony so many times that every page was dog-eared and the cover was starting to come loose.
The ding of the toaster broke Brooke out of her thoughts. Grabbing her toast, she tossed it onto a plate, then poured herself a glass of orange juice. Wandering into the den, she
set her breakfast down next to the computer. The screen was a lot bigger than the one on her laptop, and she was hoping Maddie had put more photos on the Pony Post.
The Pony Post was a private online message board with just four members. Brooke had never met the other three in person, but she considered them among her best friends. Over the past year and a half, the four of them had bonded over their shared love of Chincoteague ponies.
Maddie Martinez had been the one to come up with the idea of the site. She lived in northern California and rode a Chincoteague mare named Cloudy who was the spitting image of the original Misty. Maddie was the type of person Brooke wished she could be—active, outgoing, and fun-loving.
Then there was Nina Peralt. She lived in New Orleans with her parents and owned a pony named Bay Breeze. She was one of the coolest people Brooke knew—sociable and artsy and smart—and her whole big-city existence seemed very sophisticated compared to Brooke’s life.
The final member was Haley Duncan, who lived on a small farm in Wisconsin. Her pony was a spunky gelding
named Wings that Haley leased from a neighbor. Haley was bold and determined and focused, which were all traits that Brooke guessed were very necessary for Haley’s chosen sport of eventing.
Sometimes Brooke’s friend Adam made fun of her “imaginary friends,” as he called them. But Brooke couldn’t imagine life without Maddie, Nina, Haley, and the Pony Post.
Brooke chewed a bite of toast as she logged on to the Internet. Soon the familiar Pony Post logo popped up. It showed four Chincoteague ponies galloping through the surf on Assateague Island, which was only an hour or so down the coast from where Brooke was sitting at that very moment.
Quite a few new posts had appeared since Brooke had checked in the evening before. There were several new photos, too, just as she’d hoped. Maddie had participated in a special trail ride at her barn the previous weekend, and she’d been sharing photos ever since.
[MADDIE] Check it out, guys—my friends e-mailed me more pix from the Snack &
Swim. Vic even got one of me diving off Cloudy’s back! Hope you like them!
[NINA] Fab photos! Wish we could do something like that at my barn. But I guess we’d have to swim in the Mississippi River, lol! Probably not such a brilliant idea.
[HALEY] LOL! Def. not. We don’t want u and Breezy to get swept out into the Gulf of Mexico!
[NINA] No worries, we already know all our ponies can swim, right?
Brooke smiled as she read her friends’ comments. Their ponies’ special heritage was what had originally drawn the Pony Post members together. But only Brooke had actually seen her pony swim across the channel between Assateague and Chincoteague islands during the annual pony penning. That was almost four years ago, when
Brooke was barely eight years old, but she remembered it as if it had happened yesterday.
Brooke had loved horses and ponies for as long as she could remember. She’d started riding at age five on the neighbors’ gentle, patient draft horses, and had taken weekly riding lessons the summer she was seven, though somehow there hadn’t seemed to be enough time or money to continue after the twins came along. Brooke had dreamed of her own pony for so long that when her parents had finally agreed to let her use her saved-up allowance and birthday money to buy one at the Chincoteague pony auction, Brooke had barely dared to believe it.
Actually, Foxy hadn’t been her first choice. Brooke had hoped to find a pinto like the famous Misty. She’d stayed at the pony pens long after her parents had lost interest and wandered off to find something to eat, looking over each spindly-legged foal and taking notes to help herself remember which were her favorites. She’d spotted a sweet-faced bay filly with markings similar to Misty’s,
and a little buckskin colt with bold white splashes on both sides. Those had been her favorites, though Brooke had also picked out two or three other cute spotted foals.
Then the pony auction had started. When the bay filly’s turn came, Brooke never even got the chance to bid. The opening bid was double the total amount she had to spend. Within seconds, other bidders had jumped in, and Brooke didn’t even hear the final price.
“Never mind, sweetie,” her mother had said. “You can try for the next one.”
But the buckskin colt had sold for triple Brooke’s top price, and the others for more than that. Even the solid-colored foals were more expensive than she could afford.
Finally there were only a few young ponies left. One of them was a gangly yearling filly that Brooke had barely noticed in the pens, a chestnut with a lighter mane and tail. She didn’t fit Brooke’s idea of the perfect Chincoteague pony. But she had a soft eye and a calm temperament, and at that moment, that had been enough for Brooke to raise her hand when the auctioneer called for bids. Brooke had never regretted ending up with Foxy—or forgotten the
way her stepfather had kicked in an extra hundred dollars at the last minute so Brooke could buy her.
Brooke smiled as she thought back to that exciting day, even as she continued to scan the rest of the new entries on the Pony Post.
[NINA] What are you and Cloudy up to now that the Snack & Swim is over? And how about the rest of you? Haley, Brooke?
[MADDIE] Back to reg. lessons. Ms. Emerson says we’re going to start doing some jumping gymnastics. Should be fun! I love jumping, and so does Cloudy!!
[NINA] Cool! I just started doing more jumping too, mostly b/c I found out my barn is having a show this fall. There’s going to be a costume class too! Can’t wait to think of ideas for that!!
[HALEY] Excellent! What other classes will u enter?
[NINA] Not sure yet—my instructor says we’ll figure it out by the end of the summer. What about u, Haley? Got any events coming up or anything?
[HALEY] Wings and I have big plans for this summer. I have almost enough $ saved up for another lesson w/ my XC coach.
[MADDIE] XC? That’s cross-country, right? Like jumping over big giant logs and other scary stuff like that?
[HALEY] LOL! It’s not that scary—it’s fun! U should try it sometime . . .
Brooke scanned the rest of the entries. Nina and Maddie asked Haley more questions about eventing, then added more about their own lessons. They all had such big plans for themselves and their ponies for the summer!
And what plans do I have? Brooke wondered, nibbling
at her toast, which had gone cold as she read. Nothing. Just riding around the neighborhood trying not to get sunburned or eaten alive by mosquitoes and blackflies. Big whoop.
She sighed. It wasn’t as if she had much choice. Lessons and shows cost money, and Brooke never seemed to have enough of that. She’d recently spent everything she’d saved up from her allowance and the past couple months of odd jobs—washing cars at the lot, feeding the neighbors’ drafts when they went out of town, the occasional babysitting gig—on fly spray and horse treats, a new hoofpick to replace the one she’d lost somehow and a new halter to replace the one Foxy had broken. There never seemed to be an end to the expenses a pony could run up!
Still, Brooke knew she should stop feeling sorry for herself. She was lucky to have a pony at all. She was lucky her parents had helped her buy Foxy, and that they paid for the pony’s basic needs, even if her stepfather still grumbled every time he swiped his credit card at the feed store or wrote a check to the farrier who trimmed Foxy’s hooves.
She skimmed her friends’ posts again. Their summer
plans sounded so exciting. But why should they have all the fun? Even if Brooke and Foxy wouldn’t be showing—or even taking lessons—anytime soon, that didn’t mean they couldn’t train as if they were. Right?
Brooke’s mood brightened as she turned the idea over in her head. She owned a whole shelf full of books about horses and riding, and there were more in the library, not to mention plenty of videos online. She’d done most of Foxy’s training herself so far, with lots of research and advice from her neighbors and others. And Foxy was five now—old enough to do anything Brooke wanted to do with her. So why not get more serious about their training? It would be fun!
“Thanks, guys,” Brooke murmured, closing the Pony Post page. She’d wait and update her friends later. Right now she was eager to head back out to the barn and get started on her own big plans.
Brooke dropped her dishes in the sink, then went back outside. It was hotter already, and the drone of insects filled the air. Brooke grabbed Foxy’s halter as she entered
through the people part of the barn, then headed out into the pasture. Foxy was grazing in her favorite spot right across the fence from the draft horses’ shade tree. She lifted her head when Brooke called her, then ambled over to meet her owner.
“Hey, girl,” Brooke whispered, running her hand up the pony’s sleek reddish-brown neck to scratch her favorite spot. “Ready to become a show horse?”
Foxy curled her neck, her lower lip flopping with pleasure as she leaned into the scratch. After a moment Brooke slid the halter onto Foxy’s head, then led her over to the hitching ring in the run-in stall.
“Be right back,” Brooke said, giving the mare a pat. She hurried back into the people part of the barn. She kept her grooming tools in a bucket that had held Foxy’s water for the first few months Brooke had owned her. That winter, the bucket had cracked in the first hard freeze, and Brooke had had to beg her parents for the money to replace it with a rubber one. But the plastic one still worked fine to hold her grooming stuff.
Soon she was hard at work brushing the dirt out of Foxy’s coat and picking burrs and twigs out of her mane and tail. By the time the mare was halfway clean, Brooke was sweaty and panting as if she’d just run halfway to Salisbury. The thought of lugging her saddle out of the barn and tacking up made her want to lie down and take a nap in the shade.
“Maybe it’s too hot to start our training right now,” she told Foxy, who had one hind foot cocked and appeared to be half asleep. Brooke glanced down at herself, realizing something else. “Besides, I forgot to change clothes.”
She’d ridden countless times in her current outfit of shorts and tennis shoes, but rarely in a saddle. The leathers of her English saddle always pinched her bare legs, and the fenders on her battered old Western one rubbed.
Brooke hesitated, glancing toward the house. It wouldn’t take long to run inside and change into jeans and paddock boots. But was it really worth it on such a hot day?
Instead, she ducked into the people part just long enough to grab her plastic schooling helmet and Foxy’s bridle. Moments later, she was slipping on to Foxy
bareback from the fence rail. She glanced at the humble riding ring she’d laid out in one corner of the pasture, then tugged on one rein to turn Foxy in the other direction.
“It’s no big deal,” she murmured, rubbing the mare’s withers as they set out along the edge of the soybean field next door. “We can start our training tomorrow.”