John’s barn was small and sweet. He explained to Zoe when she showed up at three-o’clock that he leased the property from a couple who lived in Manhattan. They had bought the farm for their daughter but her interest in horses had waned and now they only came to the farm infrequently. There was a charming brick house covered in swaths of ivy that sat empty most of the year. He got a break on the lease fee for mowing the lawns and doing general upkeep around the farm and house, essentially acting as the de facto caretaker.
An old dog that looked sort of like a basset hound lay on a dog bed in the aisle.
“That’s Harry,” John said. “He doesn’t move much. You don’t have a dog?”
“No,” Zoe said as she walked down the aisle.
Sprinklings of shavings and hay dusted the floor. A grooming box cluttered with brushes sat up against the wall. The whole place smelled a little musty and damp but it was kind of a nice smell, like when rain hits asphalt on a hot day.
“I thought all horse people have dogs.”
“Most of them do,” Zoe said.
“But you don’t like dogs?”
“Oh, I love dogs.”
It was the one sane choice Zoe had made so far in life—to not get a dog. Not a Jack Russell or a Corgi, or a Danny & Ron’s dog. Not even a tiny Chihuahua that could fit in her purse. She knew she wasn’t responsible enough to have a dog. Maybe someday she would be able to take care of a dog, but for now she knew she could barely take care of herself.
Zoe walked through the barn, stopping at every stall as John told her about each horse, where they had come from, and what he was doing with them. Zoe noticed manure in a few of the stalls. They’d clearly been cleaned—just not continuously picked out.
There was Cruz, the six year-old jumper John thought might end up being an eq horse; Oakley, a five year-old prospect he thought showed the potential to be a high junior/amateur jumper, maybe even a grand prix horse; and Dibs, a five-year-old hunter.
He did most of his business with a dealer in Holland. John didn’t go there but instead watched videos and had horses sent over.
The last stall was the mare. A flysheet hung a little lopsided on her stall door, an errant strap dangling toward the floor. Chunky pink bell boots for turnout (or so Zoe hoped) were velcroed to the blanket hook. The whole barn seemed a little 4-H, but Zoe willed herself not to care.
She went to lean over the stall door, eager to have a look, nearly giddy with excitement, and John pulled her back. “Careful,” he said.
“Does she bite?”
“Seriously?” she said.
“No, but she’s not exactly America’s sweetheart. Mostly she bites other horses if they come too close but so far she hasn’t bitten any humans.”
“And you bought her why?”
“The price was right and she’s fine once you’re on her. She’s just nasty in the stall. That’s partly why I thought she’d make a good derby horse. Some rich owner can watch her win, enjoy her from a distance.”
“And never even come to the barn to pat her?”
“You can pat her, she just doesn’t really like it. Let me get her out of her stall. She’s beautiful to look at.”
Zoe looked back at the grooming stall. A broom and shovel leaned against the wall—they didn’t hang neatly from wall-mounted hooks like at most of the barns Zoe was used to. “Where are your grooms, or groom anyway?”
“I don’t have any.”
“I have one guy who helps me muck out in the mornings but that’s it. I’m a one-man operation.”
Zoe blew out a breath. This was getting worse by the minute. A bitch of a mare and a barn with no grooms. She stared straight ahead, unwilling to even look at the mare that John was putting on the cross-ties. Why had she gotten her hopes up?
She heard the snap of the clips on the halter and finally let her gaze fall on the mare.
Okay, she was pretty. She was a beautiful dapple grey. Oh, how gorgeous greys were when they were young! She had a nice slope to her shoulder and a level topline. Her hind end was compact and the angle to her pasterns correct. Her mane and tail were thick and her eye was intelligent.
Her coat gleamed and she was a nice weight. Zoe had to hand it to John—his barn might not be immaculate but his horses looked healthy and fit and that was what counted.
“See,” he said.
“Okay, she’s well put together.” Zoe checked out her legs and hooves, spotting a big splint. “I can see why she’s not doing the conformation.”
The mare flattened her ears as if she didn’t appreciate Zoe criticizing her.
“What’s her name?”
“Girl Next Door but we call her Gidget.”
“Girl Next Door.” Zoe laughed. It was the wrong name for any horse Zoe should ever ride. And it was the wrong name for a horse that was barn sour. “Please tell me she doesn’t pin her ears when you’re on her?”
“Let’s get the tack on her and you can see for yourself.”
His ring wasn’t large and a sprinkler hose was curled up in the corner along with a faded mounting block, a lunge line, a tattered lunge whip, and a few crops.
John got on first. She wasn’t a beautiful mover but Zoe didn’t expect her to be. Most derby horses weren’t spectacular movers. They were a bit more of a hybrid between a hunter and a jumper. They could jump the moon yet do it in style, they had a huge step, but they didn’t typically sweep across the ground pointing their toes.
She did have a really nice canter, which was the gait that counted most in the derbies.
And she did wear her ears nicely. Up and straight ahead like a radar. But none of that mattered if she didn’t jump well.
John headed toward a small vertical. She jumped it fine but nothing amazing. Zoe wanted to see amazing. She felt a wave of disappointment—what if John was wrong and his idea of an amazing jump was really just an average jump?
He continued around the simple course that was set up. The jumps were plain, many just standards and rails with the occasional box wall or gate. The highest one was set at maybe three-foot-nine.
John’s eye was accurate and his position correct. He was big on the mare but given his height he rode lightly and controlled his upper body—a must for a tall rider. Zoe found herself impressed by his riding. He certainly would fit in on the circuit.
Gidget jumped the highest jump the best of the group, snapping up her knees. John came to a walk and said, “Want to put them up, or you want to get on her now?”
“I’ll put a few up,” she said. “If you don’t mind.”
She still hadn’t seen anything that took her breath away. Right now the horse was more an average 3’6” horse, and nothing more. With an accurate ride from someone like Zoe she could get ribbons in the derbies but Zoe needed to do more than get ribbons—she needed to win.
“Nope. That’s fine.”
She raised a vertical-oxer bending line a few holes. “Too high?”
“As high as you want. Just wait.”
She returned back to watching from the rail. He picked up a canter and headed to the line. The mare jumped the crap out of both fences this time. Knees snapped up and back rounded. John looked back at Zoe as he turned the corner. “See?”
“Do it one more time the other direction,” she said, her heart quickening.
Same thing—form, style, and scope. The mare was six inches over the oxer. Zoe felt goosebumps go up on her forearms. She was itching to ride her and feel her jump herself.
John gave Zoe a leg up, tossing her easily into the saddle. She could have vaulted straight over to the other side. She picked up a trot and soon a canter. She didn’t need to waste time. The mare was comfortable to sit on and had a great feel about her. She was naturally balanced, straight, and rhythmic.
Zoe aimed her for one of the smaller jumps. It felt fine—nothing to write home about. Then she turned to the bigger bending line and she felt what she had seen from the ground. The mare had unbelievable power and gave Zoe that ultimate sky bound feeling. John was right after all—she could be a winning derby horse.
“Is she ever spooky?” Zoe said, when she brought her back to a walk. She patted the mare tentatively on the neck.
“No, she’s totally brave. She’ll jump anything.”
“Anything?” Zoe looked around the ring. “’Cause these jumps suck.”
“I think she’ll jump anything. She’s never not jumped anything.”
“We should take her over to Linda’s. See what she does over a real course—no offense.”
“No offense taken,” he said.
“You have a trailer?” she asked.
“Yes, I have a trailer,” he said.
More about Hunter Derby
Sometimes the only way out is through.
After she aged out of the juniors at eighteen and turned professional, Zoe Tramell’s life unraveled. Once one of the top junior riders in the country, now she has no horses to show, debts to pay off, and a court-ordered community service at a therapeutic riding center, Narrow Lane.
Thank goodness, Hannah helped her get another job riding for Linda Maro or she wouldn’t have any connection to the show circuit that has been her home since she showed ponies. When Zoe starts working at Narrow Lane, she’s certain she will hate every minute of her time there. But she begins to see how horses can be important beyond the show ring.
She also finds a derby horse in an unlikely place—the barn of a local trainer, John Bradstreet. Gidget has all the talent to win on the ‘A’ Circuit and Zoe wants to take the mare all the way to Derby Finals. If she can put herself back in the winner’s circle, she’s sure top barns will be clamoring to hire her.
But when she finds herself falling in love with John, she has to ask what’s more important—reestablishing herself as a top rider, or finally being with a good man.
About the Author
Kim Ablon Whitney is a USEF ‘R’ in hunters, equitation, and jumpers. She’s a frequent contributor to Horse Network and runs the blog Below The Cut Off. Hunter Derby is available for Kindle and in paperback at Amazon.com.