I’m eighteen, he’s twenty-four. I’m Californian, he’s Irish. I’m a good rider, he’s a great rider. I’m taking my life day by day, he’s got his figured out. I’m normally shy, he’s confident without being cocky. But, he has so much confidence that some of it spills over onto me. I came here to train under Charles Griffen, a militant and slightly senile, yet arguably the most decorated rider in the history of our sport, and my horsemanship has improved ten-fold since. It’s not because of Charles, but because of Riley. Not only is my horse going better than he ever has under his watchful eye, but I’m finding myself more confident on other horses. I love to work with the underdogs, the ones no one thinks will amount to anything. But I like to be the one that owns them because, if they’re not mine, I get stuck in my head and get too nervous about doing something wrong. Riley’s taught me how to feel for their soul when I get on, to stop thinking about what I should be doing and start feeling what I need to be doing. And now, my little project mare named Belle, a small and crooked-legged, but well-bred, filly that was born a disappointment into Charles’ herd, is developing into a horse I could only dream about affording, crooked leg and all. Riley has made sure that I know that her progress is largely thanks to me.
This barn’s motto is “See the Five,” which really means “Imagine you are riding towards the five Olympic rings every time you get on.” It can also mean “See your distance, get to the jump, and don’t mess up.” It’s a highly competitive environment with several past and future Olympians training here at any given time. When I first came to the farm, I didn’t feel like I fit in. In many ways, I still don’t. But, little by little, I feel like I’m getting there. In the beginning, Charles paid me almost no attention. I was just one of seven working students, and I was decidedly just “good” at what I did as any of the others - probably even less “good” than many. But, now, he gives me rides on some of his most promising youngsters - a sign that he might actually be starting to respect me. And then, yesterday, Jamie Morrison, Gold medalist at the last Olympics, trailered in for a lesson. The first time I saw her trailer in, I was more interested in being invisible and hiding my mediocrity, so I hid in the barn and made myself busy away from her discerning eyes. But, yesterday, I helped set up jumps and pick up poles during her lesson. When she told Charles that her groom and working student had had to stay back at the barn for some reason, he pointed at me to jump on and take her horse for a walk around the ring to cool off.
This change is all thanks to Riley. I see how he never lets nerves stiffen his body or cloud his mind. I see how quietly he sits his lean six-foot frame on a horse’s back when the horse doesn’t know where to put its feet, and how, because of Riley’s quiet patience, the horse figures it out. He got on this little two-year-old once who’d only been backed a handful of times. Riley got on bareback in the field with just a halter on, trotting and cantering him around all of his buddies. I struggle to control my well-trained Grand Prix horse in a field that, in a saddle and bridle, because all he wants to do is gallop. But, with Riley on there, this little horse acted as though he’d been broke for ten years. He even did a flying lead change when asked! He inspires me, he teaches me, and he has the patience to help me work through my nerves.
I’ve never been in love, but I think this must be what it feels like. Excited and consumed, my heart splits wide open with happiness and an overwhelming sense of pride whenever I see him, which is all the time since we work and live together, 24/7. We’ve been a thing since the day after I started working here, and that was seven months ago. We’ve been sharing his tiny apartment adjacent to the tack room since. But, there’s someone else - a French girl living one state over in New Jersey. She went to buy a horse from his family in Ireland four years ago, before he came to the US, and they’ve been together ever since. I guess he’s got a pattern of finding girls in barns.
On paper, they make sense. She’s doing what he’s doing - trying to make it. She's a great rider too. And from money. She’s got a string of amazing horses, and could probably buy him a few too. She’s only working to build her credibility among potential clients, not because she has to. I have my talents, but I'm not Olympic-bound. She could be. And he will be. They make sense. I’m just the other girl. I’m brunette, she’s blonde. I’m 5’5, she’s 5’8. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’ll be. They both do. But, I like having him next to me and, right now, this is all I want. It’s a no brainer. With him, I feel like I could be someone I never thought I could.
That’s why, when he told me that he was dropping off a recently-sold horse in New Jersey and would be back tomorrow, I clammed up. We never talk about her, but I know enough from everyone else that works here to know that she’s living in New Jersey. He and I talk about lots of stuff, but never her. He’s never even told me she exists. It’s become an unspoken truth about our relationship. Sometimes, about once a week, he’ll go out to “inspect all the paddocks,” which is code for talking to her. He’ll come back an hour later, I’ll ask how the fences look even though I can see him sitting at the end of the driveway, and he’ll say that everything looks good. We’ve got our rhythm. Maybe I should be more ashamed of myself, and maybe I should be more jealous, but I’m not. I’m good with where we are. I guess because it doesn’t feel real. He hasn’t been to visit her once since I started here, while we’ve spent every waking, and non-waking, minute together.
When he told me about his plans, it almost seemed like he was asking me whether he should go. Is it crazy of me to think he’d be asking me for permission? I am just the other girl, after all. As much as I might love him (or whatever it is that I feel), she’s been his person for four years. He must love her, not me. So, instead of saying anything that could jeopardize our rhythm, I acted in accordance with my eighteen years and pretended to be way cooler than I actually am, hiding every feeling I might have, and just nodded. I acted as if my boyfriend were saying he was going to go pick up some dinner. He left soon after with his overnight bag and the only non-riding shirt he owns. As much as I want to think I saw disappointment flash across his face, it wouldn’t be the first time I misread a guy.
Luckily, the day was busy after he left at 5am. Down his very capable two hands and a big show coming up, we struggled to stay on our strict schedule of having feed done by 6:30am, all twenty competition horses ridden by 1pm, and all fifteen babies handled and/or worked by 4pm, and afternoon feed finished by 4:30pm. And, of course, a potential buyer with deep pockets stopped in unannounced to see Fabian, the long-legged black beauty that was priced at $130,000USD as a five-year-old. It was a busy, hot day and I was forced to put Riley out of my mind until the barn was finally finished, with all the horses put out who needed putting out, and all the horses tucked in who needed tucking in.
And then I had something new to occupy my mind: a dinner date request from Matias, a tall and muscular yard hand from Mexico who, until then, had always seemed just distantly friendly. I didn’t know what to say, so I said yes. A distraction from why Riley wasn’t going to be joining me for dinner — Mac & Cheese eaten over the tack room sink — seemed like a welcome idea. Matias seemed like a good guy, and I’d heard he had a family back home that he focused on providing for, unlike the others who drank away their earnings and always seemed to size up my small frame. For what, I don’t want to know. I’ve been assured that they’re all creep and no bite, but I haven’t gotten used to their stares yet.
It was an excruciating two hours, but I finally made it back to the barn, kicked off my boots, and ran into our room to avoid conversation with any of the other workers or working students. I struggled to control my shocked laughter as I replayed the evening at warp speed in my mind.
As I entered the bedroom, I saw Riley sitting on the bed looking startled at my entrance. His face quickly broke into a big grin as he opened his arm and made a place for me beside him on our tiny twin bed.
“I came back early to surprise you, only to find out you went out with Matias,” he said carefully. It wasn’t a question, it was somewhat of a joke, yet also kind of a serious statement. He didn’t seem upset, but he seemed a little wary. Different somehow. I couldn’t dwell too long on it, the events of the evening occupying my mind.
“Yeah… He, um, well he asked me for dinner but I didn’t know he meant, like, dinner!” I replied, giggling, before jumping into bed and burying my face in his armpit. “You were gone and I thought it’d be fun to have some company. That is not what he was thinking. Well, not an innocent kind of company, at least.”
His whole body shook with laughter. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe he asked. you. Didn’t he know about me?” He shook his head in a sort of bewilderment before asking, “Well… How was it?”
I looked up, unsure what kind of question he was asking. He was toying with me, he must have known by my reaction how the night had gone. I opened my mouth to respond but, before I could, he scrunched his nose and turned his gaze towards my feet. “Mia, my girl, you have got to see a doctor about those feet. Something very wrong is happening down there,” he said to me.
I groaned, tossing my pillow over them. “I know. There are little black spots all over the soles now and they fucking hurt to touch, like maybe the flesh is rotting, but with the Meadowlark show coming up, you know he won’t grant any time off, even if my feet are rotting off.”
I’d cracked the soles of both of my Blundstones during the winter freeze before we’d gone to Florida and, between my sweat, dirty stalls, and the mud of the fields, so much crap (literally) had gotten in there that, over time, I’d developed an infection. It started out as Athlete’s Foot, or something similar, but, during the heat of the summer months, it had morphed into something so much worse. And, because I haven’t had a day off in seven months, I have yet to buy new boots. To stay dry, I had to put bags over my feet before putting on my boots, creating a perfect environment for infection to grow. When aired out, my feet could clear an entire barn.
He sat up and shoved the pillow off my feet. “Get up. I need to hear more about this ‘date,’ but we have got to deal with your feet.” He stood up, took my hand, and led me to our bathroom. “Get in the tub,” he instructed.
I obeyed, uncertain and hardly ready for more embarrassment. He went to get something from the barn, returning with a bottle of Betadine, a bucket, a scrub brush, and a bottle of beer for each of us.
I winced. “You can’t be serious about using Betadine on my feet! Is that safe for people?”
“It’s a disinfectant, so yes. And I’ll water it down some. But we need to deal with this, and something horse strength probably isn’t a bad idea. If we don’t, and if you don’t push for a day off, you’re going to have a serious problem.”
I groaned, knowing he was right. He sat down, told me to soak my feet, and then started scrubbing, handing me a towel to grit my teeth against. I don’t know how his eyes didn’t start to water as he got up close to make sure he was getting all of the black off.
“It’s just like cleaning my mare’s thrush!” he commented, grinning up at me. I groaned, wanting to laugh at the ridiculousness but biting into the towel instead.
To distract me, and probably himself, he started asking about my “date” again. “What did you lot do all night?”
“Well,” I said, “It was weird. He dressed up in a pink Ralph Lauren polo shirt, wore so much cologne, opened the car door for me at every stop — even though it was my car. First, we went to this tent in the middle of a field, about twenty minutes from here. Inside, it was a beer and liquor store, but everything was sold at a discount price and everyone only spoke Spanish, and they only took cash. We picked up some beer and then, following his directions, he took me through his neighbourhood. Everyone there stared at me, especially when Matias told me to stop so we could meet some of his friends — none of which spoke to me in English. We were there for probably another fifteen or twenty minutes. Only then did we go to dinner. I don’t even know where we were, but we took in our beer, sat at the very back, and then a waitress who only spoke Spanish came to serve us. He had to order for me.”
“Aw, how sweet. He was showing you off!” Riley joked. “Trying to be a gentleman. What did you talk about?
I groaned thinking about it. “Absolutely nothing. We tried to talk about work, but my Spanish vocabulary consists of maybe ten words, and his English isn’t all that much better. We tried to talk about you, but that also didn’t work.” I paused, thinking back. “It was weird, he almost smelled like you too? But not in a good way. It was almost like he’d bathed in your cologne so that it almost hurt my nostrils to sit close to him.”
That made Riley laugh his full Irish belly laugh. “That might be what happened. He called me while I was on the road to ask if he could borrow some cologne, I said, ‘Sure, go ahead, my friend!’ He said he had a date, but it wasn’t until the Spaniard called that I knew who the date was with. How did it even happen?”
“I don’t know. He asked me about you, to start. He asked if you were around, and then if you and I were… you know. I didn’t know what to say, so I said you were visiting your girlfriend. And then he asked me out to dinner.”
Riley didn’t say anything. He just looked thoughtful for a moment. And then said, shaking his head, “I am going to need to talk to that boy.”
I paused, weighing my words. “Are you jealous at all?”
He looked startled. “What? Oh, no. Not of Matias. When the Spaniard called and said you were out for dinner with one of the Mexicans, I felt a surge of worry. I don’t trust most of those guys further than I could toss ‘em. But then I heard that it was Matias, and I knew you’d be safe — even if you’d have a good story afterwards.” He winked. “If it’d been Marco, or any of the other guys, I’d have come back from Jersey in a heartbeat, even if the horse was still in the trailer, and stopped you from going. But Matias is harmless. Misguided, apparently, but harmless.”
“He took me to a hotel!” I blurted. “Doesn’t seem so harmless to me,” I muttered, trying to contain a grin that was threatening at the corners of my mouth.
His eyes widened. “What? What do you mean?”
“I was confused! But he said we were going home, I thought. But then, following his directions back from that restaurant, we ended up in the parking lot of the Hilton. I said, ‘Where are we? I thought we were going home?’ And he said, pointing at the hotel, ‘You and me go there?’ And then he did thrusting motions with his hips.”
Riley looked as if he wanted to laugh and throw a punch all at once. “And then what?” he asked, cautiously.
“What do you think?! I said ‘NO!’ I was mortified. Thank God I was driving because I turned the car around, speeding out of the lot so fast I probably left burn tracks, and drove about 90mph all the way back home. Those windy roads have never seen such speed. My little car just couldn’t go fast enough.”
Riley chuckled. I love the way he chuckles. As if nothing and no one could bother him and, by proxy, it felt like nothing and no one could bother me. Usually, that is. This time, I felt something. Feelings were bubbling up and I couldn’t keep them down anymore. I had to say something.
I took a deep breath and said, looking down at my hands, “Riley… The whole night, throughout it all, all I could think about was you and how, well, I wanted to answer Matias differently when he asked about you and I. I wanted you to be there with me, not the next state over.”
I felt him look at me. I let my eyes meet his. His face was serious as he dropped the scrub brush into the bucket and put my foot down. I couldn’t read his face. Oh, please say something, I thought. Stop looking at me and say something.
Finally, after what felt like an hour of silence, he stood up to kiss me. Deeply. When he pulled away, he cupped my chin to make sure I was looking him in the eyes and said, “Girl, you’re something else.” And then he smiled. I smiled back, but a part of me held back anything more. There was something else in his eyes that I couldn’t read.