December the 22nd. The day before, the day before Christmas Eve.Snowflakes were drifting slowly to the frostbitten ground outside, cool winter sunlight casting icy blue shadows across the pockmarked cobbles. Clouds of warm breath billowed from every stable, hinting at the rugged up occupants within. A blackbird alighted on Kestral’s door and ruffled her feathers in a disgruntled manner as she tried to dislodge the thick white flakes that had already started to attach themselves to her feathers.
It was Christmas, traditionally a time for fun, warmth, gift giving and…pedantry?
‘Abigail? Why are you hanging up multicoloured gazelle?’
‘Gazelle? What on earth are you on about David? These are reindeer!’
‘Hmmm, I’ll take your word for it but they look much more like antelope to me. Last time I checked, deer had antlers, not horns.’
‘Oh for goodness sake!’
David was not usually possessed with much in the way of festive spirit but he did his best to appear enthused with the rest of Abigail’s decorations. Following on from last year’s tree fiasco, he’d already organised a trip out to the patch of woodland behind the indoor school where there were conifers a-plenty.
They would be taking Maisie with them – a young Highland mare that they had recently purchased from an old friend of Doc Lowe’s, who used to work on the nearby estate as a gamekeeper. As part of the estate’s deer management, he often went up the hills with a small party to stalk the deer and Maisie - like many Highlands bred for the purpose - was one of the ponies that brought them back down. When he retired, he let the landowner keep the rest of his ponies but kept Maisie until his health deteriorated and he had to sell, as she had been a particular favourite of his.
David reasoned that as a horse well used to lugging 15 stone deer around the moors, she’d be perfectly happy to carry a small tree back to the yard and right he was.
‘Right Abigail, that’s me off to get Maisie tacked up – do you want me to do Tully and Rhona for the lesson as well?’
‘Err…yeah, that would be brilliant, thanks David. Ooh wait, you couldn’t clear out the box next to Ptolemy when you’re finished could you? I think Marian’s been keeping his extra rugs and things in there.’
‘Yeah, ok…any reason?’
Abigail shrugged, smiling. ‘Just…get it done, ok? I’ll tell you why later.’
David did as he was told and fetched the mare in from the field, his boots crunching loudly in the snowy carpet below. She was a nice mare, quiet and very easy to handle. In less than ten minutes she was tacked up and ready to go. Now all he needed was Nikolai, who was supposed to give him a hand in chopping down the unfortunate fir.
‘Niko? Niko, where are you?’
The icy silence told him that the Russian was elsewhere, so he tied Maisie to the wall and shuffled his way back to the office.
‘Abigail, have you seen –‘
He was cut off in mid flow as Abigail raised a hand to shush him, the other holding a somewhat outdated looking mobile to her ear.
‘Right, ok, yep. That soon!? No, no, that’s no trouble at all, just a little unexpected…ha, yes, my thoughts exactly. Right ok then, I’ll see you later on, ok, byeee!’
‘Yes David, what was that you were saying?’
‘Err, umm…oh yeah, have you seen Nikolai anywhere? Only he was supposed to be helping me with the tree and now he’s just gone and bugg…oh, hello Niko.’
The tall man raised one eyebrow at him and hung Jaconelli’s spare headcollar up on the wall by the door.
‘You were looking for me?’
‘Err, yeah. Are you ready to go? Maisie’s all tacked up and everything.’
Nikolai nodded and stepped outside without as much as a second glance. David rolled his eyes and put on his warm fleece-lined jerkin which was a godsend during the cold winter months. Outside, the mare was standing quietly, ears pricked and alert.
‘Come on then girl, let’s go.’
The trip there and back again took less than half an hour and it wasn’t long before they arrived back in the yard, covered in snow and pine needles, and, in Maisie’s case at least, a whole tree.
‘Abigail! Where’d you want this put then?’
The yard owner looked up from adjusting Rhona’s girth and nodded towards the office door.
‘In the office, there’s a bucket waiting. I’m just taking Rhona for a quick hack before I do the accounts – it always helps me clear my mind when I’m thinking too much’
‘…which shouldn’t happen too often…’ muttered David, earning himself a thwack on the head from a suitably non impressed Abigail.
‘Anyway, I’ll be back soon and don’t forget to do that stable for me, ok?’
Shortly after he’d wrestled the extremely pointy piece of vegetation into its temporary home, David made his way over to the Livery block to clear out the stable as per Abigail’s wishes. Lisa had just finished mucking out Kerry and valiantly offered to help.
‘Abigail’s hiding something isn’t she?’
‘Why would you say that?’ asked David, frowning. ‘I haven’t noticed anything odd.’
‘Oh come on David!’ cried Lisa, rolling her eyes at him. ‘It’s obvious! Think about it! For the last two weeks she’s been going out to ‘visit a friend’ and she goes all quiet and mysterious whenever someone mentions the spare stables in the livery block’
‘So I think she’s bought another horse.’
‘What? No way! She’d tell us if she had – we’re staff!’
‘Ah but she wouldn’t need to if she was buying one for herself though would she?’ she replied slyly.
‘Hmmm, that’s true.’
‘Oh I wonder what breed it’ll be! Probably something big and eventery knowing Abigail. As much as she loves her cobs I can’t see her buying one that wouldn’t be for the school.’
‘Hey, it’s a bit soon to be thinking about all this though isn’t it? We don’t even know if she’s buying a horse, let alone competing on it!’
‘Oh David go away, you’re no fun at all.’
Out in the fields, Abigail frowned. Was she doing the right thing? Running a riding school was a full time job and she rarely got the chance to do anything for herself so was she being practical or just being selfish? She sighed and nudged Rhona gently into a forward going trot across the snow covered grass.
Ahead of her was the so called ‘Actor’s Geldings’ – the small herd that belonged to Lindsey the stunt rider. As she approached, Rebel the cob looked up from his meal and flicked his ears forward at her, obviously expecting to be rewarded for his attention with treats.
When he realised that he wasn’t going to get anything, he lowered his head and continued eating, leaving Abigail to pass him unimpeded. Lindsey was busy most of the day and yet she still found time to spend with her horses. As she thought this, the woman in question appeared on the horizon, bridle over a shoulder and two headcollars dangling over the other.
She ruffled Rebel’s forelock tuft affectionately as she buckled up the headcollar, dismissing his grumpy looking expression as usual and doing the same for Jean-Luc. Mishto was swiftly bridled and within a minute the three of them trotted off in the direction of the school, leadropes draped haphazardly over their necks.
She clicked to them softly and the three turned as one, following her every command in well rehearsed perfection.
Abigail smiled. Yes, she’d manage just fine.
Christmas Eve finally came and with it the promise of yet more snow. Riding lessons were put on hold and hacks halted indefinitely until the worst of the blizzards were over. Several clients found themselves unable to leave the village because of the snowdrifts and those that did make it in seemed to spend most of their time defrosting in the office or exchanging gifts.
‘Merry Christmas Abigail!’ chorused Baz and Jenny as they handed over a tempting looking present.
‘We hope you haven’t already got one but well, even if you have, they never go wrong on a yard!’
‘Yeah!’ said Baz, grinning. ‘We’ll probably end up borrowing it ourselves at some point too. I’ve been thinking about getting a horse myself recently.’
‘Ooh thank you! Oh really? Time was you’d never even consider getting on one, let alone having one of your own!’ chuckled Abigail, as she placed the gift under the freshly decorated tree.
Baz nodded. ‘Well, let’s just say Jenny brought me round to the idea…’
‘Yes, but he better not beat me if he starts competing on it!’
‘Oh I don’t know, what’s that they say about the student surpassing the master?’ he said, eyebrows raised cheekily, avoiding a playful shove from his girlfriend.
‘See you later and have a good Christmas! We’re going to go home early before the snow comes on – we don’t want to be snowed out!’
‘Ok then, you too and take care on the roads, there have been a few accidents near Hollowcroft this week.’
As she watched the couple leave, arms wrapped tightly around each other’s shoulders for warmth a furious ringing caught her attention. She lifted the phone to her face and smiled.
As the horsebox reversed into the yard, wheels turning slowly against the crust of frozen snow and ice, Abigail felt her heart rate increase. This was it, there was no going back. With shaking hands, she helped the driver undo the bolts on the ramp and pulled it down to reveal her extra special Christmas present.
‘Hey, hey…easy lad, good boy, come on…’
The gelding stepped out into the snow with a friendly and curious expression on his face, ears pricked in excitement. After a quick chat with the driver, Abigail waved goodbye and led her new horse round the back of the main stable block, still completely lost for words.
Even though this was not the first time she had met him, he still astonished her with his unfamiliarity. It had been years since she’d had her own personal horse and this one meant so much to her for so many reasons. She opened the gate and led him into his box, smiling at the gelding’s questioning face as he snuffled around the corners with his nose.
As he hadn’t been in the horsebox long, only twenty minutes or so, he would be alright to ride once he’d settled in a little.
She fetched the tack which she had collected prior to his arrival and after giving him a quick groom, tacked him up.
Running her fingers through his short and scruffy mane, the two of them walked to the indoor school, the gelding matching her pace instinctively. He stood perfectly still for her as she got on and adjusted her stirrups, only moving off when she asked him to.
It was only when she heard David’s appreciative chuckle from the other side of the arena that she realised she was grinning.
‘So this is who you’ve been hiding from us then!’
Abigail smiled sheepishly and gave her horse a pat. ‘Yes, sorry about that. I couldn’t quite believe that I was buying him myself and I suppose I didn’t want to spoil it! This is Harry or ‘The Abbot of Unreason’ if you want to go into specifics. He’s a TB x ID.’
David nodded and rubbed the gelding’s nose fondly. ‘Well, you’ve certainly got good taste, I’ll grant you that. Still, where did this come from? You hadn’t mentioned anything about getting your own horse for a long time!’
Abigail shrugged. ‘It wasn’t top of my agenda, I agree but well… Have I ever told you that I used to breed TBs?’
David rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, you might have mentioned it once or twice…yeah…’
The yard owner ignored his sarcasm and continued, nudging the gelding into a walk.
‘Well, when I was a lot younger I had an absolutely fantastic young stallion as an event prospect. I’d bought him as a four year old, straight off the track and aimed to bring him on to compete. He was the most intelligent horse I’d ever known – picked things up incredibly quickly and had the most wonderful personality so it was no surprise that we moved up the levels within a few years. Joker he was called, Joker’s Gambit. As he got older, I bred from him and he sired several foals, most of which have done very well for themselves now too. I had him until he was almost fourteen and that’s when I had to take over the yard from my mother so I just didn’t have the time to ride him or compete. Luckily one of my best friends who had always liked him, offered to take him on for me and I agreed. They got on like a house on fire and even bought one of his offspring to bring on once Joker was past his prime.’
As she spoke, David could see sadness creep into her eyes and there was a lump in her throat as she continued.
‘I got a phone call from my friend the other day to say that Joker had died in his stable at the grand old age of 27 after a long and happy retirement. I was devastated – I hadn’t been to see him in a good few years and I could kick myself that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Joker was the horse that made me want to keep riding after a few nasty falls and I just couldn’t believe that he was gone.’
She smiled awkwardly and clicked to Harry, sending him up a gear into a trot over the poles.
‘Anyway, the other reason behind the call was that she was giving up riding and wanted to know if I’d like to give a home to one of Joker’s offspring. At first I didn’t like the idea but I went along to see him regardless and oh, it was like my horse was still alive! Harry looks just like him and he’s definitely inherited his sire’s nature.’
As she said this, Harry snorted loudly and chewed at his bit, arching his neck proudly.
‘I visited a few more times to make sure that I was doing the right thing and finally paid for him last week. I know it’s a bit of an indulgence seeing as I can’t use him in lessons or anything but I just couldn’t let the opportunity slip by!’
‘Well I think you made a good decision, besides! Everyone else here has a staff horse and it’s about time you had one too.’ said David, laughing.
The next day, once everyone had been properly introduced, Abigail, David and Nikolai set off on an afternoon hack through the snow.
Harry went like a dream and Abigail couldn’t wipe the smile off her face all day.
They stopped for a time beside the loch, taking in the picturesque views before they headed back to the yard.
For the next few weeks, Abigail would be bombarded with questions as to the nature of her Christmas presents by the kids and what was the best one but she knew that the answer would be simple.
Her very own horse.