I let Sonita extend trot around the arena on a loose rein. I was so jazzed up she was incapable of standing still and I knew better than to school on any of our maneuvers.
I kept out of the way of the other riders and let myself be drawn into their warm-ups. Huge sliding stops, lightening fast spins and lead changes without a lift of the head or swing of the tail surrounded me. The other open riders had calm, almost serene looks on their faces as they rode past. The knot in my stomach turned into a fist. I was going to be massacred. Slaughtered. Sauteed and served up medium rare.
I saw the Big K waving at me from the rail. Relieved, I trotted over to him.
"What's in your head? You looked a little spooked," he said.
I recognised the gentle tone. He used it most on newbie riders and scared colts. It pissed me off.
"I'm wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea," I snapped.
"Is that why you're not loping your circles?"
"I'm riding all over the place, I keep getting in everybody's way."
"Who cares? You know better than to let them run over you. Look em' in the eye and mow 'em down. You're going to be fine."
I tried to take a deep breath but it came out more of a snivelley sigh.
"I am in way over my head," I said.
"Don't let yourself get hung on how these horses look in their warm-up, half of them will come undone in the show pen and you know it," K said, " this is just another day, you're ready and so is your horse."
He was right. I knew it. But I was falling apart.
Sonita started to paw at the fence, as usual she made a half-hearted attempt to thump the toe of K's boot resting on the rail. He stomped on the rail to let her know he was watching her, she pinned her ears and ground her teeth.
"I'd better get moving before I have to thump on her," I said.
Sonita's everyday orneriness gave me some comfort, at least she was calm enough to be a bitch.
I put my leg on Sonita and she roll-backed off the rail and melted into the river of loping horses. I picked my head up, looked straight ahead and settled into my seat. When I was crowded by another rider I looked them in the eye and held my course.
My name was called, I was in the hole. Sonita had found her rhythm and was loping strong and steady. She transitioned up and down without a fuss. I went down to the end of the arena and loped through a few run-downs, showing her the lead we'd start on and the direction of our first set of spins. We stopped a few times and relaxed at the end. We were as ready as we could be.
I went to the gate and stood off to the side. Normally I would watch my competitors, but my hand wasn't steady on the reins and my stomach was flipping. I didn't think I could bear it. Sonita's breathing was solid, a light sweat covered her neck and flanks, she was warm, but not hot.
She stood with her head up, watching the horse and rider in the arena work their cow. The cattle were big and soft. Hopefully they weren't too soft, Sonita looked her best when she got to slam things around.
She shifted back and forth, restless and wanting in the arena.
My name was called. So was Sonita's.
The gate was opened, I nodded at the gate man's "Good luck."
I squashed my hat down and pushed my glasses up.
I walked Sonita forward a few steps, just enough to let the judges see my departure and we loped off.
Sonita began to build her speed into the first run-down, she wanted to fly, but I knew our best chance at a decent stop was to keep her checked.
Her first stop was rough, she threw her head when I said , "Whoa" and I felt her off hind leg skip in the dirt.
It made her crooked when she stopped and she snapped her tail when I laid my leg on her to straighten her out as we backed.
I made myself sit and breathe for an extra count of ten before we did our quarter turn to the judges and walked out to begin our circles.
Sonita did her first set just fine, at least her feet were on the right path, but her head was up, and she was ogling the stands. I gave her a squeeze with my legs and she raised her head higher, refusing to go into the bridle.
"Dammit Sonita, not today, " I growled.
She flicked an ear at me but our first lead change was coming up and she was still strung out.
I cued her change and realised I had risen about an inch out of my seat, an old habit I fell back on when I was tense. I paid for it with a dragged lead in the back for our first stride.
I could hear the points ticking in my mind as they fell away with each new blunder.
I settled down and so did my mare for the rest of the pattern. Our second change was clean, our spins were fast and solid and her last two stops were straight.
We stood and breathed for a few seconds before calling for our cow. Sonita stared at the gate, I could feel the familiar quiver of her back through my saddle as her anticipation grew. The roller in her bit clattered as she worked it and white foam sprayed to the ground with every roll.
I pushed my feet deep into my stirrups, squashed down my hat and pushed back my glasses.
The gate opened and we trotted forward to meet our cow. The heifer was slow and a little sullen in the box work, but I got her moving with me and driving across the pen. As we set up to go through our corner I saw the cows tail kink a little. She had spotted the opening I was offering down long side of the arena.
I wondered if she was going to stay logey or if she was going to blast down the fence. She took off with her tail in the air.
It looked like we were going to have a long sweet run down the fence. I settled back and kept watching my cow.
Before we got to the middle cone the little stinker ducked and whipped back towards the gate. Sonita turned with her and leaped forward to head her off. She turned so hard and fast I almost lost my seat. I felt my stirrup go and I started to slide down her side.
All that went through my head was, "Here we go!"
Visions of me laying in the dirt at my first World Show flashed before my eyes as I grabbed for the horn and hoisted myself back into the saddle.
Sonita hesitated just long enough for me to find my stirrup and we lined out and headed back down the fence. But I had lost control of my cow.
My mind was still back on my near disaster when I felt Sonita step to the cow to make our second turn.
Frustrated and angry because we were behind she began her turn a stride too soon. The heifer ducked under her neck and shot through the corner.
I sat back, took a breath and faded off the cow to slow her down.
We were out of the running for sure now. The loss of working advantage and the points taken for running through the corner sealed the deal.
Sonita and I finished our run but never really pulled ourselves together. It was an eternity before I heard the judges whistle. I pulled Sonita up and we walked out of the arena.
I had told myself over and over again it didn't matter, I just wanted to have fun. But it did. I felt like I had let the Big K down, myself down and especially Sonita. She was so much better than what we had done out there in the arena.
I hopped down to loosen her cinch and take off her skid boots before I remounted to cool her down.
I worked hard to clear any sign of disappointment off my face. Once Sonita's breathing had eased I went to watch the rest of the runs.
The Big K came up behind us and rested his arm across the back of my saddle. He handed me a beer. Sonita made a nasty face at him and stomped a hind foot. She turned back around to watch a cow run when she realised he wasn't going to leave.
"Well, what do you think?" He asked me.
"I'm not ready to talk about it yet," I said.
"You gave us all something fun to watch," he said.
"Shut up," was all I could come up with, but I had to hide my smile.
It was pretty funny, I had almost biffed it at the NRCHA World show.
"Tomorrows another day," K said.
"I mean it, have you been paying attention to your class?"
"Well you're sitting 10th."
"My run was a disaster, how can that be right?"
"There were some bigger disasters, that's all.
Suddenly I was a lot more interested in the last go.
We sat and watched in silence. It's considered bad form to wish a losing run on a fellow competitor. But once in a while it's OK to root for the cow.
That was a great cow.
I still held the 10th place slot after the last go.
"How about that?" The Big K grinned at me.
"Looks like you and Sonita made the finals."