I took Sonita behind the show barns and let her graze.
The grass was frosted over and the misty air was heavy enough to puddle in the hollows of her horse blanket. Water trickled down her sides and rivulets ran down her legs. Sonita shook and stomped as if she was covered with flies but never lifted her head from the grass.
This was it. We had one more go.
I stepped back and admired my big powerful mare.
Tall, solid and quick, both mentally and physically, she had given me everything I had asked for and earned her place in the world.
Sonita had made me a trainer.
I tipped my head back until the brim of my hat hit my back. The cold mist swirled around my face and I looked up into the sky.
We had barely squeaked into the finals. We stood in 10th place. We trailed the 9th place horse by 10 1/2 points. We trailed the leaders by 20 points and more. Since the results would come from our combined scores we had virtually no chance of changing our placing.
My horse was sold and my show finished the second we entered the ring.
I felt light and a little loopy. It occurred to me a huge weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had grown so accustomed to packing it around I didn't know I carried it until the burden went missing.
I reached out and scratched Sonita's withers. Icy water ran down my neck.
"Today is about fun," I told her.
"No scolding, no schooling, you can dink as much as you want. You've earned it."
"Good luck Mommy!"
My daughter came trotting out of the mist on her mare. Loki was still in her blanket and my daughter rode with just a halter and lead. Her voice jiggled as she kept a precarious balance.
I noticed she had slipped into my name from her childhood. It was my only clue she was starting to feel the stress of the show.
"Don't get yourself killed," I said, "I'll see you at the gate."
I headed back to the barn. It was time to saddle up.
We rode into the warm up pen. Sonita was calm and alert. I took a few deep breaths and felt myself relax.
The Big K sat on the rail. I paused for a second as we passed.
How are you doing?" He asked.
"You know, it's funny, but I feel just fine," I answered.
"Good, remember to think ahead and have some fun."
I leaned over and stroked Sonita's neck as we headed out into the warm-up. She shook her head in impatience. This was a show and Sonita was never in the mood for mushy stuff when she had work to do.
I put her into a lope and settled in. The feeling of lightness was still there and I tuned into the steady one-two-three of her lope as she went to work. She rolled her bit and dolphin bucked a time or two, flicking her ears back to see if I was paying attention.
"C'mon now, step up," I muttered and Sonita dropped her head and moved out.
I focused on the ground in front of us, turning off my brain and melting into my horse. We had done this so many times, in so many different arenas, so many different states. There was no need to think, no need to worry. Not today.
The shimmery silver path opened in front of us. The path I could find only when we were totally alone and practicing in a field. I relaxed even deeper into my saddle and we loped our circles, following the silver path.
The only sound was the steady chuffing of Sonita's breath as she found her rhythm.
I snapped my head around and looked to the gate.
"You're in the hole!" The gateman checked my number.
I stood and watched the last horse and rider before me finish a respectable run.
The gate swung open and we trotted into the center. Sonita's head was high, but her trot was steady.
We settled in the middle. I rocked back and forth in my stirrups, sneaking a belated check on my cinch. I adjusted my hat and pushed my glasses up my nose.
Sonita stood like a rock, eye balling the judges.
I lifted my head, looked the judges straight in the eye and smiled.
This was going to be a good day.
"Let's go Sonita, this is it."
As we loped off into our first circle I knew we were golden. Sonita was steady, her shoulders were up and there was no wobble.
My silver path opened in front of us.
I wish I could remember the rest of the pattern but I don't. I felt the rhythm of our ride and the sweetness of knowing my horse as well as she knew me. The only sound I heard was Sonita's steady breathing. She stayed so solid in her bridle, my hand, the romel and her grip on the bit were one in the same.
I simply followed the trail laid out in front of us, step by step. It faded away as we came into our last stop. The hollers of congratulations from my friends told me we had a clean run.
I pushed my feet in my stirrups, smashed down my hat and pushed up my glasses. I felt the quiver of Sonita's back muscles through my saddle and up my spine as she geared up for our cow. I waved at the gate man.
She stood frozen, the clatter of her bit telling me, "Hurry, hurry, let's get that cow!"
The dun and white cow blew out and trotted back and forth, looking beyond us at the exit gate on the other end of the arena.
I trotted Sonita toward it's right ear, trying to make the heifer see us, acknowledge us.
With a flash of her white face the cow jumped left and ran, still not willing to see us.
Sonita jumped too, a perfect mirror and pointed her nose at her hip, sending her across the arena.
I checked Sonita lightly, trying to keep her inner Doberman at bay. We didn't want to get this cow running, not yet.
The cow gave us a little trouble as we drove and stopped her back and forth across the short side of the arena. Sonita settled into her work. I let her box a little longer than the judges probably wanted, but hey, this was our day, not theirs.
We finally got the heifer to turn and look at us.
"Get her down the fence!" I heard the Big K shout.
"Fine! Don't push me!" I thought.
Sonita felt the shift in my focus and her head came up, worried.
The cow, free from our concentration, made a break for it.
I put my cow side leg on Sonita and she faded out. We caught our cow and drove her back, almost to the corner. Sonita rocked back and turned the heifer, I pointed my mare at her hip and we started our drive to the fence. As we passed the middle of the arena I pushed Sonita's hip towards the heifer, creating an opening through the corner.
Sonita dug deep as we went through the corner and we stayed with our cow even as she flipped her tail in the air and took off down the long side of the fence.
I sat back and kept my eye on the cows nose. I held Sonita back and she ran stride for stride until we passed the middle cone.
Sonita felt the release of my hand and flew.
The first penalty cone came roaring up at us, but Sonita stepped past our cow and blocked it in one smooth motion.
I felt the cows head hit my thigh and I gave her a quick glance. I couldn't help but feel a tug of satisfaction. The slobber going down my chaps was a point of pride and guaranteed bragging rights.
We came through the turn still with our cow and flew down the fence for another long run, our second turn was as smooth as the first.
By the time we set up for our third turn I sat up a little, wanting to save our cow for the circles.
Sonita shook her head at me, wanting to jump on this malcontent.
We pushed between the cow and the fence forcing her out to the middle of the arena. Sonita was still arguing and we came out a stride behind. I gave her her head, she pinned her ears and flew, catching us up within two strides.
We circled left, changed sides and circled right. Everything was clean and easy, the way it always goes when the pieces fit together.
The judges whistle blew and I dropped my reins and sat up. Sonita circled her cow one more time, not ready to give her up.
I heard my friends yelling, the Big K's "That's the way to do it!" coming through clear and proud.
Sonita strutted towards the gate, as only a winning show horse can, her ears pricked and her tail swinging.
I had no idea how we would come out, I realised I didn't care. The show was over and we had done just fine.