"No! No! No! What did I say about making a move at the last minute?"
Rob's voice was so loud, I could hear him all the way up at the barn--over a football field's length away. What I couldn't hear was the response from whoever he was yelling at. I hoped it wasn't Katie.
I led Tobey out of the barn and up to the mounting block. Behind me, my dad gave Gwenn a leg up onto Finch. "Thanks, Juan," she said. Even though I'd heard all the riders call my dad by his first name a million times before, it still sounded strange.
As I swung my leg over the saddle, my stomach started to tie up in knots. It was the first day of boot camp, which was what we dubbed the weeks of training before the three junior national equitation championships--the United States Equestrian Team Finals, the United States Equestrian Federation Medal Finals, and the ASPCA Maclay Finals, or just "the finals," as they were collectively known. This was when Rob got tough--tougher than usual, that is.
Tobey, eager to leave the flies of the stable behind, swished his tail and stomped a front hoof as I tightened the girth. "Hold on," I told him. "We're going." Tobey didn't like the girth too tight at first around his belly, so I always tightened it more once I mounted up. I'd learned this the hard way: one of the first times I'd ridden him, I tightened it all the way and hopped on only to have him buck me right off.
I gathered my reins, and Gwenn and I headed down to the indoor arena. West Hills was set on a hill, with the main barn and two outdoor rings on top and the indoor arena and half-mile galloping track down below. With all the buildings and the manicured grounds, the farm was its own little compound, like a mini-college campus.
"Have a good lesson, girls," Dad called after us.
The door to the arena yawned open, but we didn't go in yet. That was rule number one of riding at West Hills: Wait until Rob tells you to. And it applied to most everything.
Rob had left the sliding door open because the September sun was beating down on the metal roof, heating the indoor like a sauna. But since two out of three of the finals took place indoors, we practiced inside no matter how hot it was. Rob stood in the middle as Katie cantered a circle around him.
Rob stood five foot ten, had rusty brown hair, and was a little on the beefy side. He had great posture--he never slouched or slumped. No one knew his age for sure, but we guessed that he was around forty-five. If you saw him on the street, you probably wouldn't think much of him, but in the horse show world he was basically God. He was the riding world's equivalent of tennis's Nick Bollettieri or gymnastics' Bela Karolyi, and parents sent their kids from all over the country and paid a fortune for them to train with him. He was notorious for being tough on his riders, but as much as we griped about him, we all knew it was worth it because he was the best.
"How did that feel?" he asked Katie in a deceptively moderate tone. A tone I knew all too well.
Katie answered softly, "Not so good, I guess." Knowing what was coming next, I cringed for her and for how many times I'd been in her situation.
Suddenly Rob's voice boomed again. "Jesus Christ, Katie, have some conviction! Speak up! It was lousy. You were completely out of control." Rob paused. The worst was hopefully over--once he'd exploded, he usually calmed down. He continued in a saner tone, "The course is all parts that make up a whole. You have to ride it in parts and put the parts together. You got going and didn't stop to take a breath or collect your horse the whole way around. Again. And this time, for God's sake, get it right."
Katie cantered off the circle to start over. Her face muscles were tensed, like she was trying to hold it all together. I watched in silence, thinking: Please don't mess up. Because the more upset Rob got now, the tougher he would be on me. But also because Katie was my best friend at the barn and probably my best friend, period. If we hadn't met at the barn, I'm sure we never would have been friends. Other than riding, we really didn't have much in common. But horses had brought us together, and we'd found that even though we were from completely different backgrounds, we got along well.
Stretch's nostrils flared with each stride and he expelled the air in forceful snorts. His neck glistened with sweat, and where the reins rubbed against him was white with foam.
All in all, Katie was a pretty bad rider, but she got away with a fair amount because of Stretch. Stretch had won the finals a record five times and was Rob's best horse. He was pure white and was so easy anyone could ride him. In fact, Stretch would probably jump a course with a monkey on his back. When you jump, you have to tell your horse where to take off from. The correct spot to take off from--not too close to the jump and not too far away--is called the right "distance." If you're good at judging the distances and telling your horse where to take off from, people say you have a "good eye." Katie had what people called "no eye." Luckily for her, Stretch had a good eye of his own, and even when Katie didn't see the perfect distance, a lot of the time Stretch did. He was also known for being able to make a really long distance look good--hence the name Stretch.
Katie's father was a big-time New York City litigator, and he paid six figures a year to lease Stretch. The riders leased a horse from Rob or owned their own, except for me, that is. I rode whatever Rob gave me. For the past three years that had been Tobey.
This time Katie managed the course without any major faults. She kept cantering after the last fence because that was rule number one-A: You're not done until Rob says you're done.
"Okay, let him walk," Rob said. "Good enough . . . for today."
Katie barely had to tug on the reins and Stretch dropped back to a walk.
"The one thing I want you to think about is being subtle," Rob told her. "When you see the distance, don't make a big move for it. The judges never want to see that big move. Understand?"
"Yes," Katie said. "Thank you, Rob. Thanks a lot." Rule number two: Always say please and thank you. The rules weren't printed up and handed to you when you arrived at West Hills, but if you had any sense at all, you learned them quickly.
Rob turned to Gwenn and me. "Come on in, girls."
I took a deep breath and tried to ignore the butterflies attacking my stomach. After all, I had lived through boot camp and the finals plenty of times before. But it didn't matter. I could do the finals a hundred times and I'd still be fighting my nerves the whole way through. And at seventeen, this was my last chance.
Gwenn had headed into the ring. I realized I hadn't budged.
"Francie?" Rob said. "Would you like to grace us with your presence?"
Here goes everything, I thought, and pressed Tobey forward into the ring.
As I walked Tobey into the indoor, Katie and Tara were on their way out. Katie's face was sweaty, and she was still breathing hard. Tara, on the other hand, was perched tall in the saddle, not slouching at all. Apparently her lesson had gone a lot better than Katie's, which was no big surprise since Tara was the best rider in the barn.
Katie stopped Stretch for a second to talk to me. "Watch out," she warned. "Rob's in the worst mood."
"Not if you ride well," Tara snapped as she passed us. Besides being the best rider, she also happened to have the biggest attitude.
Katie rolled her eyes at Tara and said to me, "See you back up at the barn."
The stale, damp air of the indoor hit me as I picked up the trot. Soon I urged Tobey into a canter. After a few minutes Tara came back into the arena on a different horse--probably her third or fourth ride of the day. Unlike the rest of us, Tara didn't go to school. She had dropped out at sixteen so she could practice nonstop. This time she was riding her equitation horse, Riley, a bright blood bay with four white socks and a thick white blaze. Riley didn't have as proven a record as Stretch, but he was beautiful and talented. I was certain Rob had cut Tara's parents a deal on his lease fee since they didn't have a lot of money. With Tara, Rob didn't care so much about making money; he cared about winning. The way it worked was that the riders like Tara won, and then the riders like Katie and Gwenn, whose parents had the money, wanted to train with Rob.
Tara rode up next to the observation room, a small room on the long side of the arena with a big window that looked into the ring. Tara's mother was in there, like she was for every one of Tara's lessons because Tara's riding was her life. Gwenn's mother was in there too, not because Gwenn's riding was her life but because Gwenn was her life, and she was scared to let her thirteen-year-old daughter travel all the way from Florida to Massachusetts on her own. Like most parents on the circuit, Gwenn's mother would probably get tired of schlepping from show to show. Then Gwenn would be on her own, like so many of the other girls were.
Tara's mother stepped out of the observation room and handed her a purple Gatorade. When Tara finished gulping, Rob called us into the middle of the ring. He explained the course once and only once and then told Gwenn to go first. Making Gwenn go first was a test. This was her first boot camp, and Rob always liked to see how mentally tough new riders were--if they could handle the pressure.
Gwenn moved Finch forward but then looked back at Rob and said, "The vertical to the oxer in five strides?" Asking Rob to repeat information wasn't against the rules, but it still wasn't a good idea.
Rob squinted at her. "Do you need Tara to go first and show you how it's done?"
She bit her lip and didn't answer right away. It was obvious she was in awe of everything around her. Of how Rob taught and how we all listened. Of how much he demanded of us and of how good everyone else but her seemed right now. Of how she was finally here riding at West Hills after dreaming of it for so long and how she was wondering if she had made a big mistake by coming. She shook her head and turned Finch away from the group, departed into a canter. She made it over only two jumps before she fell apart. She jumped the first part of the bending line that she had asked Rob about, but then she didn't aim Finch at the second part. A bending line is two or sometimes even three fences that are set on a curve. It isn't that hard; you just have to be sure to tell your horse where to go with your eyes, legs, and hands. But Gwenn got flustered, aimed Finch at the standard at the side of the jump that held up the poles, and he slid to a stop. You couldn't blame him--he had no idea what she wanted from him. "Go back and try the whole line again," Rob told her.
This time Gwenn didn't aim any better. Instead of stopping, Finch just cantered right by the second jump.
"Gwenn!" Rob called out to her. "Don't forget to steer, okay? Again!"
She nodded and cantered to the line again. Once more Finch cantered right past the jump. I braced myself for Rob to explode.
"Did you come all this way to canter in circles?" Rob yelled at her.
She didn't answer.
"What's that? I can't hear you!"
"No," Gwenn managed.
"I sure hope not," Rob said, his voice still loud. "Because I can't stand when people waste my time. Are you here to waste my time?"
Gwenn shook her head. A few tears had rolled down her face. We'd all been there before--that point where you're deciding if you're going to burst into sobs and quit or somehow buck up and keep going. I just hoped Rob hadn't seen the tears. Rule number three: No matter what, no crying. But it was already too late.
"Stop!" he called out to her.
She brought Finch down to a walk.
"Are you crying?" Rob demanded.
Gwenn nodded meekly.
"There's no crying here at West Hills," he said. "Absolutely no crying. Got it?"
"Yeah," Gwenn mumbled.
Poor Gwenn. I wanted to whisper to her about rule number four: No saying "yeah" or "uh-huh" or anything but "yes" to Rob. Two rules broken in a matter of minutes.
"Excuse me?" Rob snapped.
Gwenn looked confused.
"What did you say?" he barked at her.
Gwenn's lower lip trembled.
"It's 'yes, Rob,' or 'I understand.'"
"Yes, Rob," Gwenn managed, and I knew right then that she'd be okay. It wouldn't be pretty, but she'd tough it out.
"Again, from the beginning," Rob told her. "When you're in the air over the first fence, you need to be looking at the second jump. Not at the standard. At the middle of the jump."
Gwenn tried the line again. I prayed for her to get over it this time.
"Look where you're going," Rob called to her. "Look at the jump. The middle of the jump. Don't be afraid of it. It won't bite you."
Gwenn kept her eye on the jump, and this time Finch sailed over. He had a funny look on his face: a look like, "That's all you wanted me to do--well, why didn't you just say so?" Gwenn continued around the rest of the course.
When she finished, Rob said, "You just have to look where you're going, okay? You can't be afraid of the jumps."
He walked up to her and patted her knee. "Don't worry, we'll fix you. That's what you're here for, right?" It was moments like this, when Rob seemed actually human, that we all lived for.From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Perfect Distance by Kim Ablon Whitney. Copyright © 2007 by Kim Ablon Whitney. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.