Chapter One - Heading West
“Heather, where are you?” called Mrs. Richardson from the kitchen.
“I’m in the living room, Mom,” replied Heather.
“What do you want?” the teenager asked a moment later as she walked into the kitchen.
“Your father and I have decided to take a short trip to Oklahoma to visit some friends.”
“Oklahoma? Friends?” asked the girl.
“Dad has an old work buddy who moved to Oklahoma a few years ago. He and Dad have been planning to get together for a while.”
“But I wanted to spend my school vacation playing with the horses. Do we have to go?” asked Heather, disappointedly.
“Yes, we really do. It’ll be fun, I -”
Just then Champ, Heather’s spunky little dachshund, came charging into the kitchen, barking, jumping, and wagging his tail in excitement. Mrs. Richardson smiled at the little dog, and continued, “I promise, it’ll be fun. Besides, I didn’t tell you the best part. Mr. Henderson, Dad’s friend, and his family live on a ranch, they have a daughter your age, and they’ve got over 20 horses. He promised that you can ride all day, every day, if you’d like.”
“More than 20 horses?” asked Heather in astonishment. “That’s a lot of riding!” Maybe this vacation wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Two weeks later, Heather, her dad, mom, and lots of luggage were riding in a rental car, heading to the Hendersons’ house in the heart of Oklahoma. Champ had been left in the care of the Bunkers, good friends of the Richardsons; Nicholas Bunker, one of Heather’s best friends, lived in a beautiful home, on a farm with a huge indoor riding ring and lots of horses. His favorite horse was Spot, a big, loudly-marked Appaloosa who was an awesome jumper. The best part, though, was that Nicholas was a really nice person and Heather always had a blast when she rode with him. He also adored Champ almost as much as Heather loved the opinionated dachshund. Heather’s dog was spoiled rotten by the Bunkers and there was no doubt the little animal loved all the attention.
“When will we be there?” asked Heather as she yawned. The plane ride had been long and she was tired.
“Pretty soon, kiddo,” replied Mr. Richardson. “We’ll be getting off the highway in a few minutes and then it’s just a fifteen-minute drive to the ranch.”
Heather stared out the window. Gone were the rolling hills, the lush green grass, and robust maple trees of New England. Arriving in Oklahoma City, the land had been flat and dry, with few trees and red clay in place of the very brown dirt she was used to seeing. As they neared the Hendersons’ ranch, the terrain slowly changed into gently sloping hills with lots of emerald grass and vegetation, but the dirt was still red. It looked so strange to a girl who had never traveled outside her native New England.
At last the Richardsons’ car pulled off the highway and followed a long, straight, two-lane road through several small towns. Eventually, Mr. Richardson drove onto a bumpy dirt driveway with a small, white, one-story house at the far end. When the car finally came to a stop, all the occupants groaned a sigh of relief and climbed out of the vehicle.
“Welcome! Welcome!” came a voice from the house. Heather looked over to see a big-bellied man with a gray beard, matching cowboy hat and boots, jeans, and an enormous smile ambling towards them.
“Bob!” replied Mr. Richardson in a loud, happy voice. “It’s great to see you! Thanks so much for inviting us!”
“You must be tired,” added a woman who practically ran from the house to welcome the visitors. “Helen, it’s wonderful to see you again,” Mrs. Henderson bubbled as she gave Heather’s mother a big hug. “And this must be Heather.” Turning to the young girl, she continued, “My, how you’ve grown. Last time I saw you, you were just a tiny thing. Oh, but you all must be tired. Please, come in to the house, freshen up, relax, and tell us all about your trip.”
The group slowly made their way to the house, with the adults talking non-stop. Walking into the simple, tidy little ranch house, Heather was delighted to see all sorts of horse decorations upon the walls, from show ribbons to photos and hand-drawn pictures of horses. Some of the pictures were simple stick figures, drawn on paper that had long since curled and turned brown around the edges, some were a little more sophisticated, while others were fantastic representations of equines drawn by someone who obviously understood Heather’s favorite animal. All the pictures were signed ‘Katie.’ Mr. Richardson had told Heather about Katie Henderson, but where was she?
At that moment, a tall, blond girl about Heather’s age entered the room. “Hi,” she said shyly.
“Oh, Heather, this is our daughter Katie,” said Mrs. Henderson
“Hi,” Heather responded, acting a bit shy herself.
“Would you like to meet our horses?” asked Katie.
“Oh, honey, I’m sure Heather would rather rest right now. The Richardsons have had a long trip.”
“No, I’m fine. I’d love to meet Katie’s horses,” Heather said eagerly.
“They’re out back,” happily explained Katie. “Follow me.” With that, the two girls disappeared.
Heather’s eyes bulged in awe as she and Katie walked around the back of the house. There, previously hidden by the house and several trees was a huge barn surrounded by enormous pastures. The pastures were so big that Heather couldn’t see where they ended. In each field grazed several horses.
“Wow,” was all the stunned girl could say.
Katie smiled. “We have 1,600 acres and 48 horses.”
“Forty-eight?!” repeated Heather. “I think I’ve died and gone to horse heaven!” she joked. “My mom told me you had over 20 horses, but I thought she meant you had 21 or 22, not 48!”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, it’s a lot of work taking care of 48 horses.”
“What do you do with them?” asked Heather. “You couldn’t possibly ride each one every day.”
“No, I only ride a few. Most of the horses are either broodmares or young stock. We raise and sell them. My dad gets a lot of them started with saddle work too. Come on, let’s go for a ride and I’ll introduce you to the whole herd.”
Heather followed Katie into the barn where they tacked up two big chestnut Quarter Horses. Heather’s horse, Buck, stood patiently while the girl struggled with the heavy western saddle. “Oh my gosh, this saddle is so heavy. You must have some pretty good muscles to get this on Buck’s back,” heaved Heather as she hoisted the saddle onto the horse.
Katie laughed and teased, “Don’t you ride western? That’s all we do around here.”
“Actually, I ride saddleseat,” replied Heather.
“What’s that? Is it like hunt seat?”
“Sort of,” answered Heather. “It’s an English style of riding, but you sit differently.” Heather told Katie all about saddleseat riding and her beloved Blackjack as she adjusted the western saddle on Buck.
“Have you ever ridden western?”
“Sure,” replied Heather. “Lots of times. Before I started riding at Chauncy’s, I used to ride western at a local stable.”
“Who is Chauncy?”
“Oh, he’s the owner of Gallant Morgans, the farm where I board my horses. He’s a really nice person and has taught me a ton about horses.”
Once the saddle was on, Katie handed Heather a bridle with a simple snaffle bit. In just a few minutes, both girls were ready to ride. Katie tossed Heather a hard hat made to look like a western cowboy hat, then led the horses out of the barn, and off they went.
“So Blackjack has won a lot of ribbons?” asked Katie as she and her horse Jasper led the way toward the pastures.
“Yup,” bragged Heather. “He’s so much fun to show, he just loves it. He’ll puff up so he looks twice his size, pick his feet way up, snort, and act like a wild stallion. But all you have to do is scold him in an annoyed voice and he turns into a big wuss. I tried to teach him to jump too. He was such a klutz that I gave up. Rusty is my jumping horse. He belongs to Chauncy and is an amazing jumper.”
“Do you ever trail ride?” asked Katie as she guided Jasper to a metal gate, used her left leg to swing his rump over near the entry, and then sidepassed the horse so that he stood within inches of the gate. Leaning down, she flipped the latch, let the gate roll open, and rode through. Katie motioned Heather to follow and then closed the gate in a similar fashion. It all seemed so easy for Katie and reminded Heather of the time she’d watched Chauncy’s daughter Laura tackle a gate obstacle with Rusty in a trail class.
“I love trail riding. Blackjack is pretty good out in the woods, although he can be kinda goofy sometimes. Frosty is my trail horse. She has the most amazing road trot. It’s so fast that Spot has to canter to keep up with it.”
“Oh, he’s a huge Appaloosa who belongs to my friend Nicholas. Spot’s a jumping machine. He’ll go over anything, and Nicholas has won a gazillion trophies with him. He gets really angry when we’re trail riding and he can’t keep up with Frosty and her incredible road trot.”
“Do you have any other horses?”
“Shadow is Frosty’s daughter; her dad is Blackjack. She’s only two and I’m going to start training her to drive when I get home. Chauncy promised he’d show me how. Then there’s Annie. I call her Annie Bananie. She’s actually Chauncy’s horse but I get to ride her as much as I want. She trots just as fast as Frosty, maybe even faster. We won the Morgan Mile Trotting Races up in Vermont; that was so cool.”
“Trotting races?” asked Katie as the two riders meandered casually through the pasture.
Heather explained the Justin Morgan Trotting Races to Katie and then continued her horse introductions. “There’s Robin and Rerun. Robin is a Morgan too, and she belongs to my friend Karen. Robin is kinda slow and lazy, but that’s actually good because Karen doesn’t like to go fast. Rerun is Robin’s best friend. She’s a little gray and white Miniature Horse and can be pretty bossy around the other horses. I think she forgets that she’s so small.”
“Do you put her out with the other horses?” asked Katie in disbelief.
“No, she usually just goes out with Robin. Robin follows her around the ring like a little lost puppy.”
The two girls rode through the various pastures of the Henderson ranch for several hours. They talked about horses, school, and friends while looking at all the beautiful mares and foals wandering around. As they were heading back to the barn, Heather spotted something grayish brown waddling around in the dirt ahead of them. It was a little bit bigger than a guinea pig, with a long, rat-like tail; thin, pointed snout; and big ears. Its back was covered with what looked like a hard, armored shell.
Katie squinted to get a good look and then replied, “Oh, it’s just an armadillo.”
“I’ve never seen one,” said Heather. “Is it dangerous?”
“Nah, they’re just a pain in the butt. They dig holes all over the place.”
“Okay if I take a look?”
“Sure, Heather. He won’t hurt you.”
Heather urged Buck into a slow trot, and the horse lazily sauntered over to the little creature. The armadillo, sensing approaching danger, suddenly curled up in a ball.
Katie laughed. “Guess he doesn’t like you; he probably thinks you want to eat him!”
Heather stopped Buck just a few feet from the armadillo. She bent down to get a good look but all she could see was a ball of grayish armor. Disappointed, she sighed, “That’s dumb.”
“Actually, it’s pretty smart. Rolling up protects them from their enemies.”
Losing interest, Heather turned Buck around and they all headed back to the barn.
Once at the barn, the girls continued to chat as though they’d been best friends for years. The horses didn’t need to be cooled off since all they had done was go for a quiet walk through the fields. A simple brushing was all they required before they were led back to their stalls. Once Buck was put away, Heather walked up to the front of the barn where she thought Katie was waiting, but Katie wasn’t there. “Katie? Where are you?”
“I’m in here,” came the reply. Heather followed the voice to a stall with an open door. Peering in, she saw Katie brushing a handsome buckskin Quarter Horse.
“Who is this?”
“Hot Shot,” Katie proudly answered. “He’s my baby. I guess he’s like Blackjack is to you. He’s my all-time favorite horse and a blast to ride.”
“Is he a show horse?” asked Heather as she entered the stall and put her hand out so the curious horse could sniff her.
“No, he’s my barrel racing horse. We’ve won more events together than anybody around here. I think he’s the champion of all of Oklahoma.”
“You’re kidding,” said Heather in disbelief.
“No, I’m not,” answered Katie in total seriousness. “He really is a champion.”
“Wow, that’s so neat,” said Heather as she ran her hand along Hot Shot’s neck.
“Hey, would you like to ride him?” Katie asked excitedly.
“Are you serious? May I?”
“Sure. As long as you take it slow to start. Come on!”