On their way to warm-up, horses of every size, color and breed passed them, many of which had already completed their cross-country course. A big chestnut gelding, resembling Cody, his old buddy back home, captured Major’s attention and Katherine had difficulty keeping her mount on track toward the warm-up area. The pair kept to the outskirts, trotting and cantering just enough to warm him up but not tire him out, as they waited their turn at the hand-full of warm-up jumps. Out of a division of twenty-five entrants, Katherine and Major had drawn the last ride.
Katherine’s stomach tightened into a knot when their names were called by the announcer. As they stood on deck, approximately two miles of three-foot plus high and wide obstacles, as well as substantial banks and ditches winding up and down hills and through water, lay before them. The time had come to test the pair’s years of training and conditioning.
Not only did they need to navigate the grueling course cleanly to maintain or move up from fifth position, it needed to be completed within the optimum time or they would receive a time penalty that could push them out of the ribbons. Katherine gazed up at the clear blue skies. Thankfully, it was a clear morning and the course would be dry and fast.
As they waited their turn, Katherine managed to calm herself the way Betsy had taught her, breathing in and out slowly as she spoke to Major in a soothing voice, more for her benefit than for his. The off-the-track Thoroughbred seemed to be taking everything in stride.
“Next up, number thirty-one, Katherine Walker, onboard Major Command,” called the announcer.
“Okay boy, here we go.” Major calmly walked into the start box. Again, her heart began pounding, her chest feeling as if it might burst through her safety vest. She fastened the chinstrap of her helmet and gripped her reins as the announcer counted down to her start. Ten, nine, eight…finger on her stop watch… five, four, three… swallowed hard… The whistle sounded! Off they galloped down the lane toward their first fence. Suddenly, her nervousness disappeared, concentrating only on Major and the challenges ahead.
“We’ve got this, boy!” she said to the big gelding. The wind in her face with Major’s ears flicking back and forth between the terrain ahead and her cues, prompted a vision of her onboard Lady years ago. Suddenly, the first jump lay before them. Major’s ears pricked forward as he locked onto the fence, followed by the exhilaration of feeling his surge underneath her as they sailed over the obstacle. Again, his head bobbed in unison with the rhythmic sound of his long galloping strides as they approached the next jump.
Following a few relatively straightforward obstacles, more difficult questions tested their discipline and balance. They flew over large tables, though a keyhole and spanned ditches. Next came the challenging sequence through the water with its steep bank down and tight turn between the two narrow log jumps in a couple feet of water.
She could feel Major suck back and tense up. “It’s good, boy, we’re good. Nice and easy.” Into the murky water they went, churned up by dozens of horses that went before them. Major had no idea how deep it was or what lay beneath it, only his trust in Katherine carried him forward.
As soon as they cleared the first log and Major’s head shot up questioning the second, the wet reins slipped through her fingers. Major turned wide and by the time she gathered them back up, they were off-line and off-stride, coming into the second jump of the combination too tight, but it was too late to pull up! Somehow the big athletic gelding rounded over the log but brushed the top and landed off balance nearly losing his footing. No sooner than they recovered, they were lunging up the bank to another jump. Once they returned to flat ground, Katherine scrutinized her mount’s movement. Feeling assured by Major’s square and balanced strides, she pressed on, but valuable seconds were lost.
The next obstacle which appeared to be a straight-forward jump the afternoon before, glared ahead of them. The huge log appeared lit up from within, sunlight glistening off its polished finish. It was Steven’s engraved log! Major hesitated, breaking stride and veering to the left. Typical of most off-the-track Thoroughbreds, tracking left was their comfort zone. For that reason, Katherine always carried a crop in her left hand. Quickly, she showed him the tip of the bright blue crop and that’s all it took to straighten him out. “Com’on boy, get-up!” Katherine yelled, backing up her orders with her leg and seat. The pair sailed over the frightening obstacle, over jumping it and clearing it by what felt like nearly two feet. More seconds lost.
As they neared the end of the course, a familiar voice rang out above the crowd. “Go, Katherine!” It was Billy! There was no time to search him out, the crowd a blur as they galloped by, nearing the finish. Was Major tiring? No, he felt good, a little winded, but good. Katherine checked her watch. She knew she needed to make up time and the long stretch between them and the last jump and again to the finish would determine whether they placed or not.
Allowing the reins to slip through her fingers a measured amount, feeling she still maintained some degree of a handle on him, she leaned forward and felt Major respond with lengthened strides and a burst of speed. “Com’on boy, we’re almost there!” The next challenge would be gathering him up in time before the last jump, which was a good size table. She had rehearsed this very maneuver many times at home and at Jessie’s, letting him go and pulling him back up, but would he respond now?