“Okay, so the first thing we’ve got to do is get him out of his stall and hook him up to the cross ties,” Ashley explained. Caleb was a little terrified at the prospect of climbing up on that very large horse. Having the desire to learn how to ride a horse is different than actually doing it.
But, as he kept reminding himself, he had asked her to teach him how to ride. Still, now that he was actually in the barn, standing next to an animal that looked like he could cause some serious bruising; it was a little more daunting.
“How…?” Caleb gulped. Ashley shook her head and chuckled at him.
“Just grab him by his halter. Dude’s not going to hurt you, Caleb. He’s fourteen years old. He’s very well trained, I promise. We use him for all the newbies. He’s very gentle.”
“Offended?” Ashley teased him, flirting a little.
Caleb stuck his chin out and reached up to take the halter like she’d shown him. Dude stepped forward just like he was supposed to, and let Caleb lead him out of the stall. Or maybe Dude just knew where to go, in spite of Caleb’s naïveté. The kind old horse stopped exactly at the location where his cross ties were waiting, and Ashley showed Caleb how to hook him up.
“This really isn’t that difficult,” she said with laughter in her voice. “We haven’t even gotten to the fun parts.”
“Now what?” Caleb had his back pressed up against the wall as far away from the horse as possible, and wondered if he was going to either run from the barn or throw up.
“We’ve got to get him cleaned and put his saddle on,” she told him.
“He looks clean to me,” Caleb observed.
“Well, they get dust and sand down inside their hair, and if we put the saddle on, it will rub up against all that sand and hurt him. You don’t want to hurt him, do you?” She appealed to his sense of duty to assist a helpless animal to snap him out of his stupor. “Here, I’ve got a few kinds of brushes for you. This one is the spike, you work it in circles and then use this brush afterward--
“No, don’t go against the grain with that one.” She stopped and corrected him. “That one’s to smooth the hair back down. See how they work together?”
Little puffs of dust and horse hair started flying off the places where he was brushing, and Caleb felt like he was going to sneeze.
“This feels awful,” he said, cringing. “Are you sure the horse likes this?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s a happy camper.” She patted Dude on the neck and looked him in the eye. “You’re happy, aren’t you Boy?” she cooed to him.
Caleb stopped what he was doing and watched Ashley talk to this animal that she obviously loved. It was sweet and endearing.
She noticed him watching her, and chastised him. “Get back to work. I’m going to get Shelly and start brushing her.”
He smiled as he watched her walk away. He couldn’t help but notice how hot she looked in her riding boots. He shook off the thought and turned back to Dude, talking softly to him.
“You like her too, don’t you Dude?” he asked the old gelding in a soft voice. “She’s very pretty, isn’t she? Yeah, I think so too. Does she give you lots of apples, and oats? I’ll bet she takes good care of you, doesn’t she?”
He stopped talking when he realized Ashley had come back out of Shelly’s stall and was coming up behind him, leading her mare. She hooked Shelly up to her cross ties and grabbed a couple of brushes from the tack box.
Caleb tried not to get distracted watching her work skillfully with her horse. She seemed so natural. He tried to mimic the fluidity of her movements, but it was impossible to duplicate something that someone had been perfecting over a lifetime.
Ashley had her horse completely brushed, hooves cleaned, saddled and bridled before he had even completed one side. She left Shelly to come over and help him with Dude.
She finished brushing the other side, then handed him a strange metal tool in the shape of a hook that looked like it could do some serious damage. He wasn’t sure what she wanted him to do with it.
“It’s a hoof pick,” she told him. “You have to clean his hooves. We’re going to do this before and after our trail ride.”
He looked down at the horse’s feet and gulped.
“Just grab his ankle like this, and he’ll raise his hoof for you.” Ashley made it look easy. Apparently he was doing it wrong, that or Dude was secretly laughing at his inexperience and wouldn’t raise his foot out of spite.
Ashley reached around and grabbed the hoof and handed it to him. Caleb tried to scrape out the hoof the way Ashley was showing him, but he was sure he was doing it wrong. She assured him that he was doing fine, maybe just so he wouldn’t get discouraged.
“Now, we’ve got to put his saddle on. First goes the saddle pad, like this. Then the saddle goes on top of it.” She expertly lifted the huge saddle up onto the horse as if it weighed very little.
“Here, let me help you.” He tried to grab it from her, but she had it on to Dude’s back before he could even reach his hands up. She made it look so easy. He was impressed.
“I’ve got it,” she responded. That’s an understatement, he thought to himself. She could probably lift a lot more weight than he could, simply from having worked on the farm all her life.
He looked her up and down appraisingly, and raised his eyebrows. As she turned away from him, she smiled. Caleb got the impression that Ashley was showing off for him, maybe just a little.
She unhooked Dude from his cross ties, removed his harness and slipped a bridle up into his mouth. She took hold of the reigns and held the harness of the bridle and started to lead the gentle horse into the round pen.
Before they had gotten all the way out of the barn, she stopped suddenly and turned to Caleb. “Here, hold this while I go get you a stool.” She handed him Dude’s reigns, and left him standing there alone.
A horse in the stall directly behind him made a soft noise that caused Caleb to jump. He turned around to find the large stallion staring him down. He looked much bigger than Dude, obviously much younger, and feistier. If it was possible to say this about a horse, he looked very intimidating. Ashley came back around to find Caleb take a frightened step backward.
“This horse doesn’t like me,” he told her. “He looks mean.”
“That’s kind of funny, actually. If you think about it.”
“What’s funny?” Caleb turned to her.
“That’s Paul’s horse.” Ashley reached up and playfully brushed her hand along the side of the big horse’s face. “His name’s Rex.”
Caleb didn’t really like the attention Ashley was showing to Paul’s horse. I’m feeling jealous of a horse, he thought to himself. This is silly.
“He’s… a very lovely horse,” Caleb tried to hide his jealously, but apparently it didn’t work.
“He doesn’t hate you, you know?” She spoke to him softly and reassuringly.
“Oh, I know that,” Caleb backpedaled. “Horses don’t hate people, and besides he only just met me for the first time.”
“No—” Ashley tried to catch Caleb’s attention. “I meant Paul doesn’t hate you.”
Caleb looked back over at the big stallion, trying not to think about how many times that Paul had gone out on trail rides with Ashley. They probably go all the time, he thought. This barn, this farm, this really isn’t my place. It’s his.
“He’s not particularly fond of you, of course.”
Caleb felt like he was intruding on a part of Ashley’s life that was uniquely reserved for Paul. It made him very uncomfortable. His expression must have cued Ashley in to his emotions.
“Hey—” She grabbed his arm and pulled him around to look at her. “He’s just as jealous of you as you are of him.”
“I’m not…” Caleb knew he couldn’t even finish that sentence. It would have been a lie. Of course he was jealous. Paul led the same life as Ashley. They were a perfect match in a way. Caleb was just a city boy who had traveled the world and lived in fancy homes and drove fancy cars. He knew nothing of Ashley’s world. His first time experiencing life on a farm was when Ashley led him into this barn. He looked down at the boots that he’d borrowed from Ashley’s older brother. “Okay, I’m a little jealous. I have to admit. He has everything you want and need. I don’t really fit into your world.”
“Obviously he doesn’t have everything I want and need,” Ashley said. She reached up and touched his face, almost lifting it up so that he would look her in the eye. Her voice got really quiet. “I wouldn’t be going out with you if I already had everything. And I wouldn’t be going out with you if I didn’t see something in you that I do want and need.”
They held each other’s gaze for a moment and Caleb felt as if they were searching each other’s eyes.
Ashley smiled at him softly, and it felt to him that she was wise beyond her years. He kept forgetting how young she was. She seemed much older. He had a strong desire to lean down and kiss her, but felt as if this were not the right time or place, especially with Paul’s horse literally breathing down his neck. He smiled back at her and decided to lighten the mood.
“Well, I guess you’d better teach me how to ride this Dude then, huh?”
“I guess so.” She grabbed the stool in one hand and took Caleb’s free hand in her other while he led Dude out into the round pen.