First Read: Horses in Wonderland

Horses in Wonderland Kindle CoverThe sequel to Show Barn Blues is now on pre-sale at Amazon! Thanks to so many readers for making it a number one horse book in several categories! Lots of early readers at Patreon have been loving the updates to the story of Grace, Kennedy, Anna and the other riders, grooms and boarders at Seabreeze Equestrian Center. If you’re not a Patreon member, no worries! Here’s the first chapter of Horses in Wonderland, just to give you a taste of what’s coming.

Just for reference, this book takes place about two years after Show Barn Blues. If you read The Eventing Series, you’ll know that the summer after Show Barn Blues takes place in Pride, Book 2 of The Eventing Series. This action, while it doesn’t overlap with The Eventing Series, picks up the summer after Luck, Book 4 of The Eventing Series.

Grace has been dealing with the increasing construction around her farm for years now, and she’s the last hold-out in what used to be an equestrian neighborhood. A luxury resort is going in right next door, and the construction noise is taking its toll on daily life at the equestrian center. What should she do? Grace thinks it might be time to move on.

Take a look…

Horses in Wonderland

Chapter 1

Summer was in the air, and in Florida, that feeling was more like a warning than a promise.

The morning’s heavy humidity had settled onto my skin like a cloak the moment I left my little bungalow. The wooden porch steps, gently rotting into slivers and chips after living through eighty seasons of dry winters and wet summers, squeaked a good morning beneath my boots. All of the wood—the floorboards, the porch, the stairs—had more give on humid mornings. More pliable, more squeaky. I could tell the new season had arrived from the moment I put my feet on the floor this morning. The longer you lived somewhere, the more you became aware of the barometers all around you. Nature forecast the weather every day, in chirps and frog-song, in locust chorals and soft westerly winds, in spiraling leaves and creaking wood. I paused at the foot of the steps and stretched, dew-drops clinging to the hairs on my arms. A spiderweb glittering from the little crooked light by the front door. A dark early-May morning at the end of a short spring. Perhaps my last spring here, in the house my grandfather built. I paused at the bottom step, swept my gaze around, and soaked in my surroundings.

The pre-dawn sky had just lightened to cobalt, a blue growing richer with every passing second. A swirl of fog wound its way through a small glade of live oaks. Just beyond it, the blue-white light over the barn’s side-entrance hummed away, swooping moths orbiting its moon-glow. I pointed the toes of my well-worn paddock boots towards the barn, brushed a few unruly strands of gray and brown forelock from my eyes, and started off to work. My footsteps were softened by the wet leaves piled up on the sparse grass and sandy patches beneath the trees, but the horses would still hear me. I imagined them turning their heads all at once, ears pricked, gazing into the darkness, ready to turn on their whinnies and neighs at precisely the right moment.

My gaze shifted to the right, towards the construction site next door. There was a model villa going up over there, with just a thin belt of pine trees left to shield the future residents from the smelly, noisy reality of equestrian life. Just wait until the first morning someone left their windows open all night and heard my barn’s wake-up song, belted out in three dozen or more untrained voices, each more shrill and lusty than the last.

A tree frog peeped in the gutter above the open barn door as my feet hit the pavement, but he was quickly drowned out by those thirty-some roaring horses. From across the driveway, the night turn-out horses neighed and pushed at their paddock gates, adding the rattling of chains to the morning music recital.

“How quickly you forget,” I announced to the barn at large, flipping on the lights. “Twelve hours ago you were a herd of cows in clover.”

The barn’s overhead lamps were huge, the kind you saw in school gyms, and they’d take a good fifteen minutes to warm up to full capacity. For now, the broad barn aisle ahead of me was washed in a cool dim glow. The horses blinked at the sudden shift from nighttime to twilight, and then went straight back to whinnying. A few kicks were added here and there, fore-hooves shoved against stall doors, hind hooves slammed against side walls to prove some point to the neighboring horse.

“Your percussion section is out of rhythm,” I observed.

No one listened to me. They never did.

“Good morning,” I continued the greetings to my left and my right as I proceeded down the wide concrete aisle, horses on either side of me stamping and shouting for my immediate attention. I alternated between pleasantries and protestations. “Good god. Yes, I get it. Hello, Ivor. Yes, you’re hungry. Good morning, Splash! Oh, please, all of you shut up, it’s too early for this.”

No one listened. Two long aisles of horses sang the song of their people. It was me against the herd, and I’d given up trying to shout them down years ago. Everything I said these days was for my own benefit.

At the end of the aisle, just past the school tack room where the heaps of battered riding lesson tack and brush boxes perched on top of weathered old tack trunks, I turned left and unlocked the feed room door. It was odd, and a little pleasant, to be here alone. Usually there would be grooms here throwing down hay and getting everyone’s bellies settled with some roughage before their grain, but this morning I’d started early, so it would be just me out here for a while. I didn’t feel like listening to the barn complaints for the next twenty minutes while I went out to the hay-shed and loaded up the Gator with bales of timothy, so they could eat their grain first for once. The magazines promised dire consequences for horses who were fed grain on empty stomachs, but I was already several decades deep into housekeeping before those veterinary studies had come out, and I felt comfortable breaking their rules from time to time.

I had to rummage through two trash cans full of pellets and sweet feed before I found the feed scoop in its shallow grave, buried under the alfalfa pellets. One of my employees, Kennedy, had been in charge of refilling the feed bins last night, and she could be a little scatterbrained. I dug it out with a sigh, glad she wasn’t around right now. I wasn’t up to Kennedy’s bright-eyed enthusiasm at this time of morning.

Six o’clock was early for me, but I would be short on help today and figured I’d better get a head-start, because the afternoon tumult of riding lessons and trail rides was not going to take a vacation just because my groom head-count was down by three. Not so many months ago, there had been enough grooms for the endless work of keeping a massive show barn ticking over smoothly, but the threat of moving properties was hovering over our heads, and grooms were not known to stay aboard sinking ships. As they went on to greener pastures, one by one, I waved bon voyage to the tail-lights of their pick-up trucks, then trudged back into the barn to take on a few more of their abandoned responsibilities. There was no point in trying to hire people when I couldn’t promise whether their job would be here or an hour away in six months.

Beneath the sterile gleam of fluorescent lights, I pulled out the morning supplement packs, individually packaged for each horse, and stacked them in order on top of the grain cart. I dumped what was left of the pellets in the trash can into the grain cart’s well and topped it off with most of another fifty-pound bag. I grabbed a couple of old Strongid buckets’ worth of alfalfa pellets and sweet feed from the other trash cans. Then I threw the feed scoop on top of the whole pile, dragged the heavy cart into the aisle, and stopped immediately at the first stall on my left.

A bay Hanoverian mare named Catarina eyeballed me, and then the grain cart, with barely contained excitement. She whinnied explosively and kicked her door. “Stop it,” I snapped, the words blended into one fierce command, and reached down for the first supplement pack.

Moses, the name on the pack read.

At this moment, I realized I’d stacked the supplement packs backwards. I redid them. There were thirty-seven in all. The horses were not amused with this delay. Catarina, with her front-row seat to the proceedings, nearly had a fit. “Here,” I sighed, throwing a scoop of grain through the little feed door above her bucket, and dumping the supplements on top of it. She dug in with her mouth wide open, like a lion going for the kill, before I had even pulled back my hand. I whacked her with the plastic supplement pack for being so rude, but she ignored me. Food was more important than a puny slap from a puny human.

By six forty-five every horse was finished with grain and nosing through fresh hay, and I was exhausted. Well, not exhausted from the work I’d done, precisely, but at the thought of so much more to come, with the same routine yet to come tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, forever and ever. I’d been the manager for so long, and I’d done precisely that: I’d managed. You, go handle feed. Carole, go handle hay. Mike, start filling water buckets. Liz, pull off blankets. Me, I’ll be in the office, going over the day’s schedule. Carole, Mike and Liz were all part of the past now. Tom had been gone even longer, off to work with his first love, marine mammal rescue. I had Margaret, Kennedy and Anna full-time still, and part-time help from some Ocala castaways. Ricky and Nadine were young but battered, in that way a poor Southern upbringing can mark a person. Ricky drove a rock truck most days, hauling dirt to the construction site next door. Nadine worked part-time at a Hair Cuttery. Both of them spent Saturday through Monday here, mucking stalls and being generally useful while they gave the full-time grooms a much-needed day off.

I looked up over the central rank of stalls to the windows overlooking the barn floor. My dark office window looked blankly down, useless without me peering out of it, watching the barn live its own measured life.

My phone rang from somewhere down the aisle and I ran for it.

“Kennedy?” I answered, breathless from my sprint to the feed room where I’d abandoned my phone on a shelf next to a tub of bute. “Please tell me you’re coming today. We have six horses going out at two and—“

“Of course I’m coming,” Kennedy laughed. She was always so awake. Kennedy was twenty-six and had a naturally chipper attitude which had made her perfect for the role of princess at a long-running dinner show on the other side of the theme park district. This also made her perfect for teaching little girls to ride and for leading trail rides. She put on a very convincing cowboy-themed ride, which was especially impressive when you considered we were operating in a rapidly developing section of Florida and the trails were based out of an English show barn, about as far from the Wild West as one could go. “I just wanted to know if you needed help early this morning. I’m up, so…”

I looked outside, across the empty parking lot towards the pine woods at the farm’s eastern border. The sky was just turning pink above the stark longleaf pines and the spike-edged palmettos, and a hint of morning light was creeping into the barn, brushing the stalls closest to the end, inching across the feed room floor towards my boots. At my far right, the hay shed stood dark and forbidding, stacked high with bales. I still had to throw down bales and get everyone fed up. The night horses had to be brought in, and the day horses turned out. The night horses were watching me steadily over the dark fencing, occasionally belting out a fresh chorus of whinnies in case I’d forgotten them. Behind the paddocks, along the farm’s southern fence-line, a red-tiled villa was catching the first glints of orange sunlight, a morning glow highlighting its fanciful arches and mosaic tile-work around the windows. The model home for the new resort village going in next door, somehow closer to my barn than my own house was. The sight of it was enough to make me droop.

“I need help,” I said honestly, and I remembered that not long ago, I couldn’t have admitted that, not to Kennedy, not to anyone. As more years went by, the more thankful I was for people like her. People who got up at six-thirty for no apparent reason and thought, I should go into work early today.

“I’ll be right over,” Kennedy promised. “With breakfast. Hey, when is Anna coming back?”

“This afternoon, I hope,” I said. “I haven’t seen her car here yet.”

“I hope so. I miss her so much.”

Something about Kennedy’s tone made me pause. She was given to extravagant emotions, so I would always expect her to react just a little over-the-top when someone close to her did something basic and expected, like go home and visit her parents for a week as Anna had done. I missed Anna, naturally; my sweet and unruffled barn manager had been part of my barn family for years, and she was certainly the calm glue that held us together when ridiculous situations—hurricanes, wildfires, a skunk in the feed room—threatened our sanity.

But Kennedy sounded as if she was absolutely pining for Anna to come home.

“Look for her when you’re back from your trail ride,” I suggested. “I better get back to work now. There’s a lot on this morning and just me right now.”

“Okay, I’m leaving now. And I’m bringing breakfast,” the optimist said. “Just relax.”

I slipped the phone into the back pocket of my jeans. Just relax. Just relax. Kennedy was out of her mind if she thought I had the luxury to relax for one damn minute. I hadn’t spent all these decades running a show barn for my health and mental wellbeing.

I hustled out of the feed room and up the barn aisle, ready to start swapping turn-out horses with stalled ones before the construction clamor started up next door. I’d gotten through two paddocks and had two horses in hand, just leading them through the gate of their paddock, when the first rock trucks started roaring by on the other side of the back fence. The horse on my right spooked forward, the horse on my left spooked backward. I was splayed out like a scarecrow, hauling on both lead-ropes in an effort to reel them back in.

“That noise is hardly new,” I scolded, tapping a wide-eyed warmblood on the nose once I had him heading in the right direction again. “Why don’t you get a grip?” With that, I released them both into the paddock so they could bolt around like idiots, snorting and snapping their tails, as if they hadn’t been living next to a construction site for the past six months.

“Might as well get over it,” I advised, snapping the gate closed. “Because it’s not going to change any time soon.”

I walked across the driveway and back inside the barn for the next two horses, thinking again that it was time to get over myself, get a new farm, and get out of here, forever.

Read more at Patreon with a subscription, or pre-order your copy of Horses in Wonderland at Amazon

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