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Honorable Mention - "The Last Ride"

1992 Anne Horton Writing Award
Honorable Mention
"The Last Ride"
LaDonna Witmer

The sun beats down unmercifully, and I can feel droplets of sweat running down my back. The horses and riders in front of me seem to swim before my eyes. Feeling faint, I quickly dismount from my own horse and lean against his smooth shoulder, trying to quiet my pounding heart. The noises of a horse show in progress attack my senses -- the whine of the loudspeaker, the drumming of hooves on sod. I straighten up and squint at the poster tacked on the rough plank fence. "Open Hunter Over Fences" is boldly printed across the top. Beneath the block letters is a diagram of the ten fences I will be jumping in a few minutes. I repeat the order silently to myself, closing my eyes to concentrate.

The loudspeaker crackles, interrupting me as a voice announces that the Open Hunter class will begin in five minutes. I take a deep breath to calm my nerves and turn to look at my horse. His silky cream colored coat is damp with sweat, and his eyes are closed as he drowses in the hot sun. My gaze shifts to his forefeet. The shiny silver stubs of new nails ring the base of each hoof. In my mind I hear the voice of the veterinarian as he informs me that my horse has a serious hoof disease. That was only two days ago. Yesterday the horseshoer put these new shoes on as a last resort to slow the progress of the disease. Our performance today will decide the future. Drumming through my brain are the words, "This could be the last time, the last show, the last ride." A gnawing fear has settled in my stomach and it won't go away.

Once again, the loudspeaker interrupts my thoughts, announcing the first rider. I watch as they fly around the ring, cleanly jumping fence after fence. Their ride is over all too soon. I turn back to my drowsing horse and gently slap his neck to wake him up. I climb into the saddle and adjust the stirrups. Now I can hear my name announced. It's time. Quickly I smooth my black riding coat and flick the dust off of my shiny black boots. I slip the chin strap of my velveteen hunt cap into place and take a deep breath. As we enter the ring, Fantasia's ears prick forward. He picks up speed as we circle before the first fence. I feel my fear ebbing away now that the time has come. Fantasia's shoulders move strongly beneath me, and I can tell that he feels good. We turn toward the first fence. The blue and white rails flash beneath us before I have time to think. We gallop on, flying over the next fence and the next. As we turn the corner, I see the hardest fence of the whole course. It's gleaming white rails rise before me. I feel my fingers grasp the coarse mane and feel the rush of wind as we hover, airborne, for a split second. Hooves meet earth with a jarring thud. The smell of wet leather and sweat hits me in the face. I forget about the people and the pressure in the thrill of being one with my horse as we sail over the rest of the fences. Gently, I slow him to a walk after the last fence. I pull off my black gloves to pat his sweaty neck. As we walk out of the gate, I hear the people clapping, and I can tell that they think we had a good ride. But they didn't have to tell me. I could feel it.

Again, my name crackles over the loudspeaker, this time to announce that I had won the class. As my fingers close around the trophy, I feel a huge grin spread across my face. A wave of relief washes over me. Maybe, just maybe, this isn't the last ride. I hold the blue ribbon out to Fantasia, but he just snorts and pushes his head against me, knocking my cap crooked.

Maybe the storm clouds will roll back in tomorrow, but for this one moment in time, the sun is shining.