Mia's phone rang and Songbird's head shot up in alarm from where she had been grazing next to the horsebox. Mia reassured her quickly and then dug out her phone to answer it.
"I've got him!"
"Excellent! See you in a minute!"
A few minutes later, Sam appeared leading the Friesian stallion and Songbird's head flew up again as she stared, goggle-eyed, at the magnificent horse walking towards her. The stallion reached out and sniffed her, blowing through his nostrils by way of greeting. Songbird blew back and then squealed, stamping her hoof.
Sam laughed. "She's not taking any rubbish from him. I did wonder how she might react- Minstrel here has been trained to behave himself around mares so we shouldn't have any trouble in the box on the way back."
"He's gorgeous," said Mia, looking at the stallion's powerful, muscled body, his sleek and shiny coat and his intelligent, noble head. "Shall we get them loaded?"
Sam nodded. "We'll put Minstrel in first, I think, and then if we have any trouble loading with Songbird it should reassure her that there's another horse in there." Sam moved forward to stroke Songbird's neck and she squealed, leaping backwards from Sam's touch and narrowly missing the horsebox.
"Steady," soothed Mia, stroking the mare's neck until she stopped blowing out through her nostrils and the whites of her eyes disappeared.
"It's strange how she's accepted you so quickly but is still so fearful of contact from other humans." Sam frowned. "She must be able to sense you can trust you. I've never seen a horse react so powerfully to instinct. Usually mistreated horses don't let any human near them but she hasn't batted an eyelid at you."
Mia shrugged. She couldn't understand the mare's erratic behaviour either. What was it Songbird could see in her that made her react differently to other people? "We'd better get them into the box."
Sam agreed and led Minstrel up the ramp into the box and closed the partition next to him, ready for Mia to load Songbird, before unclipping his leadrope and looping it over her shoulder. She hesitated at the bottom of the ramp but, with reassurance from Mia, cautiously placed one hoof on the ramp and then walked up and into the box.
"Good girl," murmured Mia, giving her one final stroke before walking down the ramp and helping Sam to close it. She half expected to hear frantic whinnies once they were shut in, but both horses remained quiet.
Mia jumped down from the cab and made her way to the back of the horsebox. She'd spent the whole journey tensed up in case Songbird began panicking, especially when a large juggernaut had gone roaring past. She and Sam lowered the box and Songbird was looking at them curiously, her ears pricked, from the top of the ramp. Mia couldn't stop and smile from spreading across her face as she untied her new horse and led her onto level ground. Sam headed up and led Minstrel down.
"I'll just go and put him into the stable mum and dad prepared for him," she said.
"Okay," agreed Mia. She stood on a patch of grass so Songbird could graze while they waited, and soon Sam came back.
"We can put her out in the field with the Shetlands," said Sam. "It's at a quiet part of the yard so we can keep an eye on her but she won't have to deal with stress of loads of people and horses around. The Shetlands won't be bothered by any fuss she kicks up and hopefully she'll settle quicker down there."
"Sure." Mia followed Sam towards the fields and along and down a path past some others until they reached a paddock directly behind the house while Songbird walked calmly along beside her, her ears pricked as she took in her new surroundings. Sam opened the gate and Mia led her in, turned her around and reached up to release her headcollar. Songbird stood for a few seconds before turning around and trotting across the field towards the two small ponies at the other end, her legs striding out and her tail flowing out like a banner behind her.
"So what are you going to call her?" asked Sam as they leant on the fence to watch her. "She has a registered name but she'll need a stable name."
"Songbird is a bit too showy for a normal name," agreed Mia. She thought about the first time she'd seen her, dancing around the auction ring while the rain poured down around her, soaking her mane, tail and body but somehow adding to the atmosphere. "Rain," she decided, looking at the Arab mare in the field, who was now trotting around with her head and neck in a beautiful outline while the little Shetlands cantered alongside, their short legs pumping as they tried to keep up.
"It suits her," said Sam quietly, sensing that her friend was in another world as she watched the horse floating across the grass in front of her.
"So I'll see you tomorrow?" asked Mia as Sam dropped her off home.
"Sure, any time is fine," replied Sam. "I'll keep an eye on Rain and text you later to let you know how she is. Want me to let you introduce my parents to her?"
"Please." Mia nodded. "They really won't mind, will they?"
"Of course not. See you tomorrow."
"See you." Mia shut the car door and walked up the driveway, unbolted the gate and slipped through before closing it again.
"Hi honey, how are you?" Laura glanced up from mixing the evening feeds when she saw her daughter appear in the doorway of the feed room. "How did the auction go?"
"Fine." Mia swallowed. She hadn't realised just how difficult lying to her parents would be when she was faced with the situation- it had been easy to tell herself she wouldn't tell them about Rain, but the prospect was much harder in reality. "Sam managed to buy a new stallion for her parents, he's absolutely stunning. I think they want some advice from you on breeding from him though. Until they saw his ad, they'd toyed with breeding from some of their own horses but never decided to go through with it, so I said to Sam you or dad might be able to pop over in the next few days to see him."
"That sounds fantastic," grinned Laura. "Come on, spill the details. What's he like?"
"Beautiful," said Mia, smiling. "He's a purebred Friesian with a mane down to his knees and a tail that practically touches the floor. I haven't seen him move but I bet he's got amazing paces."
"Sounds nice," said her mum appreciatively. "Tell Sam I'm free to visit on Wednesday morning if that's okay with them."
"Okay," said Mia. She picked up some of the feed bowls and began distributing them among the horses, who were neighing impatiently as they anticipated her approach. "Alright greedy," she laughed as she dropped Buddy's feed bucket over his door before he could nudge her with his nose and send the remaining buckets flying. I just hope Mum doesn't see Rain while she's there. I mean if she does she'll probably just assume she's a livery or something, but it could make things awkward with Sam's parents. I don't know if they're going to mind me keeping her there when I've got a yard on my doorstep. I hope they understand. She headed back in to a late dinner, her mind full of anxious thoughts as she dished potatoes, chicken and vegetables onto her plate and ate them without really tasting them. Her mind was a hundred miles away, and if her parents tried to talk to her, they were unlikely to have got a response. After going round to say goodnight to the horses, Mia changed into her pyjamas and collapsed on her bed. Within minutes, she was asleep and dreaming of Rain galloping across a beach, her mane and tail streaming out behind her. Oddly, she was running alongside the grey mare in the dream, keeping perfect pace with her despite the speed of Rain's gallop.
Mia woke in the morning and jumped out of bed, eager to visit Rain after she helped her parents with the yard duties. She mucked out stables and turned out horses in double time before refilling water buckets and taking down empty haynets. She'd just finished the last stable when she saw Sam's car pull onto the drive.
"See you later Mum, I'm off to Sam's!" she called as she sprinted to the car, not waiting for a response from her family. She grabbed her riding hat and gloves from the kitchen on the way before opening the car door and jumping in the passenger seat next to Sam.
"Eager aren't we?" asked Sam, a wry grin on her face.
"I bet you were just as eager to get up and visit Minstrel this morning!" retorted Mia good-naturedly. "And you didn't have to wait until ten so you could see him!"
"Good point," she conceded as she turned onto the main road.
"So how has Rain been? Was she okay overnight?"
"She was fine," smiled Sam. "She's got those Shetlands behaving like butter wouldn't melt. I tell you, it takes us years just to teach them some semblance of manners and your horse comes along and does it in an afternoon!"
Butterflies of excitement danced in Mia's stomach as she thought of the Arab mare waiting for her at the end of the car journey. Would Rain be as beautiful as Mia remembered her? It almost didn't seem possible- surely no horse could be as stunning as the one painted in Mia's memory and still be from this planet?
As soon as they arrived at Sam's house, Mia jumped out and walked down to the paddock she had left Rain in the previous day. Her heart was beating fast and her mouth suddenly felt dry. How would Rain react to seeing her? Was her behaviour yesterday simply the behaviour of a horse desperate to get away from the humans holding it, and if that meant accepting another human's touch then so be it? Would she let Mia near her today? Somehow, she couldn't imagine a horse so mistreated by humans letting Mia handle her without having to gain the mare's trust first. Horses just didn't work that way.
Mia reached the gate and held her breath, sensing Sam stop a few paces behind her to observe without putting more pressure onto Rain, or indeed Mia. Mia took a deep breath and let out a low whistle. Rain's head immediately whipped up from the grass and Mia felt the horse's gaze resting on her. The staccato rhythm of her heart increased as she looked back at the mare, fearing to see terror in her eyes. What really happened was so far from Mia's expectations that she nearly collapsed in relief. After a few seconds, Rain whinnied and broke into a canter straight for the gate, sliding to a stop and puffing through her nostrils into Mia's face.
Mia laughed in delight and slowly held out her hand for Rain to sniff. She nuzzled it with her whiskers and looked at Mia, her dark, intelligent eyes seeming to question her, as if to say, what now?
"Do you want to take her up to the yard?" asked Sam quietly, so as not to spook the Arab. "Mum's been dying to meet her, but she knew it would be better if you were here."
"Okay," agreed Mia, picking up the headcollar Rain had arrived in from the fence post and letting herself into the field. She moved slowly but calmly with no sudden movements to reassure the mare that she would not hurt her. Rain allowed her to buckle on the headcollar and lead her up to the yard.
"Wow," commented Sam as she walked alongside Mia. "If I hadn't seen you bring her back I wouldn't believe she was the same horse. She's totally different to how she was at the auction. When I checked on her last night, she walked up to me in the field and stood a few paces away. I didn't push her any further but even that seems like a miracle compared to how scared she was." Sam frowned. "It's almost uncanny."
Mia shrugged. "Maybe she just needed to be around somebody who is calmer and doesn't feel the need to come at her with a whip to control her. She was probably a bit spirited as she's an Arab, and whoever had her tried to beat it out of her. Poor girl."
"At least she's here now," pointed out Sam, hearing the sadness in her friend's voice.
"Yes," agreed Mia.
At that moment, Sam's mum came round the corner from the stables.
"Hi Mia!" she said enthusiastically.
Mia smiled back. Anna was always so friendly and heart-warming that she struggled to imagine how anyone could fail to like her immediately. "Hi."
"So this is Rain?" she asked. "Sam hasn't stopped talking about how she was at the auction and how you brought her here. Quite a heroic rescue by the sounds of things!"
"It wasn't really," said Mia, embarrassed. "I just knew when I saw her that I couldn't let her go to someone else."
"I can see why," said Anna. "She certainly is a beauty. She's a five-year-old isn't she? Is she backed?"
"I don't know," admitted Mia. "I didn't read her ad in the auction catalogue."
"Well we can always find out," said Anna. "I'm pretty sure we have some tack around that would fit her. My horse, Sapphire, is a similar build to her and she has a spare saddle I never use, plus we've got plenty of bridles around so I'm sure one will be the right size. I'll go and get them."
"Thanks," said Mia, and Sam grinned at her as she followed her mother to fetch the tack. A few minutes later, they reappeared, Anna with the bridle slung over one shoulder and Sam carrying a black leather saddle in her arms. Anna motioned to a long wooden barrel-shaped pole that dominated the centre of the yard and Sam placed the saddle on it.
"I'll just approach her with the bridle and see how she reacts," said Anna. "Ready?"
"Yup," said Mia. Anna walked over and stood next to Rain, whose ears flickered back uncertainly at the new person's proximity, but stayed where she was. Anna slid the bridle down her arm and passed it to Mia, who turned around and held out the jumble of leather for the mare to sniff. She stretched her neck out curiously and nosed it gently.
"I think I'll try putting it on," decided Mia. "She's behaving like it's familiar to her."
"Okay," agreed Anna.
Mia held the leadrope and bridle in one hand and with the other one reached up and looped the reins over Rain's head, trying not to hold her breath. Rain didn't flinch as the reins rested against her neck, so Mia moved next to her and slipped off the headcollar, dropping it onto the ground and lifting the bridle up to Rain's head. To her surprise, Rain opened her mouth and the bit slipped straight in. Mia gently teased her ears through the headpiece and fastened the noseband and throatlash.
"She did it!" exclaimed Mia in surprise and delight. "I thought after the way she was at the auction it would take months to make any kind of progress with her. I wonder why she's accepting it so easily?"
"Maybe she knows she's in a better environment with people who won't hurt her," suggested Anna. "She's still wary about me but I can tell she trusts you. I've always thought horses could sense instinctively who will hurt them and who won't. Rain has obviously decided you're someone who won't."
Mia smiled and rubbed the mare on the forehead. "Good girl," she said. "Shall we try the saddle?"
Anna nodded and called over to Sam, who picked up the saddle and walked confidently over to where they were standing. She opened her mouth to ask if Mia wanted to take the saddle when Rain suddenly leapt backwards to the end of the reins, her eyes rolling and nostrils flaring. She whinnied in panic and, unable to escape the situation, reared up, yanking the reins out of Mia's hands. Anna grabbed Sam and pulled her away from the terrified mare. Mia moved to Rain's side as she landed, her heart pounding fast, but she forced herself to sound calm as she stroked the mare's neck, whispering to her.
After a few moments, Rain's breathing slowed and the whites of her eyes stopped flashing. Mia reached out and took the reins again before turning around.
"What was that all about?" she asked. Sam looked- for the first time Mia could remember- nervous and a bit scared. Anna looked deep in thought.
"Something about the situation must have reminded her of her old home," Anna said eventually. "It wasn't the bridle, it wasn't you, and it wasn't me. I think from the way she reacted, Sam walking up to her with the saddle must have triggered a memory. I'm not saying it was your fault," she added hastily, seeing the look on her daughter's face, "but when she was at her previous home, maybe somebody who looked a bit like you and walked around confidently used to tack her up and she associates that person coming with a saddle with pain and fear, so seeing Sam plus the saddle made her expect the same again. I know you were trying to reassure her by not sneaking up on her, but I think she needs people to move quietly and calmly around her. Let me bring the saddle this time."
Sam nodded and handed the saddle over to her mother. Rain watched the woman's movements all the way, but didn't react as Anna walked up to her, her eyes dropped slightly so Rain would know she wasn't a threat.
"Take the saddle," murmured Anna to Mia. "I'll hold Rain."
Mia nodded and they swapped positions. She made sure the numnah underneath was smooth and flat before lifting the saddle and gently placing it down on Rain's withers before sliding it into place. Mia waited a few seconds before reaching underneath Rain and bringing the girth underneath and gently buckling it up. It wasn't until Rain stood still for several seconds before she allowed a grin to spread across her face.
"Well done," called Sam. "I've never seen a horse trust somebody so much before. She must really like you."
"I really like her," said Mia, rubbing Rain on the forehead affectionately. "I think I'll walk her around the yard a few times and then untack her."
"Good idea," agreed Anna. "We can build things up slowly. Want me to help you again tomorrow?"
"Yes please," said Mia. "I'll text Sam when I know what time I can get over. My parents don't know about Rain yet."
"Of course," agreed Anna, sensing the meaning behind the girl's words. "Do you want me to drive you back?" she asked as she lifted the saddle off Rain's back.
"It's okay, Mum, I'll do it," said Sam. "See you in a bit."
"Bye, Anna. Thanks for the help," said Mia as she took off the bridle and replaced it with Rain's headcollar.
"You're welcome." Anna smiled as she took the bridle and walked to the tack room.
Mia led Rain back down the track and released her into the field, watching her graze for a few seconds before she turned round and headed back up to meet Sam.