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�Oh, no!� Ashleigh Griffen groaned as she stared at the metal ring that had come loose from her English saddle's pommel. She tossed the sponge back into the bucket and stared at the old, beat-up saddle. The hand-me-down piece of equipment was almost twice as old as her eleven years, and it was really showing its age.
�Is everything okay, Ash?� Mrs. Griffen asked as she entered the barn leading Slewette, one of their broodmares.
The bay Thoroughbred was due to foal any day now, and she was huge. Slewette huffed as she plodded down the barn aisle to her stall. Ashleigh was amazed the mare could even fit through her stall door without scraping her sides.
�I'm probably doing better than poor fat Slewette,� Ashleigh teased. She pulled the D-ring from her pocket and held it up to the light. �Another piece of my saddle came loose.� She saw the frown on her mother's face and decided to try to argue her case. �I really don't know how much longer this saddle will last, Mom. Don't you think it's time for a new one?�
Elaine Griffen closed the stall door behind Slewette and pulled off her hat, tucking her short blond hair behind her ears. �Ashleigh,� she said with an exasperated sigh, �we've been through this before. We need every extra dime we've got to buy this new broodmare from the Millers. Your saddle had a safety check just a few months ago, and although it may look ugly, it's actually in pretty good shape. Maybe in the fall, after the yearling sale, we can pick out a new saddle.� She hung Slewette's halter on the peg outside the stall door, thensmiled in sympathy at her daughter.
�But it's falling apart,� Ashleigh protested. She ran her fingers over the place on the cantle where the stitches were coming undone.
Mrs. Griffen studied the worn spot and nodded. �Your father and I are going to the feed store tomorrow. We'll take your saddle along and get another safety check,� she said. �Maybe you'll feel better about using it if you know it's definitely safe.� She gave Ashleigh a pat on the back. �You'd better bring the yearlings in and get them brushed. The Millers will be here soon. We want all of our horses to look their best.�
Ashleigh pushed the saddle aside. It was a hopeless cause, anyway. No amount of saddle soap or polish would make it look any better. She went to the tack room to get the grooming box. A large bag of carrots sat on the stand by the door. She grabbed a handful to use as bribery on the yearlings. The young horses didn't always want to come when they were called, especially now, when the sweet shoots of Kentucky bluegrass were poking from the earth and the warm breath of spring blew across Edgardale's white-fenced pastures.
Ashleigh stepped from the barn and turned her face toward the growing heat of the morning sun. She paused for a moment and closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as she breathed in the scent of the clean northern Kentucky air.
She opened her eyes and couldn't help smiling despite her mood. She was so lucky to live in such an amazing place. Her family's Thoroughbred breeding farm, Edgardale, had acres of green fields that held the farm's ten broodmares, their foals, and this year's crop of yearlings. Most of the mares had foaled already, and the gangly colts and fillies nursed at their dams' sides or lay in the warm grass.
Ashleigh heard the screen door bang and looked toward their white two-story farmhouse. Rory, her five-year-old brother, was jumping off the top step as Caroline, her thirteen-year-old sister, followed him, warning him to be careful. Ashleigh smiled as she watched red-haired Rory nod to his older sister, then turn and jump the low hedge, almost falling face first into the flower bed.
She knew her little brother was coming to help her with the horses. Rory, like everyone else in her family except Caroline, loved horses. Caro had never been bitten by the horse bug, and she spent more time trying out new styles for her long blond hair or painting her nails than riding. She pitched in and helped with barn chores because they all had to, but she didn't do much with the horses besides that.
�Ashleigh, wait up!� Rory called as he ran toward the barn. �I want to help.� He caught up to his sister and gave her a toothy grin. �If I do a good job brushing the horses, can you watch me ride Moe?�
Ashleigh ruffled his hair and smiled. Moe had been hers until she had outgrown the molasses-colored pony. Then Rory had become Moe's proud owner. But her brother was still too young to be riding the cantankerous Shetland-Welsh cross by himself. �Sure -- after we get done, we'll go over to the front paddock.�
�Awesome!� Rory said, then turned and ran to get the grooming kits ready.
Derek Griffen joined his daughter at the yearlings' paddock. He gave a loud whistle to get the young horses' attention.
Ashleigh smiled proudly as the colts and fillies lifted their heads and whinnied, then trotted toward them. Her father was an excellent horseman. She hoped to be just like him when she grew up. People already told her how much she looked and acted like her father. She just hoped she could match his talent with horses.
�Let's halter all of the yearlings, then bring them in two at a time and put them in the small paddock by the barn,� Mr. Griffen said. �I want the Millers to be able to see all of our colts and fillies up close. You...�Ashleigh #13: The Prize. Copyright � by Joanna Campbell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.