Thirteen-year-old Lily O’Neil’s passion is Arabian horses. Someday she wants to be a great endurance rider like her mother. But after a freak riding accident took her mother’s life a year earlier, Lily’s father forbade her to ride ever again.
When Lily’s grandmother comes to live with them, however, she convinces Mr. O’Neil to let Lily clean stalls on the neighboring Arabian ranch, a place her mother had workedand loved. Lily is ecstatic, especially since she’ll be near her mother’s favorite horse, Astra. But when Astra falls ill because of the negligence of her new rider, Lily must fight to save the life of her mother’s beloved mare. Will Astra ever race again?
Chris Platt, a former jockey, has written a dramatic and memorable story of a young girl’s fierce determination in the face of enormous odds. Featuring plenty of horse-filled action scenes and information about Arabian horses, endurance racing, and horse behavior, Astra is sure to delight equine enthusiasts.
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By Chris Platt
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2010 Chris Platt
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Late again! Thirteen-year-old Lily O'Neil rolled out of bed and reached for her jeans, shivering as the cold air touched her skin. Her breath frosted the air as she pulled a sweatshirt over her head and slipped on her boots. The potbellied stove must have gone out during the night. It was late February in her small northern California town, and winter promised more cold weather to come.
She rubbed the frost off the inside of her window and peered through the early morning light to the house and stable next door. Whispering Pines Ranch, with its large white house and huge twenty-stall barn nestled at the base of the beautiful Sierra Nevada foothills, was a sight to behold.
Lily looked at the chipped paint on her windowsill and sighed. She loved the quaint little farmhouse she shared with her father and grandma, but the barn at Whispering Pines was bigger than their house and small stable put together.
The owner of Whispering Pines, Steven Henley, raised Arabian endurance horses and competed successfully on a national level. Lily hoped to someday follow in her mother's footsteps and ride for Mr. Henley. One of his best mares, Astra Atomica, was a favorite of Lily's and had the potential to become a champion like her half sister, Contina. Lily desperately wanted to see Astra become a great endurance horse.
The problem was, after the accident, Lily's overprotective father had forbidden her to ever ride again. He didn't even want her around horses. She'd never get a chance to step into Astra's saddle.
She thought about Domino, the beautiful black and white pony she'd been forced to sell. Her mother would have hated that idea.
Luckily her grandmother had been on her side. Grams had convinced Lily's father to let her help groom and feed the horses in Mr. Henley's stable. If her father had his way, Lily would never set eyes on another horse again. But horses were her life, just like they'd been for her mom. And right now she didn't want to think about any of this anymore.
Lily ran out her bedroom door and bounded down the stairs two at a time. She crossed the living room on the way to their small, cozy kitchen, and spied her grandmother stoking the potbellied stove. "Here, Grams, let me do that," Lily said. She took the pieces of wood from her grandmother's weathered hands and fed them into the fire.
"Thank you, dear," Grams said, dusting the tree bark off her hands. "Your father was so tired when he went to bed last night, I think he forgot to stock the stove." She pulled her sweater close about her shoulders and shivered.
Tossing the last log on the fire, Lily closed the stove door. Her father had been working a lot of overtime lately. It didn't surprise her that he'd been dead-dog tired at the end of the day. She suspected the family was behind on their bills and he was putting in extra hours to make up for it. Things had been pretty tough lately.
"I made you a nice cup of hot tea and some toast," Grams said. "I know you won't take the time to sit down to a full meal when there are horses to be fed and cared for next door," she added with a wink.
Lily grabbed her hat and jacket off the hook by the back door, then picked up the toast, stuffing half a piece into her mouth. She chased it down with tea so hot it almost burned her mouth.
"Thanks, Grams." Lily wiped the crumbs off her lips and gave her grandmother a peck on the cheek. "I'll be home in a few hours. Hopefully, Dad will sleep in a bit today. He's working too hard." She zipped up her jacket and headed out the door.
Lily's bicycle stood propped against the side of the house. She got on and pedaled down the dirt road that ran in front of the two houses, turning down the long dirt driveway that led to Whispering Pines.
Along the way, she passed white-fenced paddocks filled with beautiful Arabian horses. Lily always marveled at their long, elegant necks and perfectly shaped heads. Several of the horses looked up at the sound of her bike and cocked their tails over their backs, racing down the fence line toward the barn.
Grace and elegance on four legs, her mother used to call the spirited beauties. A deep sadness crept over Lily at the thought of her mom, and she pushed it away. One day at a time, she reminded herself.
The front tire of her bike dropped into a pothole, splattering muddy water on her pant legs. Lily's teeth clacked together and she almost lost control of the bike. She quickly realized she'd better take her eyes off the horses and pay attention to the road.
She pedaled into the barnyard and parked her bike under the tall ponderosa pines. More memories washed over her. She thought about the times she rode Domino over to join her mother for the long walk down the dirt road on one of the racers. Mr. Henley required the walk to loosen up the horses for their upcoming workouts.
Lily had loved making that ride with her mother, rocking to the rhythmic swing of Dominic's stride. Back then, she'd imagined the day she'd get to ride one of the awesome Arabian racers.
Sometimes her mom let her trot the first mile or two of the workout. But Domino would soon tire and want to head back to the barn. The racer always picked up the pace and headed up the mountain trail with ears pricked and tail floating on the wind. Lily had watched them go, vowing that someday she'd follow in her mom's boot steps and become a great endurance rider herself. Yeah, right! Lily scoffed at herself now. Domino had managed to dump her on her backside on a regular basis, and he was fairly well broke. The high-spirited Arabians with their catlike reflexes would guarantee her almost as much time on the ground as she'd spend in the saddle. But she was determined to become a better rider—just as soon as her father allowed her to ride again. And that would probably be never.
"Good morning, Lily." Mr. Henley straightened his tall, thin frame and eyed his watch. "You're a bit late this morning."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Henley." Lily shoved her hands deep into her pockets and looked at the ground. "I, uh ... overslept."
Mr. Henley could be super strict sometimes. Lily hoped her tardiness wouldn't be cause for him to let her go. Her father allowed her to help Mr. Henley with the horses partly because he was their neighbor. But if Mr. Henley didn't want her to help anymore, she'd be out of luck. Her father wasn't likely to let her care for anybody else's horses.
Jill, Mr. Henley's sixteen-year-old daughter, handed Lily three grain buckets and pointed her toward the first several stalls. "Dad!" she scolded her father. "Give Lily a break. She comes over here out of the goodness of her heart to help us. It's not like she's an employee." She rolled her eyes and went back to mixing grain.
Lily smiled her thanks at the older girl. Jill had always been nice to her. If they'd been closer in age, they might have been really good friends.
Nickers of excitement echoed up and down the shed row as horses bobbed their heads and pawed the shavings under their hooves in anticipation of breakfast.
Lily quickly fed the horses nearest the tack room, then slipped into Astra's stall. She greeted the beautiful gray Arabian with a good scratch under her mane.
Astra Atomica was the perfect example of an Arabian horse. She had a broad forehead with wide-set, intelligent eyes. Her small curved ears and perfectly dished face led to a petite muzzle with large nostrils. She stood fifteen hands tall—a hand being four inches—and she had well-balanced shoulders and hindquarters.
Lily knew that the success of careful breeding programs over thousands of years meant that today's Arabian was virtually the same horse as the ones ridden in ancient Arabia. They were the oldest known breed of riding horse, and one of the most popular in modern times. And someday she was going to own one!
Astra poked her whiskered muzzle into Lily's pockets, searching for the treat she knew Lily would bring her.
"Here you go, pretty." Lily fed the mare the oats and molasses horse treats she'd bought with her weekly allowance. While Astra munched happily, Lily poured grain into her feed tub and stepped back to watch the daily ritual. The gray mare stepped forward and stuck her nose deep into the feeder, then swished her head from side to side, pushing the grain around the way a person stirred a bowl. She pawed several times with her right front leg and blew through her lips, then settled in to eat.
"You're so goofy!" Lily said, running her hand lovingly down the mare's long, perfectly arched neck. She laid her cheek against Astra's mane and breathed in the warm horse scent. She knew why her mother had loved this horse. Lily loved her, too. And just like her mother, she also believed that Astra Atomica could place in the Top Ten of the Tevis Cup some day. It had been her mother's dream.
And now it was Lily's.
But unfortunately, she didn't own Astra. She had no control over what happened with her. Mr. Henley wasn't exactly encouraging about the mare's abilities. He had several other big-talent horses in his stable and he poured most of his efforts into them. He saw Astra as just another horse in his stable. She was a safe mare to ride, so he'd given her to his son Charlie to exercise and prepare for the lesser fifty-mile endurance races.
Lily cringed when she thought about Charlie. He was in her grade at school and she had the questionable honor of sitting next to him in math class. Math was bad enough without adding Charlie to the mix. Too bad he couldn't be more like his older sister, Jill.
Charlie was just plain mean. And although he was a good rider—much better than she was—he didn't care much about anyone or anything but himself.
Even worse, he loved to tease Lily.
She pushed Charlie from her thoughts and turned her attention back to Astra. Giving the mare one last pat, she went to help Jill finish the rest of the feeding.
There was a set routine around the barn. Mr. Henley liked doing things a certain way. And since he owned the place, he got exactly what he wanted.
All of the horses were grained first thing in the morning. Racers got the largest portions because they expended the most energy. Broodmares, yearlings, and two-year-olds got the next biggest ration because they were growing or reproducing. Mr. Henley kept the grain supply down on the saddle horses and those being broke to saddle because he didn't want them hyped up and bucking people off.
Once the grain was distributed, the horses were left alone to eat their morning oats and given a few extra minutes to digest. Then the grooms would arrive to pull the racers scheduled for a workout from their stalls. The horses would be brushed and have their hooves picked before being saddled for the exercise riders.
The racers usually stayed out for at least two to three hours, sometimes as long as five or six. While the riders had the horses out on the trail, Lily helped clean their stalls, scrub water buckets, and hang hay nets. Sometimes she even got to move horses from their stalls to the turnout pens.
Lily checked her watch. She had ten minutes until it was time to groom the racers for their morning workouts. She returned the empty grain buckets to the feed room, then made her way down the aisle to Mr. Henley's trophy wall. She didn't look at it as she entered, but instead, stopped and stood for a moment with her eyes closed. She was happy just to listen to the sounds of the horses rustling around in their stalls and breathe in the wonderful mix of horses and fresh hay.
Finally Lily opened her eyes. She was always amazed at the huge number of ribbons and trophies on the shelves. Everywhere she looked among the awards there were photos of horses and riders snapped during a race or crossing the finish line.
Racers weren't allowed to compete until they were five years of age. By then, their bones were developed enough to withstand the grueling races.
Certificates of Mileage were awarded by the American Endurance Ride Conference, and they had their own special place of honor on the wall. Both horses and riders where awarded this special honor. Riders got their awards at the first two hundred fifty miles, then at five hundred, seven hundred fifty, and one thousand miles. After that it was only every thousand miles. In addition, a medallion was given to the horse every thousand miles.
Mr. Henley had two horses over the five thousand mile threshold, and his current star, Contina, was approaching her three-thousand-mile mark. Astra was eight years old and had yet to earn her one-thousand-mile award. Before her mother started riding the mare, they'd had trouble with the horse having sore feet. But her mom had successfully ridden the horse in ten races. The last few, she'd placed in the top five.
Lily let her eyes wander to the photos of her mother and Astra. She stepped closer to the wall and reached out a shaky hand to touch the last photo. It had been taken at the beginning of the Tevis Cup last year, before the accident.
She allowed herself a brief moment to let the pain come crashing in—but only a moment. It filled her with a hollow ache so deep she thought her knees might give way.
The edges of her vision began to gray and tears welled in her eyes. She quickly pulled her hand away from the photo and willed the tears to stop. Her mother wouldn't want her to cry and carry on. She reminded herself to think of all the wonderful times the two of them had shared—just as her mom had asked her to do.
Lost in her thoughts, Lily didn't hear the footsteps approaching behind her.
"Do you always have to stand there and stare at the wall?"
The nasally voice, sounding more like one of her grandmother's old scratchy records than a teenage boy, immediately set her nerves on edge.
Charlie had found her. "You've done it, like, a gazillion times," he added, reaching out to tweak her hair.
Lily twisted around to glare at him, wishing the force of her stare would knock him clear into the manure pile outside the barn door.
Charlie crossed his arms and glared right back, trying to stare her down. "You know, your mom died because of that horse. People say it wasn't anyone's fault, but if I were you, I wouldn't want anything to do with Astra."
"Let's go, loser." Jill strode down the aisle like a blast of January wind and grabbed her brother by the ear. "Get your skinny butt down to the yearling pens and get those corrals cleaned before I decide to tell Dad what you just said," she threatened. "And when you're finished, you owe Lily a major apology."
Charlie slunk away without a word.
Jill shook her head. "He's a jerk," she told Lily. "Don't pay attention to anything he says."
"Thanks, Jill." Lily turned back to the photo of her mother and Astra. "It wasn't the horse's fault. Really. It wasn't anybody's fault."
"I know." Jill nodded in agreement. "Your mom said so when they pulled her and the mare out of that crevasse. She begged us not to put Astra down."
"I'm really glad you didn't." Lily smiled at Jill. Sometimes the girl seemed like an older sister to Lily. And since she didn't have any siblings, that helped.
She turned and made her way to the tack room. Astra needed to be saddled. The mare's training was important. Because, just like her mother, Lily still believed Astra could place in the Tevis Cup—in spite of that jerk Charlie training her.CHAPTER 2
Lily walked Astra from her stall and snapped her into the cross ties. She pulled out the rubber currycomb and worked it in a circular motion over the mare's sleek coat. Astra cocked her hind leg and relaxed.
Lily swirled the curry faster and faster over the mare's back and withers, still thinking about what Charlie had said. The kid had a lot of nerve making her feel like she was dishonoring her mother's memory.
Astra flicked her tail and bobbed her head, showing her displeasure at the rough grooming.
"Sorry, girl." Lily softened her touch and slowed her brush strokes. "Charlie just makes me so mad sometimes, I can't think straight."
She switched to a soft body brush and sighed. Deep down, she knew Charlie was right, in a way. It was a little weird for her to hang around the horse that had cost her mother her life. Even Lily didn't understand why she loved Astra so much.
Excerpted from Astra by Chris Platt. Copyright © 2010 Chris Platt. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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