Home > Underdog (In Vino Veritas #4)

Underdog (In Vino Veritas #4)
Author: L.A. Witt








“I think that’s enough for the day.” I leaned forward in the saddle and scratched Prince’s sweaty neck. “Let’s cool you down, and then you can go roll in the mud.”

Prince probably didn’t understand a word I was saying, but he understood scritches, and he leaned into them. In the mirror above the arena wall, I caught sight of him contorting his upper lip as he bobbed his head, and I chuckled. The kids at the barn all adored him, both because he was a giant puppy and because no other horse made faces like he did when he was getting scritches.

I chuckled, patted the spot I’d been scratching, and steered him with my legs toward the arena gate. He plodded along with his head down, same way he always did when we were done and he was stretching his neck. Not that I’d worked him very hard. It was, after all, the off season. Prince had come back from the Morgan Grand National and World Championship a week ago with a whole stack of titles in dressage, carriage driving, and sport horse in-hand—he’d earned himself some downtime. So right now, I wasn’t working him hard, just enough to keep him conditioned. We’d mostly been trail-riding since we’d come home; today was the first time he’d seen the inside of an arena since his last victory pass at Nationals.

At the gate, I leaned down to open the latch. We stepped through, and Prince waited patiently while I secured the gate again. Then we headed out to wander the property while he cooled down from his workout.

As he strolled along the dirt road beside the parking lot, I let the reins rest in front of the saddle. I reached up to rub some stiffness out of my neck as I exhaled a cloud into the crisp late October afternoon. I should’ve been relaxing as much as I relaxed my horses this time of year, but I was restless and twitchy.

I’d never been fond of those weeks when fall started leaning into winter. The cold didn’t bother me, but late October and early November meant my whole world went quiet. The afternoon was brisk in that way that meant winter wasn’t far off. The brightly colored leaves that drew leaf peepers in early autumn had long since dulled and dropped to the feet of bare-branched trees, giving the landscape a bleak, skeletal appearance. The competition season was over, ending in a flurry of colorful ribbons and rose blankets and spotlights around the same time the Vermont leaves went brown. The year’s frenetic pace came to a head at Nationals, and when that was over, the lights went down and didn’t come back up until spring.

Riding between the leafless trees that lined my muddy driveway, I itched for the arrival of spring. I longed for the excitement of new babies—I had six mares in foal this season—and the anticipation of week after week of competitions. It was all stress and chaos and noise, and I loved it, especially after the dark, dull months of winter.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t such an abrupt shift. If the show season faded out instead of being over the instant the last world champion of the year exited the coliseum after their victory pass. It was like leaving after a rock concert, except the concert lasted most of the year and there was nothing left to do but slog home from Oklahoma City and wait for the next show that was months away.

Or maybe I just needed to find something to do during the off season. This job occupied most of my time and energy, but the load was always lighter this time of year. We eased horses into less intense conditioning and training regimens so they wouldn’t overheat in the bitter cold. Some of my students took the winter off, so I gave fewer lessons.

On the other hand, a lot of my farmhands and grooms were college kids who left after Nationals, and I’d just lost three of my regular farmhands. One had just graduated college and taken a job I couldn’t compete with; one had been advised by his doctor to find a less physical job before his back gave out; and the third was moving to Montpelier to help care for his ailing grandmother. I didn’t blame them. If anything, I was just grateful they’d all hung on as best they could until Nationals was over.

They were gone now, though, along with the seasonal workers, and all of that meant there were fewer people to get things done. There was plenty that needed to be done, too—maintenance on the fences and buildings, clearing snow once it came, things like that. On the other hand, my brother and I weren’t gone for days at a time like we were the rest of the year, so we could get it all done and still have downtime.

Question was, how to fill that downtime?

As if I didn’t know. I asked myself that question every year, and the answer was always the same: dust off the Tinder profile, and—

Prince’s head snapped up, and he halted abruptly. Ears pricked forward, he fixed his attention on something in one of the pastures beside the driveway.

I thought it might be one of the mares—none of them were in season right now, but Prince was ever the ladies’ man who never missed an opportunity to look.

I followed his gaze, and…no. Not mares.

“Really?” I muttered as I watched the two muddy dogs galloping across the pasture. “Again?”

They were heading for the barn, which was no surprise. That was where the people were, and this pair was nothing if not friendly.

Rolling my eyes, I gathered my reins and turned Prince back toward the barn. With a gentle tap of my heel, I cued him into a light trot, and we reached the barn about thirty seconds after the dogs disappeared through the open door. Some voices filtered out, and there was a friendly woof.

I brought Prince to a halt and dismounted. Before I’d even started into the barn, though, my brother emerged, holding one dog by the collar while the other trotted happily behind.

“Think they want lessons?” Caden asked dryly.

“Probably.” I held out my hand for the second dog, who came up to me with no hesitation, tongue hanging out and tail wagging furiously. “Can you grab me a couple of lead ropes? I’ll take them home.”

Caden nodded. He let go of the dog, who didn’t go anywhere. Instead, it came closer and sniffed noses with Prince, who was fascinated by the pair.

I let the three of them get acquainted. The dogs—a yellow Lab and an Aussie Shepherd—had gotten loose several times in the last week or two, and they’d never been aggressive or unfriendly to people or to the horses. And Prince… Well. He really was convinced he was a dog sometimes, and he didn’t mind the Lab licking his face. I just chuckled. Good thing that was an old bridle and not a pristine piece of show tack.

Caden returned a moment later with a pair of lead ropes. We clipped them to the dogs’ collars, and they both wagged their tails even faster, as if they were thrilled at the prospect of going for a walk.

Gesturing at Prince, Caden asked, “You want me to take him while you deal with them?”

“Nah.” I held the reins in one hand and took the lead ropes in the other. “I’m just cooling him down. The walk will do him good.”

Caden shrugged. “Your call.”

He went back inside, and I headed down the driveway with my stallion plodding along on my right and the pair of escapees straining at the leads on my left. Prince, who was one of the most well-behaved horses I’d ever had, tried to trot after them.

“No.” I gently tugged his reins. “Walk.”

He tried again, tossing his head when I rudely refused to let him play with the other dogs.

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