LA DUQUESA – Wonder Horse Book Two
By: Victoria Hardesty and Nancy Perez
Authors of Action and Adventure with Arabian Horses
Maryann spotted the short section of red rope tied to the stall door handle on La Duquesa’s stall. “What is that all about?” she asked Brody
“Oh, that’s just a signal we use around the ranch. If there’s a horse Aunt Ginny or Uncle Mike don’t want anyone else in the stall with, they tie a red rope around the door handle. They’re pretty serious about that too. I’ve seen it a few times on some of Uncle Mike’s stallions in training. If the horse is unpredictable or pushy, they tie a red rope there. Nobody else is to go in that stall without Uncle Mike or Aunt Ginny.”
“Why would they tie one on this mare’s stall?” Maryann asked.
“I don’t have any idea. Guess we’ll have to ask Aunt Ginny,” Brody told her.
Aunt Ginny walked in the barn just then. Brody asked her about the red rope. She explained what happened that morning when the groundsman tried to clean the stall. “I was afraid the mare would hurt herself or anyone else who happened to walk in that stall,” she explained. “She’s been a victim of abuse. Horses like that can be unpredictable, so I don’t like to take chances. I’ll be cleaning her stall myself. You kids can give her the soaked feed, but I don’t want either of you to go in there unless I’m with you until we get to know her better. I can’t take a chance she could hurt herself or accidentally hurt you.”
Maryann was sad. There was nothing she wanted more than to get close to the real live Duchess. She didn’t say anything about it to anyone. She never defied authority in her life. If her mother said “no,” it was “no.” If her teacher asked her for something, she did her best to give it to her. She never bucked Aunt Adele or Uncle Roy. But she had to find a way to spend private time with her Duchess. Late that night, she came up with an idea. She tucked a well-worn copy of Black Beauty into her school backpack and crawled into bed. She dreamed she rode the silver white mare across a grassy meadow in the light of the moon.
The next afternoon, Maryann looked for an opportunity. Uncle Mike called Brody to the other side of the ranch, and Aunt Ginny was in her office doing paperwork. Maryann slid the book out of her backpack and slipped into La Duquesa’s stall, keeping her back against the wall until she came to the corner. She slid down underneath the corner feeder and opened the book on her knees. She began to read out loud. La Duquesa stood in the opposite corner of the stall, shaking at first. In a few minutes, she seemed to realize the little person in her stall presented no threat to her and began to relax. The sound of Maryann’s voice was soothing and melodic. La Duquesa became curious about her, as if she knew her from somewhere but couldn’t remember where.
Maryann didn’t want to risk being caught past the red rope so she stayed only a few minutes in the stall. She slipped out the same way she slipped in. She bookmarked her place in Black Beauty and tucked it back in her backpack, and resumed her chores, stopping by to look in on La Duquesa as often as she could.
The second day Maryann slipped into La Duquesa’s stall with her book, the mare took a step and a half in her direction before Maryann slipped out and went on with her chores. The third time, the mare came even closer. Less than a week, later the mare began nudging the book in Maryann’s hands as she read. Maryann took one hand off the book and touched La Duquesa on the nose and cheek. The mare didn’t pull away. Maryann was thrilled to be able to touch her at last. She looked at her watch and realized she spent twenty minutes in the stall. She slipped out as quietly as she could, watching the mare as she went. She walked straight into Ginny.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” Ginny asked frowning. “I thought you knew what that red rope was all about, didn’t you?”
Maryann stood staring at her boots. “I just wanted to get to know her,” Maryann sputtered with tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I put that red rope up to protect that horse AND you, you know,” Ginny replied. “She’s been hurt enough, and I can’t take chances with your life either. How would I explain that to your mother if she’d spun around in fear and knocked you down? Really, now how do you think I would feel if you got hurt in there?”
“I’m so sorry, Aunt Ginny. Really. I thought I was helping her,” Maryann cried softly.
La Duquesa stuck her head out the feeder door and nickered. Ginny walked over to her and tried to stroke her neck. The mare stared at Maryann and ignored Ginny, pulling away from her.
“Maryann, she seems to be asking for you. Come over here and stroke her neck,” Ginny said, watching carefully as Maryann did what she asked. La Duquesa stood quietly as Maryann stroked her neck and cheek. She closed her eyes obviously enjoying the contact.
“Well, I’ll be darned,” Ginny said. “I had no idea you were a ‘horse whisperer!’ If that doesn’t beat all!” she smiled at Maryann. “I think you’ve found a way to open her heart again. I’m going to leave the red rope up for a while, and I’d prefer to be here when you go in her stall, but it looks like she’s found a friend in you.”
“Do you mean it, Aunt Ginny” Maryann perked up. “I’d love to curry her and brush some of that yuck off her. She’ll feel so much better. Then maybe we can give her a bath. She needs it more than any horse on this ranch.”
Ginny laughed. “Yes I mean it. Let’s give it a try, shall we?”
Maryann hurried to the tack room and pulled out her grooming kit. She returned to La Duquesa’s stall and brought the kit inside with her. Ginny watched from outside the stall as Maryann began currying the mare from ears to tail. She brushed off the loosened hair and muck as she went along. La Duquesa stood quietly as she worked, flinching occasionally when Maryann hit a sore spot where a bad whip welt had been. Once she finished brushing her, she picked up her combs and began working on the tangle of mane and tail, working from the forelock back. La Duquesa still needed a bath but she looked so much better after the brushing. She nuzzled Maryann as though she were asking her to brush more.
“What do you think, Aunt Ginny?”
“I think you have yourself a new job is what I think. She needs to gain weight but she does look happier than she did before you brushed her down. Maybe we can bathe her tomorrow when you get here.”
Maryann hugged Ginny when she came out of the stall. “Thank you so much. You have no idea how happy you made me.” She hurried to put her grooming kit away and get her other chores done.
The barn was empty when Clyde wandered in. He saw La Duquesa following Maryann with her eyes. “Hey there, Good Looking!” Clyde said to get her attention.
“Oh, hello there. How are you getting around these days?” she asked him.
“I’m just an old dog. I get achy hips and knees like any other old thing, but life is pretty good here, like I told you when you arrived,” the dog answered. He sat and scratched an itchy place behind his ear, then asked, “You never did finish your story. How did you end up in the fix you were in when I found you?”
“Going back to what I originally told you, I was only two and a half months old when I was taken from my mother. The couple who moved me had no interest in me. I was left alone most of the time but became friends with their old golden retriever and a pair of goats. When I was almost three, Tania came to see me, and she took me to her training barn to learn things.”
“That’s a long time to be ignored,” Clyde said. “Didn’t they pay any attention to you?”
“I got fed twice a day, saw the farrier every two months, and the vet came to check me once a year and poke me with something that hurt. Other than that, no. But things were different at Tania’s. It was nice. She was nice. She taught me lots of things, and we began riding together. It was fun. Then she took me to a horse show. I got a blue ribbon. The couple that owned me got very excited over a silly piece of ribbon. They had Tania show me again at a bigger show, and I won a bigger blue ribbon. A really nice lady saw me at that show. I don’t know how it happened but she suddenly became my owner. She spent lots of time with me and really loved me. I thought I had found my one-and-only human at last. But she died. That horrible man showed up at the place where I was staying. When he drank too much, he got mean. He used to come to my corral and turn the hose on me. It was cold outside, and I thought I would freeze to death. My corral was always full of mud from him spraying me with water. When he wasn’t spraying me, he was hitting me with his whip. I couldn’t get away from him. He didn’t feed me much, and he hardly ever filled up my water trough. I had to drink that stinky stuff all the way to the bottom. If you hadn’t come along, I’d probably not be here now. You and the nice people you brought with you saved my life, so I owe you. Thank you, dear Clyde. You will be my friend for life.”
“Oh, Pretty Lady, it was nothing. I could get away from him. Good thing for him I didn’t have a chance to take a bite out of him that day!” Clyde said thoughtfully. “I can’t image how people could treat a horse the way you were treated. But you don’t have to worry any more. These people are really good to their horses. Ginny, the woman, really loves them, and I’m sure she will love you dearly when she gets to know you better.”
“Can I ask you a question?” La Duquesa asked Clyde.
“Who is that little person who shows up most days here? She’s the one who brushed me down. It felt wonderful. I feel as though I know her, but can’t remember.”
“You must mean Maryann. She comes here after school to help Ginny in exchange for riding lessons. I don’t think her mom can afford to pay, and I’ve never heard her mention a dad, so maybe she doesn’t have one. She’s nice. I like her a lot.” Clyde told her.
Clyde spied a squirrel creeping toward the hay shed and took off barking like a banshee. It was, after all, his job to keep the rodent population at bay, or at least off the property.
About a month into her rehabilitation, La Duquesa had gained weight and her silver white coat shined from Maryann’s constant grooming. She felt better than she had for months. She’d been turned out a few times to stretch her legs. Her elegant dancing trot across the arena turned heads on the ranch. She was looking beautiful, although still a little thin from her ordeal.
Ginny told Maryann it was time to find out what she knew and what training she’d had. Ginny hauled her saddle to the arena and set it down on the top rail. She put La Duquesa in cross ties in the barn aisle and fitted her with a bridle, and walked her to the arena. Ginny free-lounged her both directions for a couple of minutes, then saddled her. Maryann hung on the top rail watching with interest. Ginny put her foot in the stirrup and applied a little pressure. La Duquesa stood quietly, not moving a muscle. Ginny went ahead and mounted her and asked her to walk off. La Duquesa set her head in just the right position and walked off perfectly at ease. Ginny walked her several times in both directions and cued her to trot. La Duquesa’s trot was like dancing on air, light, and floating. Ginny posted easily as they moved one direction, then the other. She cued her to a canter. Ginny felt like she was riding her couch. It was the most comfortable canter she’d ever ridden. She made one pass and asked her to halt. La Duquesa stepped from the canter to a halt in two steps without raising an inch of dust in the arena. Ginny walked her back to the rail where Maryann was watching. “She is wonderful. I can’t believe how well trained she is, and she has the best attitude I’ve ever experienced. She actually likes the work, maybe even loves it.”
Maryann’s eyes were glued to the horse. She couldn’t look away. There was something she desperately wanted to try. “Can I ride her for a minute?” she asked Ginny.
Ginny dismounted and handed the reins to Maryann. “Sure, I know you will love it as much as I did.”
Maryann climbed over the rail and pulled the saddle off the horse. “What are you doing?” Ginny asked with concern. She was about to intervene, but something stopped her.
“Please let me try something.” Maryann said over her shoulder as she pulled the bridle off the horse as well. She grabbed a small hunk of mane and walked La Duquesa to the rail and positioned her parallel to it. She climbed on the rail and mounted the horse bareback, kicking off her boots. Ginny was about to protest again when Maryann walked off on the mare and settled herself gently on her back. She cued La Duquesa to trot and sat the trot as if she were part of the horse. She guided the mare with her legs and a single hunk of mane in her hand.
Ginny was spellbound. That young girl had only been riding for a few months. Here, nearing sunset, she was riding bareback as though she and the horse were one being. As the last rays of the sun turned the clouds to pink and rose, Maryann asked La Duquesa to canter. Ginny, now in the center of the arena, watched in awe. She saw Maryann throw her arms straight out from her shoulders, turn her hands palm up and tilt her head backward. She closed her eyes and just felt the horse beneath her. The sunset painted the rest of the picture in glowing jewel tones of golds, pinks and purples.
Ginny stared with open mouth. She was stunned. Suddenly she remembered the essay Maryann wrote so many months ago and the picture she’d drawn to go with it. That was what she was seeing in front of her now, except it was sunset, not moonlight that lit the scene. Maryann was even wearing the exact same shirt and pants from that picture, right down to the “L” shaped tear on the left knee and the plaid of the shirt. Ginny had no words.
Maryann slowed La Duquesa to a walk and brought her back to the arena rail so she could dismount. She threw the reins around her neck and walked her back to the barn aisle cross ties so she could brush her down before putting her away in her stall. She hugged the mare and thanked her for such a good ride, and handed her a few apple pieces she’d brought with her.
It took Ginny a few minutes to carry the saddle back to the barn tack room. She didn’t know what to say.
As she passed beside the horse in cross ties, Maryann asked, “Aunt Ginny, what is this mare’s registered name? I don’t think I’ve heard you call her anything but “the mare,” so I’ve been calling her Duchess. That’s the name of the horse I’ve ridden in my dreams since I can remember.”
Ginny almost dropped the saddle. She turned and looked at Maryann. “Her registered name is La Duquesa. I thought I’d told you that. “La Duquesa” is Spanish for “The Duchess.”
That was the moment Ginny absolutely knew Maryann belonged to La Duquesa, and La Duquesa belonged to Maryann. They were meant to be together.