The Quicken Tree

By Agtant

Chapter 7

In September, Fox Den sponsored a clinic with Guenter Hoehn. He was a former Olympic gold medallist with the German dressage team, a FEI judge, and was at that time a moderator for dressage judges' forums all over the world. The clinic drew a lot of interest from spectators, even from the non-dressage community of show jumping. Three-day eventing was well represented as well.

Hoehn usually only taught riders at fourth level and above at his clinics, but due to the fact that there was a lack of upper level horses in that area and that he had been a faithful participant at the last three clinics, Eric managed to get in. But he was way out of his league this time. He was riding with the big boys now.

Eric pulled in at 7:00 for a 9:30 lesson. He parked the truck and trailer in the area marked for participants behind the barn and unloaded his horse.

There was already quite a bit of activity around the barns for that early in the morning. Folding chairs lined one side of the dressage arena, three deep. Auditors were paying twenty dollars each to watch the clinic for the two days. Already people were filling the seats for the first lesson that was to start at 7:30.

It was a beautiful day for it. Sunny, with high white clouds and a nice breeze that would keep it from getting too warm. A courtesy booth had been set up at the end of one of the barns. There was a commercial sized urn of coffee inside and two tables covered with trays of pastries.

Eric led Max down the shed row barn that faced the dressage arena and put him in a stall. He had made arrangements to keep him there overnight so that he would be able to watch most of the clinic. He walked down to the courtesy booth and got a styrofoam cup full of coffee and then headed back to the trailer to get his tack.

He had spent his afternoon the day before grooming Max. His dappled bay coat was gleaming and he spent extra time rubbing him down that morning with a soft cloth until he shone like patent leather. He was a huge horse, bigger than Rebel, around 17.1, and massively built. He had the feet of a draft horse.

Eric got his horse saddled by eight-thirty and got on him, riding him down to one of the jumping arenas to warm up. Max was good that morning, soft in his hands. Eric was looking forward to a good lesson.

At 9:25, he rode down to the dressage arena and when the rider from the previous lesson left the ring, Eric rode in. Hoehn walked out to talk to him in the center of the ring.

Guenter Hoehn was a tall, dark man in his mid-fifties. He had a wolf-like expression, sharply arched eyebrows and sharp teeth. He looked feral when he smiled, but he was actually a very nice man, soft-spoken and very generous with praise.

Hoehn asked him how he had gotten interested in dressage. At second level, Eric was a new comer to the sport compared to anyone else riding that day. And having participated in only three clinics before that one, he was virtually an infant. Hoehn knew his background. He'd been interested enough to ask beforehand about each of his students.

Eric told him the story of how his father had introduced him to dressage as a child, by taking him to a dressage exhibition. And how he had first become interested in it because he believed it was something his father respected.

"So, do you still feel that it's something he respects?"

Eric smiled, thinking of what Conor's opinion would be of this place and everyone associated with it, including himself. "I'm afraid you'd have to ask him that."

There was some laughter from the sidelines. Hoehn smiled up at him. "Do you think you made the right choice?"

"Yes, I do."

"That's unusual," Hoehn said. "Ireland doesn't normally produce many dressage riders. The main interests over there are show jumping and three-day eventing. I'm surprised you stayed in dressage."

"I was never interested in anything else."

"So, you don't jump at all?" Hoehn asked.

Eric smiled at that question. "Oh, I can jump," he said. "My father was a steeplechase rider. I could jump my pony before I ever started school." He looked down at Hoehn, still smiling. "But I used to watch the steeplechasers when they were turned out at our farm, and we had some show jumpers around, too. I used to watch a horse that I knew could jump a seven foot puissance wall, that wouldn't jump a four foot pasture fence on his own even when he was upset that the other horses were leaving him." Eric paused for a moment thinking about what he wanted to say. "And then I saw a grand prix dressage horse turned out in a field once, and when that horse moved he used everything he had ever been taught. He was more balanced, more supple than any other horse I had ever seen. His training had actually made him better even for himself. I never forgot that," he said. "And after that, all the rest of the disciplines didn't seem to amount to a hill of beans."

Hoehn laughed softly. "I think there are one or two riders here today that are going to take that a little hard. And it's not going to help much that I happen to agree with you."

Eric smiled down at him. "Thanks."

"Well, Eric," he said. "Why don't we go to work."

Eric started Max out on the rail at a working trot. It was during his second circuit of the ring that he saw Morgan for the first time. He was standing alone behind the seated auditors, watching him from behind his sunglasses.

His lesson went well. Hoehn went over some old issues with him and they covered some new ground. It made Eric look eagerly forward to his lesson the next day. He rode Max out of the arena on a loose rein.

Morgan had not moved during his lesson. He had stood outside the arena watching the entire forty-five minutes. And as Eric rode out of the arena, passing the next rider coming in, he saw Morgan turn and start walking along behind the auditors toward him. Eric stopped his horse outside of the arena and waited for him.

"Excuse me," Morgan said. "Was that a hill of beans? If I repeat it, I want to make sure I don't misquote you." He stopped in front of him. His hair had lightened up even more over the summer and had taken on platinum highlights above the darker blond under pelt, and he was deeply tanned. He had his shirtsleeves rolled back and his long, muscled, veiny forearms looked almost hairless because of the tan.

Eric smiled down at him. "I guess I got a little carried away."

Morgan smiled back. He was obviously going to ride too that day. He was dressed in a crisp, immaculately white shirt, rust breeches and the brown Dehner boots he had seen him in before. And he had on wide, red suspenders that accented his shoulders and lean frame.

"You had a nice ride, Eric," he said, his smile warm, friendly. "It's good to see you again."

"Thanks. Same here." He was flattered that he had remembered him, it had been almost three months. And he was flattered even more that he had taken the time to watch his lesson.

Morgan took off his sunglasses, slipping them into his shirt pocket and looked up at him. It was like being hit by high beams. Against his tan, blond hair and the white shirt, his normally light eyes were brilliantly blue. "You know, I've had people coming up to me all morning, asking how I know you."

Eric was embarrassed by that. "I'm sorry," he told him. "When I first called about getting into a clinic I mentioned your name. The woman I talked to assumed that I knew you."

"That explains that," Morgan said, smiling up at him, the same warm smile as before, tiny crow's feet forming at the corners of his eyes. "And you do know me," he pointed out. "I'm just glad that you got in. You needed to do this. But I think you misunderstood what I meant."

He stared down at him, still not understanding.

Morgan was looking at Max then. "I think you were holding out on me before. You kept this one hidden in the barn."

Eric glanced down at his horse who was contentedly standing on a loose rein. "He's okay." He looked back at Morgan again, thinking that he had changed the subject. "How's Rebel doing?"

"Great," Morgan said. "He took the let down so well that I had him gelded last month. Then I turned him out to pasture."

"He must love that. He hasn't been turned out since he was a foal."

"Yeah, I think he does," Morgan agreed. "I'll leave him out until November, let him relax a little. And then I'll bring him in and start working him when I turn my other horses out. I'll have more time for him then."

"Has gelding him helped at all?"

Morgan smiled. "Well, he's a couple of pounds lighter anyway." He came closer, laying one big hand on Max's bridle, and the other hand rubbed the gelding's cheek thoughtfully as he looked at him. He had done the same thing to Rebel when he had come back to watch him workout at the track. "This guy reminds me of the horses they're riding in Europe. They're all big like this. Everyone over here thinks dressage and immediately thinks about the Spanish Riding School. That only a Lipazzaner can be a dressage horse."

Eric looked down at him, noting the hard line of his shoulders beneath his shirt and the pronounced way that the veins stood out on his hands and arms. The same way the small capillaries would rise to the surface on the thin skin of a thoroughbred after a run. Morgan had been fit when he had first met him, but whatever he had been doing over the summer, he was thriving now. The sheer physicalness of him radiated off of him in a warm and vibrant glow. "I guess I'm lucky. All I've ever had were thoroughbreds to work with."

Morgan smiled up at him "Well, you were lucky with this one anyway." He patted Max again one more time before letting him go. "He's going to do real well for you."

"Thanks." Eric had forgotten how likable he was. How he had still thought to tell him about these clinics after he had fleeced him for the extra thousand. He had no real reason to look him up today or watch his lesson for that matter. "What time do you ride?"

"Right after lunch," Morgan told him. "When you hear Guenter swearing, that will be me in the ring."

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