Warming Up

Nico grabbed a tightly coiled blue longe line from a shelf in the tack room of Wild Lime Stables. “He doesn’t belong here,” he said.

Bonnie, the owner of the facility, shouldered two sets of reins and shrugged. “I got the impression that the new groom’s a quick learner, hard worker, and team player with a good attitude.” She wore tan knee-patch breeches and a pink polo shirt, with her hair in a high pony tail threaded through the back of a white ball cap. “But, you’re my manager and if you think someone isn’t the right fit, I trust your judgement.”

Nico scratched his head of closely cropped hair with a tanned, calloused hand. In jeans, paddock boots, and purple collared shirt, his physique intimated to a life of physical labor and athletic discipline.

“I only hope,” Bonnie continued as she led the way out from the tack room into the 12-foot wide aisle way, “I only hope you’re basing your decision on more than his resume and your personal assumptions about where you think he should work.”

Exiting the barn together, Bonnie departed for a nearby outdoor cross-tie station in which two bay horses stood waiting with their teen student counterparts, and Nico strode toward Arena 1 beneath a thunderhead of contemplation, longe line in a fist.

In Arena 1, three eight-year-old girls on ponies stood at the white fence where the new horse groom leaned. The groom, a young uncle of one of the girls, had finished his assigned chores and presently listened patiently as his niece bantered with her friends.

“Wait, quiet quiet quiet!” Shannon, the groom’s niece, shushed the other girls. “For real, James. You’ve worked here for like two weeks already. You have to know if you like it by now. And I wanna know.”

Stomping across the yard toward them, Nico heard Shannon’s words clearly on the lazy autumn breeze even at that distance.

What he thinks? thought Nico. Well, I think he’s got too many college degrees, and too many random work experiences. He’s gonna flake as soon as he gets a more interesting job offer and I’m gonna have to train someone else in a month. He should apply somewhere that’s related to his three stinkin’ college degrees.

Amused by the forward question, James shook a finger clad in a black-and-teal worker’s glove. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “I’ve worked at a bunch of different places before this, and this place…”

“You love it here?”

“It’s the best?”

Shannon snapped at her friends. “Guys, SHHH!!”

James lowered his face and took a moment before answering. “I’ve never worked with people who’ve made me feel… so comfortable before. Everybody who works here is so awesome and cool to be around that coming here doesn’t feel like ‘work’. It’s feels more like I’m being paid to hang out with these amazing people and, when I have a day off, I can’t wait to come back.”

The girls were so intent on his answer that they didn’t realize Nico had returned until he was standing beside James at the gate with a subtle judgmental leer on his angular face. Seeing him at the same time, the three girls squealed and wheeled their ponies, dashing off around the arena, hooves kicking up sand, to begin the warm up that Coach Nico had asked them to begin before he’d gone to get the longe line.

Unfastening the gate, Nico glanced aside briefly at James who, as startled as the girls, avoided eye contact. James bent stiffly to pick up the empty green bucket by his ankle and turned wordlessly to slink away in embarrassment.

Hand on the gate, Nico hung his head with a sigh. “James. Did you want to watch Shannon’s practice?”

The groom’s wide-eyed desire to flee remained. “No, that’s fine. I’ve, uh, gotta put this bucket back.”

“It’s one thing to watch a rider from outside the arena but when you can watch from inside and with the trainer, the trainer can explain what’s happening in real time. It’s an excellent way to learn before ever getting in the saddle.” Nico pushed open the gate and nodded inside. “You can put that bucket back later, it’s an extra anyway.”

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