* * * Tina watched the video unfold slowly, and she couldn’t help but cringe as she did. She knew her coach, Carl Cross, was going to slow it down even more, and he was going to live up to his name along the way.
“Right here,” he said as he worked the remote. “This is where it starts.”
I know, Tina nearly said, but she held her tongue. She knew exactly what she’d done wrong, and Tina was aware of why she’d done it. Sort of.
What she didn’t understand was why she couldn’t stop herself. Why can’t I change? she said to herself. It’s not fair.
Tina hated that she was whining, even if it was just to herself. She had changed, really. She’d tried everything Carl had suggested, but some of it didn’t work, and a lot of the rest didn’t stick. There had to be a way out, but Tina sure couldn’t see it right now.
She held her breath as he clicked the video forward one frame after another. That made things worse—it felt like the outcome would be different, but suddenly she’d rush her horse into the jump, and the frames after that definitely weren’t pretty.
“Same old same old,” Carl said, shaking his head in disgust. “What’s up with that?”
Tina waited for his infamous glare, the one all of his equestrian students dreaded. Instead her instructor and coach just looked down at the ground, as if she wasn’t even worthy of his disgust.
She knew she was putting things in her mind that weren’t really there, but Tina couldn’t stop herself from doing that, either. Carl cared about her; everything about the way he coached her indicated that. He just didn’t like to show it.
“I don’t know what to do,” Tina said. “Are we out of options here?”
“Dunno,” Carl muttered as he looked up. This was a rare admission for him, and Tina could see the pain in his eyes.
She hated disappointing him. Carl Cross was a great coach, and Tina was lucky to have him. He only took on a few students each year, and he rode them hard, both literally and figuratively.
But not as hard as before. Back in the day before @MeToo, Carl had been a ranter, but only in short bursts. Some of his rants were legendary, too, full of barbs that had become part of his singular coaching lexicon. Not to mention making him something of a YouTube sensation, although that part was unintentional, of course.
But he balanced that with constant compliments when thing were going well. Carl always knew when to pick her up when she was down, or push her gently when they both knew she was lazy.
Tina knew the stories about all the coaches she supposedly could have had, and those just reinforced how lucky she was to have him.
Finally he put the remote down, which surprised her. Carl had never done that before, and she could see it meant he was at the end of his rope.
“We gotta come up with something else,” he said, shaking his head. “I know you can do this. So that’s on me.”
Tina just shook her head, knowing that was expected. She knew this wasn’t true, that Carl had fixed flaws in students that were way deeper than hers, and all she could do was sigh.
It felt like a pep talk was coming, but Tina wasn’t sure. She’d been on the receiving end of some of those, too, and while they were wonderful, Carl usually saved them for special moments. She wasn’t sure if this was one of them just yet, nor was she sure that was what she needed right now.
“It’s your call,” Tina said, trying to sound more engaged than she felt. “I just feel bad that I haven’t been able to be consistent with the things we’ve tried that have worked some.”
Carl quickly shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s not on you at all. The fact that they worked means we were onto something, we just have to tailor whatever the solution is to you.”
Tina nodded, knowing what that was about. Her riding style was a little herky-jerky compared to the riders she was now competing against at the highest level, and she had critics who were sure her style would keep her from being a champion.
Suddenly his eyes lit up. “Hey, I think I’ve got an idea,” Carl said, cocking his head. That meant he was running it through his mind, so Tina just watched him for a moment.
“What?” she finally asked.
Finally he pursed his lips.
“It’s kind of a ‘what-if?’” her coach said, shaking his head. “Let’s go do something else.”
Tina nodded again, slightly disappointed. Carl did this kind of thing every now and then—he’d get an idea that was probably brilliant, only to decide it wasn’t ready to be fully out in the world just yet.
She knew better than to argue or pry, though. Carl Cross had his process, and it delivered results. And he was right—some of what they’d done had worked, so that probably meant they were onto something.
He got up, and Tina followed suit. Her joints didn’t quite cooperate the way she wanted them to, though, and she had to grab the chair to steady herself.
Jeez, she said to herself as she righted the ship. I’m too young to be feeling like this.
It wasn’t unexpected, though. Tina had taken a couple of falls early on, and they definitely took a toll. She nearly rubbed where she knew the bruises would be later on, but she didn’t want Carl to see that. No way.
She caught up to him quickly, though. Carl had taken 20 years worth of falls, and while he was still athletic, there were times when his gait showed it. He took his time now, which was a reminder that he’d had a long day, too.
The thought was depressing, and Tina couldn’t help but wonder what he was going to have her do. Carl was the type of coach who always stopped when repetitions weren’t working, and suddenly he veered onto the dirt path that led to the track.
She wanted to ask questions right away, but Tina had learned over time not to do that. She could think like Carl Cross when she wanted to, and a lot of times blurting out a question wasn’t the best way to figure things out.
“Let’s have you work Silver Flash,” he said, pointing at the dapple gray mare, who was chowing down on the grass in the interior of the track.
“Um. . . what are you thinking?” she asked tentatively, unable to keep the questions in the back of her mind anymore.
“Just some laps,” he said innocuously. “Work out the kinks.”
Tina frowned. That didn’t feel right at all, but she wasn’t about to try and play mind reader. Usually it was a waste of time, and the one thing
“Those aren’t kinks, Carl,” she said, happy to be able to call him by his first name without feeling awkward about it. “Those are bruises-in-waiting.”
He laughed. Carl had a warm, throaty laugh, and Tina always congratulated herself when she could get one out of him. Even if Tina was tired enough that she could feel the effort that was necessary for every single step.
Still, she knew he was probably right. That was the thing about Carl Cross—he was right about nearly everything he did, even if it did take Tina a couple of days to catch up with the logic behind his moves.
Silver Flash perked up when he saw her. Tina hadn’t ridden him much because he wasn’t a jumper, but they’d definitely formed a bond the few times she’d worked the horse.
But Tina knew that wasn’t what Carl Cross wanted now. He wanted something, but even he didn’t know what it was, so this was no time for mind-reading or guesswork.
Just ride, Tina said, thinking back to the times this had happened before. It’ll all work itself out eventually.
But not right away. Mounting up was painful, which she sort of expected, but the sharpness of the pain Tina felt on her inner thigh was a lot sharper than she thought it would be.
Dang, she thought as she wheeled her leg up and over anyway. That’s my adductor.
Tina thought about all the stretching she would have to do later to get the knot out, assuming it was just a knot. Ice, too, maybe, and just the thought of that made her shiver.
Once she was situated with Silver Flash, though, everything changed. Tina could almost feel her mind click into a different gear, like there was a switch in her had that been built just for that.
The horse did a little dance for a moment, forward and back, and Tina lifted the reins gently to get Silver Flash back under control.
She tried to remember some of the horse’s idiosyncrasies, riding-wise, but her mind drew a blank, which meant those things would have to happen on the fly.
Not that that was a bad thing. That was part of what Carl jokingly called his “Cross Method,” which was based on getting the conscious mind out of the way as much as possible until it was absolutely needed.
He’d even written a book about how he did this, and Tina had heard that publishers had offered six figures to entice him into a book deal.
There was a reason for that. Carl Cross had trained Olympic riders, equestrian champions who medaled multiple times and had great career.
The unique thing about his accomplishments was that most of those champions weren’t “naturals.” Not at all.
They all had flaws of one sort or another compared to the other girls and women they were competing against, but Carl didn’t care a whit about that.
“It’s what you do after I get you in the saddle,” he’d told her early on, during one of his rare moments when he came off as a little cocky. “What you’e got before, the talent and all that, that don’t mean a thing.”
Tina hadn’t known what he’d meant at the time, but she sure did now. She’d had more than her share of ups and downs with Carl, and her flaws had been exposed more times than she could count.
But the way Carl did it was unique. He was never hard about it, unless he knew laziness or lack of work was involved. That was the one thing he had a temper about, and Tina knew he’d bounced some girls who wouldn’t put in the work.
She wasn’t one of them, though. Tina put herself at the bottom of the ladder, talent-wise, even though Carl had assured her that wasn’t the case.
After that he basically wouldn’t talk about it, especially that one time she’d gotten up the nerve to ask about the potential book deal.
“Wouldn’t be right,” he said simply. “It’s easy to put how you do things into words for some stuff, but not with horses. End the end it’s all about you, and the bond you build with the horse.”
Tina thought about that as she walked Silver Flash out onto the track, and as she did she wondered if she was ready for whatever was about to come next.
A part of her thought it was time to just call it a day, to get a jump on the oncoming bruises so she could heal up faster and get her mind right.
But Carl was doing this for a reason, and Tina couldn’t help but think about that, too, as she did a slow warm-up lap with Silver Flash.
Everything about it felt awkward, and she began to build an image in her mind of something that probably wasn’t going to go right.
“Mind free, Tina,” Carl yelled from across the track, and all she could do was shake her head.
There were times when she hated that he could get in there so easily, but fortunately Carl was strictly pick-and-choose when he decided to do that.
“Quicken up,” he said as she hit the far turn. “Nice and easy. Let him loose.”