The Racehorse Who Learned To Dance by Clare Balding

The Folly Farm family are back in the latest book from Clare Balding, The Racehorse Who Learned To Dance. Read on for the first chapter!

Clare Balding

‘Will it ever rain again, Charlie?’ Bill Bass’s voice was muffled as he asked the question from beneath Taylor Swift’s udder.

‘I don’t know, Dad. I thought it always rained in summer.’ Charlie scratched Taylor Swift’s nose. The milking machine was attached now and the cow’s udder began squirting out warm white liquid. Charlie sighed. ‘The grass has gone brown and I keep worrying that Noddy will get sunstroke, out in the field all day.’

Noddy was their nickname for Noble Warrior, the racehorse they had bought by accident two years ago. Against all the odds and with the help of his best friend, Percy the pony, Noble Warrior had won the Derby – and a million pounds in prize money. Later that summer, he had been kidnapped after an Open Day at the farm, and although Charlie and her brothers had rescued him before any physical harm was done, the experience had left Noddy traumatized. Now he was terrified of carriages, men with long whips, and large crowds, and when he got himself in a panic he was a danger to everyone. Charlie had decided the only answer was to end her beloved horse’s racing career and he was now enjoying his retirement by relaxing in the field at Folly Farm.

Illustration: Tony Ross

‘I wouldn’t worry too much,’ said Bill, standing up and moving on to the next cow. ‘They’re pretty bright, these animals. I’ve seen Percy and Noddy up at the edge of the wood keeping under the shade of the trees. And as for this lot . . .’

He pointed at the long line of cows.

‘They stand in the river all day munching the grass on the banks. Princess Anne and Madonna get the best spots and they only come in when it’s milking time. They’ve been round the block, those two, and they know what’s what!’ He stroked Madonna’s back fondly.

‘But what if we run out of grass?’ Charlie was seriously worried. She’d seen a feature on the news about farmers whose grass had stopped growing.

They’d had to feed the animals hay, and supplies were running low.

‘We’ll deal with that problem if we have to, my love,’ Bill said calmly. ‘Don’t you be worrying about things we can’t control. We’ll always do right by our animals! Anyway, we’re due a big storm early next week so the boys can stop doing that rain dance of theirs soon.’

He laughed as he moved on to the next cow.

As Charlie walked out of the milking shed she could see Harry and Larry lining up the chickens into a formation. Larry started stomping his right foot to the beat of a drum that Harry was pounding.

The chickens looked confused and the two at the back tried to shuffle towards the hen house.

Illustration: Tony Ross

Charlie had never understood how her brothers’ brains worked. They were occasionally useful and had helped her solve the mystery of who kidnapped Noble Warrior after he had won the Derby, but most of the time they acted like idiots.

‘I don’t think the chickens want to dance in this heat!’ Charlie shouted out to her brothers.

Harry and Larry turned to look at her and both nodded their heads as if they agreed. But as they continued to nod, Charlie realized it was all part of the dance – they were stamping and nodding all at the same time. She wasn’t sure they’d mastered the finer points of the drum rhythm.

Then Charlie’s attention was grabbed by a car pulling into the farmyard. It was the Williams’s Range Rover with Mrs Williams at the wheel and Charlie’s best friend, Polly, in the passenger seat.

Charlie’s heart skipped a beat. Polly had been badly injured when Noble Warrior’s kidnappers had driven recklessly past her pony, who had spooked and reared. For a few days, Polly’s life had hung in the balance. She made it through but had to have multiple operations before she could move around in a wheelchair. Now, ten months on, she was starting to learn how to walk again, using a crutch to support her. The nerve damage from her fall meant that she had little feeling in her left side and sometimes, when she was sitting, her left leg or arm would jump in jerky, involuntary movements.

Charlie ran to the Range Rover and opened the back door as soon as it pulled up, throwing her arms round her friend before she could even get out.

‘Careful now, Charlie,’ said Mrs Williams gravely. ‘You know we have to be gentle with Polly. She’s very fragile.’

Illustration: Tony Ross

Polly made a face as she reached for her crutch, swung her legs out of the car and took a hesitant step forward. Once she had steadied herself, she leaned her crutch against the side of the car so that she could fling her arms back round Charlie in a big hug. She whispered in her ear, ‘I’m fed up with people treating me as if I’m made of china. I may be dented, but I’m not broken!’

Charlie smiled at her friend. She remembered how Polly had been the only one able to calm Noble Warrior down after he had been frightened by a carriage on the road outside. There was nothing fragile about her attitude! She was the bravest person Charlie knew.

Polly and Charlie walked slowly across the cobbled farmyard to the back door of the farmhouse.

‘I’m sure Mum will want to see you, Mrs Williams. Come in for a cup of tea –’ she glanced behind at Polly’s mother ‘– or maybe something cold?’

‘Ooh, that would be nice. I’ll have a glass of water, please, Charlie!’ replied Mrs Williams.

Charlie was in awe of Polly’s mother. She was so stylish and graceful. Today she was wearing a pretty patterned dress and, while everyone else looked as if they were melting, Mrs Williams was ice-cool.

Polly was coming to stay for a couple of days. It was the first time since she had come out of hospital that she’d been allowed to spend a night away from home.

‘Now, Charlie,’ said Mrs Williams. ‘I’ve made a list of the various pills Polly has to take and the exercises she must do this evening and in the morning. I’ll talk your mother through it all as well, but I would appreciate it if you made sure she did them! She’s been making wonderful progress, but we can’t afford to let up now. Can I trust you?’

‘Yes, of course you can, Mrs Williams,’ Charlie said seriously. ‘You know I will do everything I can to support Polly. She’s my best friend in the whole world.’

‘Ah, Jasmine!’ Charlie’s mother, Caroline, charged into the room, wiping beads of sweat from her forehead. She left a dark grey smudge of mud on her cheek. ‘I’m so sorry I wasn’t here to say hello. I’ve just been feeding the pigs and tidying up the muck heap. Do I smell?’

Mrs Williams wrinkled her nose and said kindly,

‘Oh, not too badly. I suspect they’d bottle it up in America and sell it as Eau de Farmyard. You could make a fortune!’

Charlie cringed. Why couldn’t her mother be clean, pristine and cool like Mrs Williams?

‘I love your mum,’ Polly whispered. ‘She’s so real.’

What Polly saw in her mother that she herself didn’t see was a question that Charlie would have to ask her later. Maybe everyone thought their own mum was embarrassing.

‘Right! ’ Caroline Bass clapped her hands together.

‘Who’s for orange squash with loads of ice, and a slice of green pea cake? It’s a new recipe. I thought it would be nice and summery.’

‘I’ll certainly have a glass of something cold, but I think I’ll pass on the cake.’ Mrs Williams smiled.

‘I don’t want to ruin the memory of the beetroot and apple rock cakes you brought round last week. We so love your experimental cooking.’

Polly and Charlie tried to stifle their giggles and sneaked out of the room, leaving their mothers to discuss alternative recipes and therapeutic exercise.

‘Do you want to come out and see Noddy?’ asked Charlie.

‘Oh, yes please,’ said Polly. ‘I’ve been so looking forward to being near horses again. Dad won’t let me in his racing yard in case I get kicked and Munchkin is on permanent loan to my cousin.’ She lowered her eyes to avoid Charlie’s gaze. Charlie shook her head in disappointment. She wished there was something she could do to help.

‘You’ve got a real knack with horses and I think sometimes they know that they have to be gentle with you. Remember how Noddy stopped snorting when he came towards you at Ascot? How he suddenly calmed down and didn’t pull backwards when you held his lead rein?’

Polly sighed. ‘My parents think that was just a fluke. Mum said she nearly had a heart attack when everyone else had run out of the way and I was standing there on my own. She thinks I couldn’t move fast enough, but to be honest, I would have stood still even before the accident. It’s the most sensible thing to do.’

Charlie knew her friend was right, but it still took an incredible amount of courage and calmness of mind to stay still when a panicked horse was charging around.

‘He’s so different now,’ Charlie said as they made their way towards the field, with Boris the Border terrier trotting along behind them. ‘He’s really settled down and it’s as if the racing part of his mind has just switched off.’

The girls approached the paddock fence and Charlie called out to Noddy and Percy who were at the far end of the field in the shade. Percy whinnied at Charlie, hoping for food, and starting ambling down the hill towards the barn. Noddy followed the pony faithfully.

Charlie watched them carefully as they walked towards the fence, checking they were both sound.

‘Look – Noddy’s got fatter and he’s so laid-back.’

She grinned at Polly. ‘I think he’s enjoying the lazy lifestyle!’

Noble Warrior walked straight up to Polly and stuck his head over the fence so that she could stroke him.

Illustration: Tony Ross

‘You’re in luck, greedy one.’ She laughed and pulled out two carrots. She handed one to Polly to give to Noble Warrior, and before she could even stretch out to offer the other one to Percy, he had snatched it from her.

‘Some things never change!’ said Polly with a grin.

Charlie took the opportunity to apply more sunscreen to Percy’s pink-skinned nose, while Polly looked more closely at Noble Warrior.

‘If I’m being honest, I think he needs a bit of conditioning.’ Polly pointed her crutch at his tummy as she leaned on the fence.

‘I don’t mean to be rude, but that’s quite a belly he’s got there!’

It was true. A casual passer-by might have thought Noddy was a mare in foal rather than a

Derby winner enjoying his retirement.

‘Maybe we should start exercising him?’ Charlie suggested. ‘What do you think?’

Polly stroked Noddy’s head again. ‘I think you’d like that, wouldn’t you, fella? It’s no fun doing nothing at all. We all need a bit of a challenge in our lives, something to aim at, something to work for. It’ll make you stronger, inside and out.’

Charlie was pleased to see her friend happy.

She knew how frustrated Polly had been by the numerous trips to hospital and the endless cycle of preparing for and recovering from an operation.

‘I don’t think I could bear to live a life without horses,’ Polly sighed. ‘I wish my parents knew how miserable it makes me to have to stay away from them.’

Noddy sniffed Polly’s hair and nudged her gently with his nose.

‘I think they’re trying to keep you safe,’ Charlie replied. She saw tears spring up in Polly’s eyes. Polly buried her face in Noddy’s neck to hide them.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ Polly said, her voice muffled. ‘It’s like living in a prison with one or other of my parents always lurking, scared that I might trip or catch myself on a door, rushing towards me to hold my arm, or moving things out of my way. They won’t even let me get a kitten because they’re terrified it will scratch me or make me fall over!’

Charlie felt a flush of anger on Polly’s behalf. ‘I could kill them!’ she spat.

Polly looked surprised. ‘I think that’s a bit extreme. They annoy me, but I don’t want to kill them.’ She paused. ‘I’d be pretty sad without any parents.’

‘No!’ Charlie exclaimed. ‘Not your parents. The kidnappers. The men who are doing time in jail right now. They completely changed your life and

Noddy’s and now you’re both in limbo, not knowing what to do with yourselves.’

Noble Warrior jerked his head up at Charlie’s raised voice. The sharp movement knocked Polly off balance and she wobbled, trying to use her left leg to keep herself upright. It collapsed beneath her.

‘Ow!’ Her face twisted in agony as she hit the ground.

Charlie rushed to her side and slid her arm move, but no sound came out.

‘Noddy, you naughty boy! ’ Charlie turned to her ex-racehorse to admonish him. ‘You can’t behave like that.’

‘Eight, nine, ten.’ Polly exhaled loudly.

‘What?’ Charlie asked.

‘It’s what I do when it really hurts. It comes in waves and I know it will pass so I count to ten and sometimes back down again until it feels better.’

Noble Warrior whickered gently. He hung his head over the fence, his ears flicking backwards and forwards and his eyes focused on Polly.

‘Don’t be cross with him.’ Polly started to sit up slowly. ‘He didn’t do it on purpose. Just look at him– he’s genuinely sorry!’

Percy, meanwhile, didn’t glance their way. He was too busy, his head stretching under the bottom rail of the fence, trying desperately to reach a few blades of grass that hadn’t been burnt brown by the sun.

Polly laughed weakly. ‘Percy would probably knock me over and trample me for a lump of sugar!

But I don’t think Noddy meant to do it.’

Noddy stretched out his neck and sniffed at Polly.

‘It’s OK, fella. I’ll live.’

Polly leaned on Charlie for support and stiffly clambered to her feet. Charlie put the crutch in her hand and offered her arm for support on the other side.

Polly waved it away.

‘I’m fine,’ she said sharply. ‘It happens all the time.’

She hobbled towards Noddy and reached out her right arm to stroke his nose. ‘I know it was an accident. You didn’t mean to hurt me. I’m just not as stable as I used to be, that’s the problem. We’ve both been a bit scrambled, but hey, we’ll learn to get on with it, won’t we?’

She scratched Noddy behind the ears and he lowered his head appreciatively.

Polly turned to look defiantly at Charlie. ‘Don’t tell Mum.’

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