“I’m fine,” he said.
“No, you’re not. And it’s okay not to be fine. But if you’re going to impress Cristoff and not make a fool of yourself, you have to listen.”
He shot me a look, but he didn’t fight.
“If you find the horse makes you nervous, don’t pull on the reins. That stops the horse in its tracks. Instead, loosen up your legs and grab on to the small saddle post in front of you. Like this.”
I released my legs and settled the reins around the stump between my legs. I watched him mimic my movements, and the horse instantly relaxed between his legs. It bellowed air through its nose and shook out its mane, almost as if the horse was breathing out a sigh of relief.
“You and I both, buddy,” Phillip said.
“Here’s what you’ll do now. Hold the reins in the palm of your hand and lightly tap your heels against your horse. Don’t grip. Don’t flinch. Just grab and tap. That’ll get your horse walking at a snail’s pace underneath you. But tap with your heels gently.”
I watched Phillip’s hands tighten around the reins, but he did the one thing he shouldn’t have done: he gathered them up into his hand. I reached over to try and fix it as he clicked his heels against the horse, but he tapped the horse too hard. With all of the mixed signals and the tension that immediately ran through Phillip’s veins the second my hands graced over his, the horse took off.
“Whoa!” Phillip exclaimed.
The horse took off with him, and I leapt into action. I slammed my heels into my horse and rose up, galloping after the runaway animal. Phillip was being tossed side to side, and I was scared he’d get thrown off. Trampled. Tossed into a tree and knocked out. I whipped my reins to encourage my horse to go faster, riding up on Phillip and his horse. I reached over carefully and took the reins from Phillip’s hand, then brought both of our horses to a slow stop.
I lunged off my horse and ran around, holding my arms out for Phillip so I could help him down. But he was shaking and nervous, rattled at the situation, and got his foot caught up in his stirrup.
He came crashing down onto me, and the two of us tumbled into the dirt. Twigs ripped through my clothes, and rocks tore holes into my riding pants. The horses were already walking off to a creek in the distance to get some water as I lay there, smashed between the rock-hard ground and the rock-hard man that was insistent on making sure we kept this as platonic as possible.
“I’m sorry. Are you all right?”
He scrambled off me and helped me up as the wind bled through the holes in my clothes.
“Come on. We have to catch the horses,” I said.
We jogged after the spooked animals, who danced their way off the trail and over toward the water. I didn’t want their reins catching on anything they could bring down. The last thing we needed was for a tree to smash into one of Cristoff’s horses. I looked over at Phillip and watched him as he tried to control Sassy. And I got a firsthand glance at why Cristoff had named her that. Sassy reared up onto her hind legs and kicked out at Phillip, causing him to yell out before stumbling away. He fell onto his ass, and I suppressed a giggle as sweat dripped down my neck.
At least he got Sassy to stop trotting off.
I got Phillip’s horse over to Sassy and tied him off to a nearby tree. Then, I set my sights on Sassy. She was pretty upset, and I couldn’t blame her. She reared up onto her hind legs again and kicked out, forcing me to take a step back. In an instant, Phillip was off the ground and in front of me, his arms outstretched and his body crouched.
Like he was protecting me from the horse.
“Say ‘easy does it,’” I said into his ear.
“Easy does it,” Phillip said.
“It’s just us.”
“It’s just us,” he repeated.
Sassy stopped bucking, and after a few more soft encouragements, Phillip reached out for her. He took her reins and tied her off onto another tree, giving her enough slack so she could get to the water. He turned to look back at me and chuckled. And for the first time since our encounter in the garden, I watched his eyes sparkle. I joined him in his laughter, and it grew and grew, filling the forest around us as the two of us leaned against a tree.