Set in Wyoming, Chico's Challenge follows a young buckskin quarter horse who is trade to Sierra, a teen who works her father's ranch and dreams of becoming a cutting horse champion. Chico seems to have the makings of a great cow horse, but...he has never seen a cow in his life! Can he and Sierra, both novices, learn to work together as a team?
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Feiwel & Friends
May 22, 2012
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Excerpt from Chico's Challenge by Jessie Haas
THE YOUNG BUCKSKIN QUARTER HORSE stood perfectly still as the needle slid into his neck. One black-tipped ear tilted back. "Good boy, Chico," the vet said. She pressed the plunger and withdrew the needle.
That would be the last shot, Chico knew. He'd now been through this four times, once for each year of his life. Every year, just as the spring grass would begin to smell unbearably fresh and good, this woman would come. Each horse would be led out of the paddock in turn--Chico's mother, sister, older brothers, and finally him. The vet would look him over, then sting him like a fly, once in each haunch and once on the neck. Other than the stings, she was quiet and pleasant, and like most people, she admired Chico. He could tell by the tone of her voice, though he didn't understand all the words.
As the needle slid out of Chico's neck muscle this time, the vet reached into her pocket, and Chico nickered. The last sting was always followed by a carrot, or once, an apple--
Carrot this year. Good. Chico crunched it, nodding his head with every bite. His life had too much sameness, but this kind of sameness he liked.
Any other year Dean, his owner, would unsnap the cross-ties and lead Chico back to where his family gathered at the round-bale feeder in the barren, packed-earth paddock, swishing their tails, feeling the warmth and shove of each others' bodies, listening to the peaceful crunch of hay and their own slowing heartbeats. They calmed down more quickly with Chico there. The youngest, he was also the bravest. A young male's job in every horse herd was to investigate threats and drive them off. Chico charged into this task with zest. He challenged blowing sheets of newspaper and aimless umbrellas fearlessly, and his greatest joy was driving out stray dogs that wandered into the paddock. That didn't happen often enough. He needed a bigger job--a bigger life!
But today, instead of leading Chico back to his family, Dean stood talking with the vet and the girl she'd brought with her.
The girl didn't seem to be listening to the grown-ups talk. A slim teenager with dark curls springing out from under her cowboy hat, she hung back and didn't say much, just gazed at Chico with shining eyes. She was excited. He could feel it.
But what did it have to do with him? He looked out the open barn door, past the girl, past the vet's truck and the horse trailer she'd brought this time, smelling and listening for what lay beyond.
Past Dean's suburban ranch house was another just like it, surrounded by grass instead of dirt and horse fence. Past that was another house, and another, in all directions.
But beyond the houses--Chico's nostrils flared as he tested the wind. Beyond was a vastness, an enormous stretch of grass. Early spring was when he could smell it most.
The grass out there was different. It had a wild, pungent scent. Out there was a big sky and animals of some kind--grass-eaters, many grass-eaters, and meat-eaters, too, the wild dogs Dean called "coyotes," which sometimes slunk through the neighborhood. Chico had never seen the vast grassland, but it filled his mind, exciting to think of, impossible to reach.
His whole life had been this five-acre Laramie, Wyoming, ranchette, with its bare paddock. Dean took good care of his horses. There was hay and cool water. There was a round pen with a deep sand footing, where he had taught Chico to be ridden--and that was about all.
Once or twice a week, Dean trailered Chico to a big indoor riding arena and rode him. That should have beeninteresting. But Dean just raced Chico in circles, and got upset.
Chico liked going fast and stopping fast--but, after a while, what was the point? They never got anywhere, just went around and around in the same old patterns. Boring, but Dean got angry when Chico thought of shortcuts. Then they'd both come home grumpy.
"I've got too many horses and not enough money," Dean was telling the vet, "and I've soured this one on reining." He gave Chico an apologetic pat. "My fault--he's so athletic. He's always seemed like a horse that needed a job, but running patterns isn't real enough for him. I mean--a cowboy doesn't run patterns. He works. But I'm no cowboy, just an amateur breeder who wants to do some showing on weekends and--anyway, bottom line, if you'd take him in a trade against my vet bill, I'd be most grateful."
The vet turned and walked thoughtfully around Chico, as if she'd never seen him before. In a way she hadn't. It was just this past winter that Chico had really grown into himself. At two, his hind legs were longer than his front legs. At three, he'd looked nice, but unfinished.
Now, through the loosening winter hair, it was possible to see what a fine quarter horse he'd become; about fifteen hands, muscular, well-balanced, with a handsome, self-confident head and wise eyes. His body was the color of buckwheat honey, his mane and tail and legs coalblack--and splashed up each leg, as if he'd galloped through milk, was a long white stocking. A white blaze made a lightning streak down the middle of his face.
The vet said, "It's one of the top ten rules you learn in vet school. Never accept an animal in payment of a bill!" Dean made one of his pretending-I'm-not-worried noises. "But," she went on, "if you have a thirteen-year-old daughter, you understand that rules change!"
"The horses are my kids," Dean said, "and I guess you're right!"
"We've just started looking for a horse for Sierra," the vet said. "Her little sister is pushing to inherit the quarter pony, and we had to put our nice gelding down this spring--" She cleared her throat. "Anyway, Sierra wants to get into cutting--"