Cheesecake was a reddish brown Shetland pony with a yellow mane. Often kind but sometimes mischievous, she lived at Hockpoll Stables with young Sally Withers and her parents.
Winter had just begun and the trees around Hockpoll Stables were nearly bare of leaves. On most days, frost coated the grass in the pastures.
One morning, Cheesecake was out grazing with her friend Lancer, a handsome brown thoroughbred. They both wore warm rugs and their breath made big clouds as it came out of their nostrils.
“I hate this time of year,” Lancer grumbled, his mouth full of grass. “The frost makes my mouth so cold my teeth hurt.”
“Oooo, yes,” groaned Cheesecake. “Eat it too quickly and there’s a pain in your head, like the time I ate Sally’s ice lolly all in one bite.”
Thinking of Sally, Cheesecake looked over at the Withers’ house and saw something strange going on inside. She called Lancer over and they both trotted to the nearest fence to have a look.
Sally was in the kitchen, standing on a chair while hanging up colourful lights and decorations. Mrs Withers was spraying white powder on the windows that looked like snow. Mr Withers was hanging a wreath made of twigs, leaves and ribbons on the front door.
“Mmmmm, that looks tasty,” nickered Cheesecake. “But what’s all this for?”
Just then another of Cheesecake’s friends, Carlo the magpie, alighted on the fence beside them.
“I know what it’s for,” Carlo squawked. “They’re getting ready for Christmas.”
“Of course!” Lancer grinned. “How could I forget?”
“Christmas?” Cheesecake asked. “Is that some kind of new feed?”
“No, no, no,” said Lancer, shaking his head. “It’s a festival. The people decorate their houses with lights and evergreen plants, sing songs, eat too much and give gifts to each other.”
“It’s meant to be a happy time,” continued Carlo. “When miracles can happen.”
“When the weather’s like this?” scoffed Cheesecake. “I don’t think so!”
However, Sally was much more excited about Christmas than Cheesecake was. So much so, she told Cheesecake about it as they practiced riding together.
“I hope Santa gets me that showjumping playset I wanted,” said Sally. “After all, I’ve been a good girl all year, not like you, you cheeky thing.”
Cheesecake snorted. Right now you’re being more than a little cheeky yourself, she thought.
One morning, Cheesecake trotted over to see Mrs Withers in the stable yard, talking loudly to a thin, serious-looking lady. Cheesecake couldn’t help noticing that this lady pointed in her direction a great deal.
“I know we’re friends, Beth,” Mrs Withers told her visitor. “But we need Cheesecake here for Sally’s riding practice.”
“Cheesecake has done driving work before, hasn’t she?” the lady named Beth went on.
“Yes,” said Mrs Withers.
“Then it’s got to be her,” Beth went on. “Look, Alison, no-one else I know who has a pony who’s done driving work and the show can’t go on without one.”
After some thought, Mrs Withers agreed to help Beth. Cheesecake didn’t find out exactly what until two days later.
Sally gave Cheesecake a farewell hug before Mr and Mrs Withers loaded her into a trailer and drove her into town. They led her out near a big square building with a tall door at the back. Beth was waiting by the door to greet Cheesecake with a scratch on the ears.
“Hello there, Cheesecake,” smiled Beth. “Let’s hitch you up and try you out.”
Mrs Withers led Cheesecake over to a small but pretty carriage next to the big door. To Cheesecake’s delight, she was being hitched up next to another Shetland pony; a black-and-white piebald mare.
“Hello,” said the pony. “I’m Tansey. Welcome to the theatre.”
“I’m Cheesecake,” Cheesecake said. “What do I have to do here, Tansey?”
“Oh, it’s really easy,” Tansey explained. “The people are putting on a pantomime; a kind of funny show that children can join in with. My friend Bruiser was partnering me, but he’s hurt his fetlocks. All we have to do is come on at the right time, pulling this carriage.”
A cheerful man named Bill took the reins of the carriage and urged the ponies on to a trot. He drover Cheesecake and Tansey round in circles for a while, while Beth and Mrs Withers watched. When Bill brought the carriage to a stop, Beth was delighted.
“Wonderful!” cried Beth. “Cheesecake is perfect, Alison. Here, these are three tickets for our Christmas Eve performance, as a special thank you. See you then!”
Cheesecake and Tansey’s first performance was that night. As the theatre filled up, Beth made sure everything was ready for the play. Cheesecake and Tansey were led from a makeshift paddock behind the theatre to the backstage area. There, Bill hitched them up before their scene.
Cheesecake was able to watch all the comings and goings of the show while she waited. The audience clapped a sad but beautiful woman in rags. However, they also booed at a pair of men dressed as two hideous women.
“Aren’t people odd?” Cheesecake asked Tansey, nodding towards the men.
“Strange as can be,” Tansey agreed.
Cheesecake and Tansey came on pulling the carriage just after a scene where an old lady dressed as a fairy turned the beautiful woman’s rags into a dazzling gown. During the interval, the ponies were fed and watered. Later, came a scene where a handsome man in princely clothes fitted a clear plastic shoe onto the foot of the beautiful woman’s foot, then they kissed lovingly. It was Cheesecake and Tansey’s job to bring on the carriage and bear them away to a life of happiness together.
Days went by, as did many spectacular performances. Yet Cheesecake always wished she had more to do, and she told Tansey as much.
“Don’t feel bad,” said Tansey. “At least we’re here at all. Most years they just have people in a horse suits pulling the carriage. Bo-ring.”
Then came Christmas Eve; the biggest and most spectacular performance of all.
“Listen carefully, everyone,” Beth told the cast, “The mayor and his family are coming tonight, so I want you to do all the fabulous things you’ve been doing so far fifty times as fabulous.”
Nuts to the mayor, Cheesecake thought. Sally’s out there tonight. She’s the one who matters.
For nearly the whole performance, the show was as fabulous as Beth had hoped. The audience laughed, cheered and booed with passion. Cheesecake was even sure she heard Sally squeal with delight when she and Tansey led the carriage on the first time.
Then, near the end of the play, Bill was leading Cheesecake and Tansey back to the carriage to hitch them up, ready for their second appearance.
On stage, the prince was kneeling before the woman in rags. He seemed to be reaching into his coat, looking for something, but he couldn’t find it and he was starting to look worried.
“Tansey, look!” Cheesecake cried. “He’s forgotten to take that with him!”
She nodded towards the left wing of the stage, where a woman’s shoe made of clear plastic lay on the floor.
“He needs it or the play will be ruined!” said Cheesecake. “I’ve got to help him!”
“Cheesecake, wait!” yelled Tansey.
Cheesecake twisted away from Bill, snatched the shoe from the floor with her mouth and headed for the stage.
“Hey!” Bill shouted. “Stop that horse!”
A stage hand jumped in front of Cheesecake and tried to grab her bridle.
Nothing for it, thought Cheesecake. I have to save the play.
When Cheesecake burst through the wall of Cinderella’s home with a glass slipper in her teeth, the audience roared with laughter. However, the actors on stage gasped in horror and backstage Beth screamed. Cheesecake, who had been feeling rather heroic, suddenly froze as she realised she had just made an awful mistake.
It was the prince who saved the day.
“Behold!” he cried. “By some magic, my true love’s faithful horse has returned the glass slipper to me!”
Cheesecake sighed with relief and her hooves became unglued. She walked forward to place the shoe at the prince’s feet. He gave her a pat, then slipped the shoe on the woman’s foot.
“A perfect fit!” he gasped.
The audience let out a mighty cheer, and Cheesecake blushed beneath her hair as she heard Sally yell, “I love you, Cheesecake!”
When the play was over, the audience cheered louder than ever. Bill even lead Cheesecake and Tansey on stage as the actors took their bows. The cheers became almost deafening as the mayor came on stage to hand a bouquet to Beth, for he took a moment to put flowers behind their ears.
Of all the stars that had performed that night, it had surely been Cheesecake who had stolen the show.