In July of 2015, I welcomed Athena into our family. She had just turned 5 years old and was very green. To say I had no real idea what I was in for is an understatement. But, with excitement, a healthy dose of apprehension and a lot of logistical planning, Athena traveled from Washington State to Maui, Hawaii. Her journey included a 2 day trailer trip with a commercial horse transport company from Seattle, Washington to LAX International Airport. Arriving at midnight she hopped on a horse dedicated 747 Jet from LAX to Honolulu, HI to clear quarantine before proceeding on the last leg of her adventure, an overnight barge trip from Honolulu to Maui where she finally settled into her lush 2 acre pasture and our journey together began.
During my pre purchase visits I could see that she had some basic ground schooling and had been lightly started under saddle. However, once settled in her new Maui home, it became very clear she was a handful. I had seen indications of this but now that it was just her and me, her true colors were showing like a bright rainbow banner of spirited personality. Despite her sass, she had many endearing qualities and I saw loads of potential. To this day, I still believe we were meant for each other.
To begin with, she had zero ground manners and would frequently take off, zipping the lead line out of my hand as she galloped off, clearly very proud of herself. I learned early on to ALWAYS wear gloves, or suffer the blistered, rope burn consequences.
She was hard to catch. In her two acres of pasture I would spend hours chasing her around, just to put her halter on. I quickly decided we needed a “Catch pen” where I would lure her into the smaller space staked out with temporary hot wire fence, feed her a small bowl of Timothy pellets and close the gate behind her while she was eating. It was still a game of chase, but at least it was one I could win now.
Grooming her was an ordeal. I couldn’t pick her back feet up without her kicking out at me. If I touched her chest, she would bare her teeth as if to bite. Although she never did “get me”, it was none the less unnerving. I would get through the currying as quickly as I could, doing my best to dodge her tossing head, tail swishing and overall pissy nature. When she was in a “good” mood, which was completely on her terms, should would approach me, looking for wither scratches.
It was endearing, in a way that made me think there might be hope that she might want to be with me. But, with a kicking habit it was also scary and I found myself trying to push her away which ultimately lead to her spinning around, pinning her ears, pointing her hind end at me and giving a little bunny hop buck in my direction. Then trotted away tossing her head, satisfied that she had shown me who was boss.
Tacking up was a wild dance. With saddle in hand I would approach her and proceed to chase her around the hitching pole until I could get close enough to throw my dressage saddle over her back. As I would tighten her girth, I had to jump back to avoid a nip as she reached around with her teeth. Installing cross ties, helped. Instead of going around and around in a circle at least it was just back and forth.
Getting on was an adventure at best. It was a solid 45 minute ordeal of asking her to stand next to the mounting block. Once I finally had her standing, usually crocked, I would put one foot in the stirrup, which always illicited a side ways and/or forward step away. Thinking I could still get on, I would begin hopping around on one leg as she circled around and around the mounting block, moving further and further away with each step. Eventually, she would step far enough away that I could no longer remain on the mounting block and keep a foot in the stirrup. In the last moment of tension, I would slide my foot out of the stirrup as she backed even further away pulling me completely off the block. On occasion the reins would rip out of my hands, leaving Athena “free”. Sensing her new liberty she would run off, parading around the field in full tack, reins dangling around her neck and me hoping she didn’t get her leg caught.
Once I finally managed to get on, the presence of my legs made her jump forward. To her my, leg always and only meant go forward and go faster, even to the slightest touch. She was always tense and unsure. Nothing I seemed to say or do helped to calm her down.
With jazzy steps, her head held high like a giraffe, we would venture down towards my makeshift grass arena at the bottom of the field.
If we were lucky, we didn’t encounter any flying pheasants which would inevitable send Athena into a spooking tizzy of whirling energy, trying to escape the “monster” from the grass. It was quite an ordeal. Many days, I found it was “enough” to get on and go for a walk.
For six months, August to January we continued to push through all the ground and mounting issues and persevered to get to the highlight of the week, our one hour Dressage riding lesson. But, that proved to be just as frustration and pointless. It would take a solid 30 minutes of walking and struggling to get Athena to be calm and focused. She fought every request. Pushing against my leg and shooting forward into a faster trot. She had no supple movement and no left or right lateral movement of any kind. She would get her tongue over the bit constantly and then toss her head vigorously, swishing her tail in even further protest. We mostly worked on walk and trot. In January we introduced a little canter. That was another exercise in courage, as every canter started first with a bucking fit. Once the canter smoothed out, it was nice, unrefined and fast, but had elements of riding a rocking horse. A sign of good things to develop in time. But, by that point my nerves were shot, my heart pounding and my legs were Jello. I ended our rides exhausted and distraught. Athena ended our rides pissy and anxious. She didn’t understand what I was asking and I didn’t know how to explain my requests. There was a huge gap between us and it was growing bigger with every session together whether on the ground or in the saddle.