Out of the Saddle and Onto The Ground

In January, 4 months after Athena arrived in Maui, I stopped taking riding lessons. What was the point? It wasn’t fun and we weren’t making progress. I tried riding on my own for two months,  thinking that maybe with out the pressure of a lesson things might improve. 

But, by March things had completely degraded. I could hardly tack her up, dodging nips and kicks and questioning my safety the entire time. Getting on was no longer an inconvenient dance of hopping and Athena pulling me off the mounting block. Now I had to summon every ounce of courage I could muster, plunging my foot into the stirrup and trying to swing my leg over her back within seconds, grabbing anything I could as Athena bolted from the mounting block, bucking in a zig zag pattern until I’d fly off. It all happened so fast. Sometimes I managed to stay on, but more often than not I ended up in the dirt. I would pick myself up, dust off my breeches and start the whole process all over again. Growing up I was always thought if you fall off you get back on, so that’s what I did. Again, and again, until her bucking subsided enough that I could keep my tush in the saddle. It was all work, there was no fun.

So there I was, Athena and Magen, all alone in a 2 acre field, up at 2500ft in Maui, Hawaii. No trainers, no horsey friends or family to help us out.  It was just the two of us. I was bruised physically and emotionally hurt and now afraid of her. How had this happened? She was smart and it was clear that she didn’t really want to hurt me or she would have. Instead she had managed to find ways to distance herself from me, to use her weight and speed to cleverly get her way.

In this moment, she had won. Leaving the pasture in tears, my lowest of lows I wanted nothing to do with her. I didn’t know what to do. I would go up to her pasture and sit outside the fence, in the “safe zone” where she couldn’t get too close and just look at her.

My beautiful Friesian cross, my dream come true, my completely unrideable 5 year old mare with  great confirmation and stamina had just become a pasture pet. We were not on the same page and I didn’t know what to do. I scoured the internet looking for  ideas, but nothing really seemed to speak to where we were at and I was NOT going to go the cowboy way. But, I was done with battling it out with her. I needed another way. 

Not being one to ever give up, I kept searching for a solution.  I remembered a gal, about my age, who I had met while working with two Friesian foals at another barn. She had been friendly and knowledgeable and had shared a different approach to training horses. She called it Natural Horsemanship. I had heard about this methodology and thought she might be someone who would could help so I gave her a call to discuss my “problem child”, Athena. 
The next week, Marina, with Halo Horsemanship came out to give me her honest assessment. I felt a great deal of anticipation and was even a bit nervous. 

It didn’t take long for Marina to see the issues I had been having. To my surprise, she wasn’t distressed. Instead, she explained simply that the two of us were not speaking the same language and therefore, no trust or respect  had developed. In her opinion, Athena did not see me as her leader and in the absence of MY leadership, she had assumed the role and was pushing ME around. The good news…. With training, consistency, patience and understanding it was fixable. 

With Marina as our guide, we embarked on our Natural Horsemanship Journey. 
I set up a round pen, purchased a rope training halter and committed to working with Athena five days a week.

It was slow going, painfully slow in the beginning. There were days, when I questioned whether we were making any progress. Marina reassured me it would come, but it would take time. Patience and persevernece was our mantra. Athena was feisty and stubborn, and I was learning proper techniques and timing.

After four long months, I started to see progress. I could lead her without her leading me. I could brush her without it being a battle. She started to come to me in our catch pen instead of me chasing her around until she tired of the game. In the round pen lessons, a new language was cultivated and we started to understand each other better. With clear communication the frustration decreased and respect and trust increased.  We now had a foundation to build from and that’s exactly what we did. For a year and a half we worked exclusively on ground work together and finally we were ready to try riding again. 

I purchased a western saddle and bridle and began the next phase of her training. Once in the saddle we would meander through the tall pasture grass, admiring the beautiful scenery, Athena occasionally spooking at a hidden pheasant, or the butterfly that would fly across her face sending her into a head tossing tissy of annoyance. But, for the most part our rides were uneventful and I was thrilled to be in the saddle again.

Despite how lovely our rides were progressing, we still had issues with mounting. Secure in my western saddle, I continued to ride out her leaps forward, bucks and spins confidently, and eventually the bucking and bolting went away. The spinning persisted through the year. It wasn’t until we moved from our pasture space to a full barn facility that things changed. With a consistent routine of morning and evening feeding, pasture turn out and a stall/paddock that she came into at night with neighboring horses on both sides, Athena settled in ways I had not seen before. She was calm, relaxed and lost her “worry eyes”.  It was a game changer. 

We spent the next few months just trail riding and I began to notice Athena’s anxiety about riding disappeared into casual enjoyment. Her apprehension about mounting subsided as we built a mounting routine that worked well for her and for me.  It didn’t take long before our mounting issues dissolved completely. Our rides had finally became fun from start to finish! Athena and I were both relaxed, happy and confident and I knew we were ready to start Dressage training again.   

Through our journey over the last five years, Athena and I have bonded deeply and now share an amazing partnership. I’ve come to appreciate and respect her sensitive nature, bold personality and ability to pick up new materials quickly, but her desire and need for variety. I’m continually developing interesting ways to introduce new concepts that keep our riding and training fun and engaging. In 6 short months we’ve gone from trail riding to now schooling second level and dabbling with some third level skills. We still enjoy a good hack out on the trails and include weekly ground and liberty sessions into our routine. I have found that a fuzion of disciplines keeps things fun and fresh for Athena and me!