Victoria and her girl, Annie

Aleshanee – AKA Wild Annie

When I was a little girl some fifty years ago, I dreamed of horses. I wanted a horse of my own. I read every horse book there was on the library shelf, and my ultimate dream was to have a wild horse like the black stallion that would be gentle for me. I dreamed of going to Chincoteague and getting a wild pony there. Wild horses were romantic beings of books and dreams and inaccessible to girls such as I. After years of dreaming, I gave up and sought other more attainable dreams.

However, when I retired from thirty one years of teaching, I returned yet again to that old dream, somewhat modified, as I knew I’d never find a wild horse nor would I ever be like the boy in THE BLACK STALLION. I joined the United States Equine Rescue League in an effort to just be near horses in general, though I admit, I never thought even then that they’d let me near a horse. I imagined I’d be handing out brochures, and maybe if I was lucky, they’d let me rub an occasional head. Immediately, I found myself mucking stalls, hauling water, going under houses to cut on the water, picking feet, and doing other things that I never imagined I’d ever do with or without horses. Then I got the call. Did I want to see some wild horses? The USERL had taken in eleven wild mustang mares and foals, and they were nearby. To say I was excited was an understatement. When I arrived at the South Anna barn, I thought those mares were the most beautiful creatures ever—-especially one, a little bay roan. I had never seen a bay roan before, and I remember asking, “What kind of horse is that?” Since my husband and I were so close to the barn, and I imagine that, because these horses were wild and most thought unapproachable, I was asked if I wanted to be barn manager. Oh yes! This was it. I fell in love yet again. The little bay roan was curious about me as I was her. I named her Wild Annie, in honor of Wild Horse Annie who had been a mustang savior in her time. I named all the others as well. I spent lots of time studying them in person and reading everything I could get my hands on about them. Though Annie had been handled when she was young—I knew this because she came in with a too small halter—she was still a wild thing. In a couple of weeks after their arrival, I was grooming Annie out in the pasture. I took off that too small halter, and left her halterless for several months.

A few months went by, and I started thinking hard about Annie. I did not want to see her go anywhere, and I started saying I was going to foster her. I didn’t really have a clue of what I was doing with her, but reading Monty Robert’s books helped. I didn’t have to join up with her early on as she was joined up with me. I started asking for outside help with her, and someone told me to get a halter on her. So, in February, three months after her arrival, I stood out in the rain with her, and talked her into the halter. I really think she let me put it on her to get me to shut up, but from the beginning, Annie has grown used to my constant chatter and singing to her. I was proud of that moment. But then, I really started getting serious about training her. I continued to read, read, and read some more. That summer, I started working on picking up her feet and fly spray. I had a long cane, kind of like a shepherd’s staff from my drama teaching days. I used it to pick up her feet. I tried constantly to pick them up with my hands when I found she wouldn’t kick me, but I could not get them up. She tricked me into believing I was hurting her when she would fall on her knees, and she trained me well to put her feet down quickly. Then one kind soul came and saw it for the ruse it was, and told me about Annie’s trick. So the next time, I picked it up and I did not let go. Every single time, though since I first started picking her feet up, I always asked her nicely. When some of my reading said to “ask your horse,” I took it literally, and I’ve been asking ever since. It took awhile, but Annie picks her feet up at my request and the softest touch.

Spraying Annie with the hose and fly spray was another issue that Annie had to overcome. She didn’t like the sound of spraying. Now, she stands for both, and she seems to especially like baths.

All while I worked on ground work, I dreamed of someday riding her. I didn’t know how this was going to be accomplished though. I talked to some knowledgeable folks around here, and most suggested I was crazy to even think about it. After all, I was over fifty five, on Actonel for osteopenia, and I didn’t know how to ride. One person even suggested that I give Annie up, and get a safe horse on which to learn. She just didn’t understand though that riding was not a priority with me for Annie—it would be enrichment. I took a few lessons, which really didn’t go that well for me. Instead of making me more confident, it made me embarrassed. I suffer from a real case of fear of failure anyway, and since I failed right from the start of getting on the horse, I didn’t want to do it at all. I couldn’t make up my mind….did I want to ride, or did I not? Last fall, I took Natural Horsemanship classes, which helped boost my confidence a little. By then, Annie was letting me sit on her back. The first time I got on her back, she never did anything. So then, I got really brave….and stupid. I went out in the round pen with my helmet. My husband and daughter were both inside the barn. I attempted to mount Annie by myself bareback. This resulted in my squeezing when I sat up. Annie took off one way, and I took off the other. That hurt, but I was not hurt.

Meanwhile, I continued working with Annie on groundwork. She had all kinds of trailer issues and one bad experience. Annie is a very forgiving horse though, which is a good thing with me being her owner. This past spring, I again did something by myself on Annie, which resulted in another fall. This time, I tried to dismount by myself. I missed my step and ended up on my butt at her feet. The third time, I ended up at her feet when the saddle slipped, Annie just looked at me as if she was saying, “Oh, I see you like lying at my feet.” After that last fall, what little confidence I had in myself went right out the window. I refused to get back on Annie. I was not afraid of her; I was afraid of saddles. I can relate to a prey animal that is afraid of everything because I seem to be one too.

Then Wendy came along with her nine horses and plenty of encouragement. Every time she’d come to the barn, she’d ask if I was going to get on Annie, but I always had a reason why I couldn’t. She encouraged me to get on her trained horse, Chica. I was hesitant about that too until my husband Dennis got on her and rode her around the paddock. Several days after my fall, I wore my boots to the barn. Again, Wendy asked if I wanted to ride Chica. I told her I would, but only on a lead line. I was totally afraid, and I hated being that way. I did it again a couple times and switched to an English saddle. However, I continued to be afraid to get on Annie.

Steve Edwards, the author of AND A LITTLE CHILD SHALL LEAD THEM and one of the leaders of the movement to save mustangs—especially those on the east coast started having his Friday programs. These programs are geared to the young and the young at heart, and I asked him about bringing Annie. He agreed, so the first Friday we went down, and Steve and his little riders began working with Annie. I am so impressed with their work down there. Steve is easy going and does much to build one’s confidence. Since I had been working with Annie myself, he said he expected to take her into the woods the next week. But the next week, he was called into the office and could not have the program. Meanwhile, I had found a saddle that fit Annie nicely and that even I could put on her. So, that Friday, I decided I was going to sit in her saddle. I did it, but I was so disappointed in myself. I was terrified. “Now what?” I thought. I was simply on a lead line, but my husband put the line down for a second to get the camera, and I nearly freaked out, which of course made Annie nervous. I was so mad at myself because I knew I was doing everything I was not supposed to do. That night, I did not sleep well thinking about it, and the next day, I got up determined to get on her again.

Saturday morning, we went over to feed, and I put Annie’s bridle on, and got up in the saddle. It’s fortunate for me that we have things to use as mounting blocks as though Annie is a little horse, I cannot get my knees to cooperate from the ground. Oh well. At that time, mounting wasn’t my concern; staying in the saddle was. The ground was wet, and Annie was having a tough time of it, but we managed to move a little bit around the paddock. Dennis even took short little clips of it, and I was proud of myself for getting on her. If I had just sat there, I would have been happy, but after fifteen minutes, I’d had enough.

Thanks Victoria for sharing Annie's story.

The next Friday arrived. In the morning, Steve and the little riders worked on Annie some more. She was doing better, and I was excited about her going on the trail ride. I had no idea who would be riding her, but I just knew it couldn’t be me. After all, I didn’t even know how to ride. I wasn’t sure what Steve was planning on doing with me, but I imagined one of his riders might work with me in the round pen while they were out riding. Then two of his riders asked who would be riding Annie, and Steve said, “Guess?” They guessed, and their third guess was me! Steve said, “Well, it is HER horse.” I managed to stay pretty calm, but inside I was jello. How was I going to get up on her back? What if she threw me off, or even worse, what if I just fell off? Suppose I couldn’t get her saddle on her tight enough? I had my helmet and I had my rib protectors, and I hoped they would be my insurance that I would remain alive. To top it off, I didn’t know how Annie would behave with the other horses. Past experiences suggested that she did not get along well with geldings, and I didn’t know who was going to be on this trail ride. Steve told me to tack her up in the round pen and walk her to the pasture outside the tack shed. On our way, we had to walk over “Lido’s Bridge.” Lido was Steve’s little brother from whom I’ve gained motivation. I never met Lido except in Steve’s book, and in fact, the first time I met Steve, I told him that I wanted to meet him. That is when I found out that Lido had passed away the December before. That saddened me almost as much as if I knew him because I felt like I did. One of Lido’s sayings attributed to him is “If I can do it, why not you?” That is what propelled us over that bridge. When I saw it, I figured Annie wouldn’t walk over it, but with only a little hesitation, she did. On our return, there was no hesitation at all. I started thinking that maybe we would be okay on this little ride after all. We got to the pasture and waited while the others tacked up their horses. I had Annie’s new bridle which she had only had on one time for pictures, but Annie put her head down, and let me put her bridle on right out there in the pasture with no one helping. Another hurdle was crossed.

Finally, Steve said, “Mount up!” I was delighted to see a mounting block, and that a few others were using it too. So I managed to mount Annie. Of course, the first thing I did was wrong, and I knew it too. Fortunately, Jacob, one of Steve’s handsome riders and I swear a future model for a cowboy magazine, came over and said, “Um Ma’m, don’t pull on the reins and kick her at the same time.” I was confusing poor Annie so badly. Jacob led us behind Steve, and miracles happened. Annie followed Steve and his gelding Holland. We were on our way, Annie following along as if she’d done this all her life. I felt like a passenger with an invisible lead line with Steve coaching and coaxing right in front. When I saw the log lying on the trail, I’m sure everyone could hear my heart beating loudly all the way down to the last person in line, but Annie stepped over it daintily. On our way back, I was calming down until Annie spied the stallions in the back pasture. Steve said, “If I say dismount, get off quickly.” I knew that was going to be a problem because I’d been having dismounting problems lately. Annie managed to contain herself, but I worried the last length home because all I could think about was dismounting quickly and gracefully. When he finally did say “dismount,” all that worry about dismounting gracefully was for naught. I dismounted like a bear waking from hibernation, but I did manage to get my feet back on the ground. I was in disbelief that Annie and I had done it. Annie had put up with me pulling the reins up to the sky every time I thought she was going to speed up. She had contained all of the energy that must have been passing to her from me and never showed anything but gentleness toward me.

That may explain why when we were back in Steve’s yard, and I was standing with Annie on the lead line that I stood there feeling like I was going to burst into tears for what I cannot explain – joy, disbelief, excitement? At the same time, Annie who had been grazing beside me quietly, jerked her head up, started prancing around, and then reared beautifully as if to say, “You may have ridden me today, but I am still a wild mustang.” “Yes, you are Annie, and my ultimate little girl dream. “