Meet Athenian Lady: 2024 BreyerFest Celebration Horse

Amanda Delgado had no expectations after falling in love with a horse in need, but the mare ended up making a bigger impact than anyone could have imagined.

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Athenian Lady, the 2024 BreyerFest Celebration Horse, with her owner, Amanda Delgado
Athenian Lady has been named the 2024 BreyerFest Celebration Horse, where the theme is “Against All Odds.” Photo courtesy Breyer

When her father’s military career took Amanda Delgado’s family to Japan when she was in high school, her beloved horses couldn’t come along.

“I was lost without them,” she says. “I was ‘the horse girl’ growing up. Horses defined me.”

After high school, Delgado followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the Army. Her own military travel made horse ownership impossible, but no matter where she was stationed, she’d find nearby stables where she could volunteer. She just wanted to be around horses.

A Horse In Need

Fast forward several years, and Delgado was volunteering regularly with a rescue near her home in North Carolina. One day, the organization received a phone call that would change Delgado’s life.

A little red mare, the caller said, was in desperate need of help. She was emaciated and practically feral. She shared a pasture with a rusted-out Volkswagen and the skeletons of former pasture-mates.

Delgado and her team loaded a vehicle with supplies and drove almost an hour to assess the situation.

“My heart skipped a beat when I saw her for the first time,” Delgado recalls. “There was something special about that horse.”

But that horse was also very scared. Volunteers could barely touch her, so they left clean water and a mountain of hay and promised to return. The rescue was full, so the horse needed an immediate home. Two potential adopters met the horse, but both turned her down.

That night, Delgado tossed and turned in bed. She couldn’t get the mare off her mind.

Gaining Trust

The next morning, after a third potential adopter passed on the horse, Delgado stepped up.

“I said I’d take her,” she says. “Everyone thought she was dangerous, but I knew that she was just misunderstood.”

She began making daily visits to the mare, but couldn’t get near her with a halter: if the horse felt cornered, she’d paw, kick, or plow through volunteers.

So Delgado tried a new tactic: she sat on the ground with a bucket of grain. If the mare wanted to eat, she had to come to Delgado, who spoke quietly, earning the mare’s trust. After four days, she was able to slip the halter over the horse’s head and lay hands on her trembling skin.

The horse needed a name, and Delgado wanted something to reflect both her nature and her journey. She named the mare Athena after the Greek goddess of war, who, like the horse, was both elegant and resilient. The goddess, fittingly, was also the inventor of the halter and bridle—the original tamer of horses.

After two weeks of basic groundwork and endless patience, Delgado was able to coax Athena onto a trailer and transport her to the rescue.

An Unfortunate Injury

But just hours after her arrival, Athena sliced her deep digital flexor tendon on a round pen panel. The initial stitches didn’t hold, and then a flesh-eating bacteria ate its way down to the bone.

“Several vets suggested euthanasia,” says Delgado. “But I couldn’t. I had to give her a chance.”

One vet agreed to attempt a surgical repair of Athena’s leg, but warned Delgado that the horse may never be rideable. Delgado didn’t care—she just wanted her horse to have the chance to be loved.

After the surgery, Athena was prescribed several months of strict stall rest. Delgado drove to the barn daily and sat in Athena’s stall, reading The Black Stallion out loud and offering the mare comfort and support.

Four months after the injury, Athena was cleared for simple groundwork. Two months later, against the odds, she was given the all-clear to carry a rider.

Saddling Up

While saddling Athena for that first ride, Delgado remembers how carefully she observed her horse’s body language. The mare had a reputation for being touchy and explosive, and everyone watching expected fireworks.

“But when I put my foot in that stirrup, Athena looked back at me,” she remembers. “I had this overwhelming feeling that she trusted me, and that I could trust her.”

Delgado swung a leg over the mare’s back. Athena stood completely still. And then she yawned.

“I had tears in my eyes,” says Delgado. “I just kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, everyone said this wasn’t going to happen, but we did it!’”

Despite a tumultuous past, Athena excelled under saddle due to the strong bond she had developed with Delgado.

“When I rode her canter for the first time, I felt like I was home,” she recalls.

Eventually, Delgado was ready to take Athena to her first show. Athena, under the name “Athenian Lady,” loved the new environments and challenges of showing, and the pair competed at local open shows. They were often in the ribbons, and—more importantly—Delgado felt that Athena was enjoying herself.

Amanda celebrates her and Athenian Lady's first ribbon at a horse show
After starting their competitive career, Delgado and Athena won blue in hunter under saddle at their very first show together. Photo courtesy Amanda Delgado

Knowing that her horse had more to offer, Delgado sought out opportunities for the mare at higher levels. But moving beyond open shows came with new roadblocks: Athena had no registration papers.

Delgado was able to register her in the Pinto Horse Association of America (PtHA), but she didn’t always feel like they fit in among the well-bred stock horses in their hunter under saddle classes.

Regardless, in 2018, Delgado and Athena set off for the first PtHA World Show, where Delgado stumbled on the new discipline of western dressage.

“I watched a class and thought, ‘Athena could do this,’” she says. “Athena has big movements. She doesn’t move like the pleasure stock horses, and I wasn’t going to try to force her to. I’ve never wanted make her into something that she’s not.”

Western Dressage Accolades

The pair placed well at the 2018 World Show, earning top-5 and top-10 awards in hunter under saddle classes. But Delgado was intrigued by western dressage. She loved how the discipline—a mix of ranch riding and classical dressage—emphasizes safe, sound, happy horses.

Delgado began competing in western dressage in 2019, finding the Western Dressage Association of America (WDAA) extremely welcoming.

“Since I met Athena, most people focused on what we couldn’t do, because of her past, or because she was a rescue, or because she wasn’t registered,” says Delgado. “So many people said, ‘You won’t be able to ride her. You can’t show her. A rescue horse won’t be a world champion.’

“[But] WDAA opened their arms to us. When they learned that Athena was a rescue, their response was, ‘She is? Great! We have awards for that!’”

In 2019, Delgado and Athena returned to the PtHA World Show. Not only did Athena win her western dressage division, but she had the highest score out of any dressage ride at the event, including classical dressage performances and professional riders. Athena and Delgado were two-time World Champions, Reserve Champion, and placed twice in the top 10.

But even more exciting was that Delgado and her mare had found their place in the showing world. They’d found Athena’s gift and passion. They found a place where Athena was respected and appreciated for exactly who she was.

They’ve also found a level of success that Delgado would never have imagined, winning multiple World Championships (among other honors) at the WDAA World Championship Show in 2020, 2021, and 2023.

Delgado has set their sights on the 2024 WDAA International Challenge and the 2024 World Championship Show.

Competing in western dressage
Delgado and Athena found their true calling in western dressage, where the mare’s bigger movement was rewarded with many championships. Photo by Jason Jackson/JSK Photography

Becoming a Breyer

But perhaps their biggest news for 2024: Athena will be immortalized as the Celebration Horse at this year’s BreyerFest.

“I thought it was a prank,” Delgado says, remembering when she received an email from representatives at Breyer. But it wasn’t.

Delgado was invited to a virtual call with Breyer. The 2024 theme had not been announced publicly, and she was sworn to secrecy: “Against All Odds” would feature stories of triumph over adversity, advancement in the face of disbelief, and defying expectations at every turn—a perfect match for Athena.

“Athena’s story resonates with so many people; everyone goes through tough times, but those experiences don’t have to define you,” says Delgado.

“I love that Athena represents both beauty and strength,” said equestrian artist Larissa Ann Ray, Delgado’s close friend and neighbor. “That mare is so powerful, but she moves like a ballerina. She has overcome difficult challenges with grit and grace. I can’t wait for her story to inspire so many more young girls this summer.”

Athena and Delgado will be on-site at BreyerFest, held at the Kentucky Horse Park from July 12-14. They’ll be signing autographs and doing riding demonstrations throughout the event.

“I’m really excited for everyone to see their relationship,” says Ray. “They’re magic to watch. Athena knows how much Amanda loves her and tries so hard for her. It’s a real privilege to see them together.”

While it may seem like Delgado changed Athena’s life more than the other way around, Delgado sees it otherwise.

“This horse has completely changed my life,” she says. “She’s my best friend and my partner. She’s beautiful and resilient; graceful and strong. There’s no quit in her. And for her story to be immortalized … it’s an honor and a dream come true.”

For More: Listen to our Barn Banter episode with Amanda Delgado about Athenian Lady’s story.

This article about Athenian Lady appeared in the July 2024 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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