Polo Ponies Partner With Centers By Brittany Halstead
Polo is a very demanding sport and requires that an equine athlete be exceptionally agile and balanced, exhibit a great work ethic and be acutely responsive to the rider’s aids and body language. Eventually these athletes reach the point of retirement in their professional career. World-renowned polo player, Pelon Stirling, a 10-goal polo player (with 10 goals being the highest handicap that can be attained in the sport), explained why most players choose to retire their mounts. “If the horse has not played extremely well and needs to be retired because of age, an injury or has just played enough polo; it becomes complicated for us to find a very good home for them. The horses deserve to live a good life and it is important for us to be certain that the horse will be taken good care of.”
It is the polo ponies’ workhorse nature, which gives them the drive to continue serving other riders, and makes them great equine partners for therapeutic horsemanship centers. A number of PATH Intl. Member Centers have successfully welcomed retired polo ponies into their herd of equine therapy mounts as riding teachers for therapeutic riding programs or life teachers for equine-facilitated learning and psychotherapy programs. These include PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Centers such as Saddle Up! in Nashville, TN; Vinceremos in Loxahatchee, FL; Central Kentucky Riding for Hope in Lexington, KY; and Windrush Farm in North Andover, MA; as well as center members REINS in Fallbrooke, CA; and New Heights Therapy Center, Inc. in Folsom, LA. Of course, not all polo ponies are going to fit the bill for this work, but those that do often excel.
Starring on and off the Field
Foolie and Roland, two polo ponies that have been retired from the sport, are now award-winning equine partners in therapeutic horsemanship programs. Foolie suffered from an eye injury during a polo accident. After her left eye was removed, her owner, Harry Collins, donated Foolie to REINS. Initially the staff was concerned about accepting a horse with a vision impairment. To their surprise she adapted very well into the program.
Kaitlyn Siewart, a PATH Intl. Certified Registered Instructor and REINS program assistant explained how Foolie overcomes this challenge. “When Foolie was being introduced to different therapy tools and obstacles that we use daily in the program, we started leading her on the right side (opposite of the typical leading position) to give her the visual confidence of the leader that she could rely on,” said Siewart. “When lunging we cluck to her each time her right front foot hits the ground so she is constantly aware of where I am in the circle. This seems to keep her at ease and in a rhythmic gait.”
Siewart also explained how Foolie’s background in polo benefits their participants. “Because of Foolie’s previous training as a polo pony, she is extremely sensitive to the rider’s body movements and balance correction,” said Siewart. “She responds to either direct reins or neck rein, which is great for the various levels of ability of our participants.
“Overtime, Siewart noted, “Foolie became very comfortable with the therapeutic riding world.” In 2012, Foolie was honored as PATH Intl. Region 11 Equine of the Year.
Like Foolie, Roland, an Appendix Quarter Horse gelding who played in top-level high goal polo in Wellington, FL, found his second career as an equine partner at Windrush Farm. The staff and participants loved his uncanny sense about taking care of his rider. In 2000, Roland was awarded Cosequin Horse of the Year, an award given to the horse that best exemplifies kind-heartedness and a giving spirit.
Strong supporters of therapeutic horsemanship, James and Lexie Armstrong, have donated many retired mounts to Saddle Up! James Armstrong, a former six-goal player, donated Azuri, because he felt it was time to reward her with a much-deserved retirement. Kylie Long, who has ridden at Saddle Up! for 11 years, said Azuri is her favorite horse, who she describes as “sweet, dependable and smooth.” The two bonded as they both learned the techniques of dressage and later participated at the Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding’s regional horse show.
Kylie exclaimed, “It was the best horse show ever! I received my highest score ever in dressage. I was very surprised because Azuri performed better than the retired dressage horses.” Kylie credits her instructor, Lynn Evans, for their success. Kyle said, “Lynn and Azuri would never let you fail but never let you settle as well.”
Amanda Hogan, a PATH Intl. Certified Master Instructor, PATH Intl. Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL), ESMHL lead faculty member, chair of the ESMHL Certification Subcommittee and executive director of Windrush Farm, shared her thoughts on retired polo ponies. “Windrush’s founder Marj Kittredge started this program in 1964 with two retired polo ponies and an off-the-track Thoroughbred who became a terrific therapeutic riding horse. You just never know. With the right temperament and training, horses will surprise you. We have probably had about 10 more retired polo ponies in the time I have been here. There have been a few who have been too hot for our use and did not make the cut, but that can happen with any breed or discipline,” stated Hogan.
Amanda Hogan has also been building a relationship with the Harvard University Intercollegiate polo team, which has a string of 16 polo ponies. Head coach, Crocker Snow, has been working closely with the staff of Windrush Farm to develop a therapeutic riding program specifically for people with disabilities who are members of the Harvard community. The team’s ponies will play a dual role as therapeutic riding horses. The Harvard polo players will volunteer as leaders and sidewalkers. Crocker believes that having a therapeutic riding program as a secondary activity to polo will be a valuable social message to the players.
Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center is located in the home of USA high goal polo, Wellington, FL. Playing polo is one activity that riders at Vinceremos enjoy as a part of therapeutic riding. However, the riders are not mounted on retired polo ponies, they use the center’s horses which the staff acclimate to a 10-inch beach ball and polo mallets.
Susan Guinan, the director of development at Vinceremos said, “Most of the horses love the game and quickly figure out that they are meant to follow the ball. The horses are ridden in sidepulls and some have leaders to help the riders stay in the play. The leaders are also helpful at keeping the ball in play.”
Susan Guinan also shares the therapeutic value of polo benefits. “Our riders play polo on a saddle pad with a surcingle. This is similar to the way kids learn to ride and play polo in Argentina. This helps keep the speed down, but it also means that there is good contact between the horse and rider. Many of us when we ride tend to over-think the process, watch the diagonal, stay on the rail and go too fast or too slow. But with polo when it is all about getting the ball, our natural balance and instincts take over. The young man with autism who verbalizes every movement he makes in his weekly lesson focuses on the task at hand, and the noise and distractions around him disappear. Those who are cognitively challenged watch the other riders and figure out very quickly the objective. The child who hasn’t found their voice suddenly has lots to say when to ball trickles over the goal line.”
What do the players learn? “They learn about what a mallet is, about being on a team, the rules of the games, taking turns and what is a goal on and off the field,” stated Guinan
Not only are the students learning, but their parents are discovering that their children can accomplish more than they thought they could. “So often I hear ‘I had no idea he would be able to do that,’ “ said Guinan. “The astonishment on the faces of the parents when they witness their child riding down the arena heading towards the goal is simply amazing. This is confirmation that all of this is about the ability of each child, not the disability. It is about what they want to try and what they can learn and accomplish from the effort. It is about seeing all the possibilities and opportunities.”
Juli Ezcurra, a 15-year-old with Down syndrome and the son of Julio Ezcurra, a former six-goal professional polo player, has been learning to play polo for six years at Vinceremos. Playing polo has enhanced his concentration, alertness, core strength, self-esteem and social skills. His father believes that playing polo and the connection between horse and rider enhances the quality of life for people with special needs. It is the Ezcurra family’s dream that someday recreational polo will not only be available at more PATH Intl. Center, but that there will actually be a polo league for people with disabilities.
Brittany Halstead has worked in both the show jumping and polo worlds. She is a PATH Intl. Certified Registered Instructor and Mentor. She has worked and volunteered at PATH Intl Premier Accredited Centers for over 10 years. She has volunteered as a leader, side walker, horse caretaker, instructor, has affiliated with hippo therapy, volunteer orientations, horse shows and charity events. Most of her time has been with Central Kentucky Riding for Hope, a PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center in Lexington, KY. and Sadddle Up! a PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center in Nashville, TN. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Finding Homes for Retired Polo Ponies
The United States Polo Association is creating a program called Replay for USPA, which will be a website available for individuals to present their polo ponies and for potential non-profit organizations to locate retired polo ponies. This polo pony donation service provided by the USPA ensures that a polo pony joins a new family with a potential 501c-3 organization. In Summer 2015, this site will be linked to www.uspolo.org.