POLO BENEFITS PEOPLE WITH DISABILITES AND POLO PONIES DONATED TO BE THERAPY HORSES
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, 10-goal polo player, 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.”
Luis Ansola, 2-goal player, agrees that polo ponies deserve to live a good life. Luis donated his polo pony “Tesoro”, who played polo for 20 years (the English translation of “Tesoro” is “Treasure”). Luis clarifies about donating Tesoro, “I didn’t get any financial return and I didn’t ask for anything except, the only thing I asked is for, Tesoro to be in good shape and to be taken good care of. I knew she would be better off and enjoy her new career as a therapy horse. But if there ever becomes a situation where they can’t take her anymore, to let me know and I will take Tesoro back anytime any day.” New Heights Therapy Center stated, “Most would think that an ex-polo pony would be to “quick” for a therapy horse. The training Tesoro has to feel the rider and follow their eye and weight are great assets. Riders that have a difficult time connecting to the concept of steering their horse, find it easier to grasp with Tesoro and her great training.” New Heights Therapy Center sends regards to Luis Ansola for sharing his Treasure!
It is the polo ponies’ workhorse nature, which gives them the drive to continue serving other riders. Luis stated, “Polo is a tough sport and many horses get tired or injured. Some horses just become no good to play polo anymore. Some need a job transfer, an easier life.” Which makes them great equine partners for therapeutic horsemanship centers.
A number of PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) accredited Centers have successfully welcomed retired polo ponies into their herd of equine therapy mounts. They are spectacular riding teachers for therapeutic riding programs or life teachers for equine-facilitated learning and psychotherapy programs. 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
James and Lexie Armstrong have donated many retired polo ponies to Saddle Up Therapeutic Riding Organization. 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, which 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.”
Amanda Hogan, a PATH Intl. Certified Master Instructor, and 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 Therapeutic 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.
Happy Trails Hawaii Horse Ranch, owned by Mark and Tammy Becker, graciously volunteered to start an Equestrian Assisted Psychotherapy program to help wounded warriors. The program’s horses are actively playing polo ponies and some are retired polo ponies. Sarah Teske is a US Marine, a certified EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning) instructor, plus she is a polo player. Sarah helped build this program. This program hosts horse sessions for wounded warriors. Sarah said, “Sometimes horses have a better idea of what to do than the humans. Also the director of Happy Trails witnessed a miraculous moment between a wounded warrior with PTSD and a horse. It was the first time in 6 months, since the kid came off the battlefield that he has smiled. —The horses are magical”.
Hope and Healing at Hillenglade Farm offers equine assisted programs and celebrations in support of our military and families. Hillenglade Hope and Healing’s mission offers a safe place to renew hearts, restore relationships and rebuild lives. For more information please view www.hillenglade.org. You may contact Hillenglade Farm email HILLENGLADEHHH@GMAIL.COM God bless.
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 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 game, taking turns and what is a goal on and off the field,” stated Guinan.
Not only are the students learning, 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, son of Julio Ezcurra, a former six-goal professional polo player; has been learning to play polo for six years in Argentina, Florida and New York. Julio believes, “Playing polo has enhanced Juli’s concentration, alertness, core strength, self-esteem and social skills. 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 some day recreational polo will be available at more PATH Intl. Center; and a polo league for people with disabilities will be created.
Polo Ponies’ Career and Life transition
Mark V. Sedacca declares, “As the Chairman of the USPA Equine Welfare Committee, the newly organized Replay and Rehome your Polo Pony website is beneficial for people with disabilities, beginner riders, intercollegiate team, and for polo ponies. We are fortunate to have Brittany Halstead to help us continue to respect and protect our horses after they leave the polo field.” We all know that polo ponies are far from the end of their potential when they can’t play at high levels anymore. They have miles of experience, and plenty to give.
Brittany Halstead has worked in both the show jumping and polo worlds, for 10 years. She is also a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) Intl. Certified Instructor and Mentor. If you would like to donate a polo pony that needs a new life she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, plus she will advertise your horse on the new upcoming site.