Most people envision a polo pony as a glossy well-bred Thoroughbred with highly tuned athleticism and instinct for the game. But for Pamela Flanagan, the ideal polo pony is a bit more…. varied. After dipping her toe into the rescue pond last year, she’s on a mission to help unwanted horses find their niche in polo, and several of her friends have also jumped on the “rescue train.”
Flanagan happened upon her first rescue horse, Stella, while she was online looking for a new project to develop into a low-goal polo pony. Stella was listed for only a couple hundred dollars, a price that was incongruous with the mare’s potential.
“She was allegedly sound, only three or four years old and had already been started,” Flanagan said. “I was thinking, ‘what’s the catch, why is she so inexpensive?’”
She was shocked to learn that Stella was valued based on her meat price, 50 cents a pound. No way was she going to let her get on a trailer bound for a slaughter plant. She bought her sight unseen and sent her to a quarantine facility in Texas.
“When I first met Stella, I spent the first 40 minutes trying to catch her,” Flanagan said. “She was a little distrustful at first, so she needed more mental rehabilitation than anything. I took a few days off work, flew down to Texas and spent every waking moment with her. Then I sent her out to pasture for the winter to rest, relax and get healthy.”
Stella quickly gained the weight she needed, and after about 30 days of basic training with Joshua Hill, Flanagan’s go-to trainer in Texas, she journeyed to Chicago to start her polo career. The further Flanagan got in training Stella, the more she realized that the little mare had potential. She reasoned that if Stella could play low-goal polo, so could other discarded horses.
“It just takes a good mind and a healthy body to be a polo horse.” Flanagan said. “Unlike some disciplines, polo does not have specific breed and registration requirement. A horse can be a total and complete mutt like Stella and still play polo. I like to call my rescues my muddy misfits. They were all discarded horses that just needed a chance to be something more.”
Flanagan has three simple goals for her advocacy: to raise awareness, change perceptions, and showcase rescue horses.
“I want to do away with the stigma that horses in need of rescue end up that way ‘for a reason.’ I’ve rescued six horses, and they are all mentally and physically sound.” Flanagan said. “Thousands of horses end up in the slaughter pipeline each month, hopefully raising awareness will prevent horses from ending up in the wrong hands.”
Flanagan emphasizes the risks involved in rescuing a horse, but she believes polo is particularly suited to help mitigate those risks.
“Obviously there is a lot of risk, and you don’t want to get involved if you’re not an experienced horse person. But for those who are experienced and can have one more added to the string, rescuing and rehabilitating a horse is a wonderful and fulfilling experience.”
Stella has become an ambassador for rescue in the polo community, and she demonstrates her devotion to Flanagan every chance she gets.
“Stella is a love bug to the extreme. I have a handful of rescue project ponies and a couple of already made polo ponies. The made ponies play great and they’re wonderful horses, but they are not nearly as affectionate and friendly as my rescues,” Flanagan said. “I walk through Stella’s pasture and she won’t leave me alone. She regularly tries to “groom” me and without fail, she is always the first horse to meet me at the gate.”
Flanagan recently created a Facebook page called Polo Rescue Network, where she shares horses in need of a home that fit the polo pony profile. The page features horses that are between 13 hands to 15.3, 3 year to 8 years old, not gaited, and sound.
“I started the page to help connect people who want to get involved with rescue and don’t know where to start,” Flanagan said. She warns against paying highly inflated prices at kill pens, and rather looking for horses that are truly in need of rescue. “A horse in need of rescue can mean many things, a kill pen horse priced at or around their meat value ($0.50/lb), an adoptable horse from a rescue, or even a low-cost horse at an auction that is in danger of being in the wrong hands.”
Flanagan tells the story of a polo player who found one of his horses in a kill pen, and he was able to identify her due to his unique brand. He immediately rescued her and brought her home. This story inspired Flanagan to microchip and create a special brand for her rescue horses.
“I want to be able to identify these horses if they ever end up in a bad situation. Not only that, I want to showcase that these horses have been rescued, rehabilitated and repurposed. Wouldn’t it be great if one day you were at a polo match and you saw a couple of the ponies donning the rescue brand? How awesome would that be?”
You can find updates on Stella and Pamela’s other rescue ponies on her Instagram page: @Pamela_Alina