The Cardinal Rule

-2

There is a rule, the only hard and fast one in this business we call rescue. You don’t fall in love. Ever. You can’t get close because you never know when or if the horses will find a new home. We are just a way station in their journey from the worst of circumstances to a new and better home. Sure some do end up here as sanctuaries and they will live out their lives here. The rest though they are just waiting to find homes. I try hard to keep my distance. I do care for them, but often they are just another horse in a long list of horses. Nothing different or special about them.

They each have very different personalities like us. Some are loving and affectionate, others couldn’t be bothered to even react unless we are feeding them. There are horses that truly love people and chose to come to us. They are the ones that are happy to rest a head on your shoulder or call to us happily if we walk by their paddock.

Ted is one of those. I knew I was breaking my rule. I knew it but couldn’t help myself. I fell for Ted. I fell for him hard. He’s not a rescue. He came in under odd circumstances as a sale horse. I got on him that first week and knew I would have a tough time saying goodbye. He was just so damn sensible. Horse’s are not sensible creatures. Throw in some windy cold weather and a few too many days in a stall and even the most steady tend to be a handful. I rode him that first week in the midst of strong gusty wind and flapping ventilation louvers in the indoor arena. They make the best ones unhinged. I can’t stand them. It was a grievous error in planning and building. So I knew the first time he trotted happily beneath the noise and shimmering light of the wind snapping through the louvers that he was different. I loved that about him. With each ride over the past months I unlocked the pieces of his high degree of training, much like dropping through the gears on a sports car. Either they have that or they don’t. Ted has every gear. But it wasn’t just the time spent in the saddle it was the days spent visiting with him and grooming him. He made me realize what is missing here. I loved it again. I wanted to ride. I wanted to go stand at the window just so I could catch a glimpse of his dapple grey coat in the sun. That had left me long ago. They were just horses. They were just work. A lot of work. Ted changed that these late summer months. As the weeks passed and I had the opportunity to play him I caught a glimpse of my own potential. For the past 4 years I have played my motley crew of polo horses. All discarded at auction for reasons beyond our knowledge. I slowly worked with each of them to figure out their needs and what they would and wouldn’t do. I do well considering, but each takes a specific ride. None are high goal horses. Akin to professional sport in other disciplines. Polo is a sport based on ratings. Each player is given a rating based on their skill and ability on the polo field. Most of us will never see anything beyond a 0 or a 1 goal rating. Beyond that you have dedicated your time and life to the sport and work to achieve a professional status within the sport. The sport then breaks into various brackets for lack of a better term. A tournament is set using the total goals of a team. At the very highest levels of the sport here in the US a team will be 20 goal. In Argentina, the home of all things professional in polo and the country that produces the finest ponies and players has a series of tournaments that boast 40 goal teams. That means that each member of the four man team is rated at 10 goals, the highest achievable rating in our sport. When teams play each other if one does not have as many goals as another they are given the difference on the scoreboard to start the game. It levels the playing field so to speak. In the US we have all different levels of polo from beginner polo with 0-2 goal teams to medium goal 10-12 goal polo on to the higher levels played here which is 20 goal polo.
Ted was bred from the very finest polo stock in Argentina. Hopes were high for the little grey horse, but he never reached the polo which he was bred for, 40 goal. His mother played at that level successfully. Ted was brought here to play in the 20 goal polo leagues and did so for a few years. He spent the past two years playing under a professional while being offered for sale. I have never sat on a 20 goal horse in their prime. I have sat on them as they have made their way back down the ranks. Fried in the head from the speed and brutality of a full contact sport played at 40 mph. It takes a very special type of horse to tolerate this sport. All too often they just lose their minds. It is too much for them. They start to misbehave. When playing fast there is such a small margin of error, a misbehaving horse can literally get a player killed or seriously injured. They get rid of them quickly. Some end up at auctions, others end up donated to colleges. Some can be rehabilitated, many can not. They connect polo (the activity/ job) with anxiety and pain. The more they misbehave the harsher the punishment. The more they try and run away (a common defense in a prey animal) the more severe the bits put in their mouths. Polo = Pain. They don’t often come back.

My ponies are a mix. I have a big grey mare named Boo. The first time I laid eyes on her she was resting quietly in a back pen at an auction house. Horses completely relaxed and at ease will rest one hind leg and shift their weight to the other. It also provides them with the ability to kick in the split second it takes them to perceive a threat if they are roused from their relaxed state. Boo was completely at ease in this strange place. I knew she was an alpha mare, and a confident horse. She did not need any other horses for comfort or confidence. I brought her home and started my now almost five year long relationship. It has been a rough road, but a learning experience. As a horse trainer I have always been the dominant one in the relationship. I give the horse the cues and aids to perform what it is I’m asking whether it is playing polo or it is moving over in the stall so I can get to the feed bucket. The relationship is always the same. Once a horse establishes dominance over you a number of problems start to arise. They challenge repeatedly until you are no longer in control. That is a dangerous place to be when the one doing the dominating is 1200+ lbs. When I talk about dominance I don’t mean force. Sure there are times when you need to be forceful, but often once the relationship is established the horse accepts their place.They are comfortable in their submission.
Boo is not submissive. There is nothing about this mare that is willing to submit. I have worked hard to establish the détente we currently have. I cannot ever lay a whip on her, ever. I have to agree to her terms when we work. It is always the same. She is perfectly willing to trot 5 times around before she has to do her canter work. It never changes. I had to accept this. There was no changing her. I gave up a long time ago. Another cardinal rule of horsemanship. I broke that rule. We get along. She will play for me. She would walk through fire for me if I asked. I love her with all my heart, but she has no use for me. Aside from feeding her and playing polo. She is not affectionate. Though these days she gives me her Boo look and plays like she will nip me. That is about as much affection as I ever get. We agree to get along and play by each other’s rules. She is not easy to play polo off of. I have figured out her quirks but it is always a give and take. I learned to up my game on her and she taught me to reach for something beyond my comfort level.
Ted is the opposite. He is completely submissive. He wants to be with his human, despite not having a nice player to love him. He just wants to be near you. He calls for me to come to him and rests his head on my chest when I come. But it went beyond that when I played him. I felt that control and the sudden clear dominance I have when I play him. I can get to the ball before anyone else if I just put my hand down and let him change gears. I can stop faster, turn faster and hit farther than I ever have. In other words I just drove my first Ferrari. I won’t lie, it feels awesome. It feels electric to play him. He is so in tune to me and any request I have. I don’t have any doubts about what I can do or where I can get to. That doesn’t usually happen. Boo is a handful and sometimes it is tough to convince her a gear change is in order. They are very different animals.
At the end of the day as I see more interest in the little grey sale horse I fell in love with the more I realize our little love affair won’t last. It isn’t meant to. I couldn’t afford him even in the past. He is well beyond my reach. It has been such an honor to sit on and play such a skilled horse. I learned a great deal in a very short amount of time, mainly not to settle and that I can play a hell of a lot better with the right horse under me. But is it about skill and polo? Probably not. It is about the softest brown eyes that always have just a hint of worry. He loves so completely even though he knows polo people aren’t usually kind. He can’t help himself. All I want to do is snuggle at night check and take these ridiculous selfies with him. I know our time is short. I’m not sure where he will end up though I know it won’t be with me. I can’t help but feel heartbroken. I let it happen and now I have to deal with the pain of that. Doubt I will let myself get this close again. There is something so sad about that. To live devoid of attachment to these animals we save or to get close and get hurt? I don’t live in a land of greys. We know that. It is very black or white for me.

Oh Ted you stole my heart…

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