Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Polo Years: Snowbird,The Horse Who Taught Me to Ride

Africa had a profound influence on me, and one dilemma I returned with was cultural.  I lost my desire for  an urban environment and moved to the rural environs of Vermont, living on a 30 acre farm and running a small animal clinic attached to our home.  After an extended period time, I became discontent with the land locked environment, social attitudes and inhospitable climate.  Cabin fever became my disease.

During one of these dreary winter seasons of self imposed isolation, a friend convinced me to try an indoor polo clinic at a local stable. Even though I had scant experience riding horses, I returned home after the experience and reviewed every swing of  the polo mallet, remembering in detail every time I hit the  indoor polo ball which resembles a small soccer ball.  I was smitten and became obsessed with the sport.

Over that winter, on a rented horse, I learned how to play indoor polo.  I also learned how to balance myself  while literally standing in a saddle while swinging a mallet and leaning far to one side or another while following the path of the ball,  anticipating the “line”, which is the direction of the ball created by a teammate or opposing player.  When one is totally absorbed by this process, fear of injury dissipates and learning to ride becomes a natural endeavor. During this exercise, time stood still for me.

When the spring came, the sport moved outdoors.  One of the advantages of living in Vermont was that the activity was not prohibitively expensive, although there was the small detail of finding a polo pony.   Another acquaintance was a very experienced polo player.  He had a large white horse that was trained as a hunter and adequate at the game of polo.  Sadly, she was diagnosed as having a malignant melanoma on her tail by his veterinarian, and when I examined her, I felt a reasonable doubt about the diagnosis. She became mine for a very fair fee and fortunately lived a long and healthy life as my teammate and teacher.

Snowbird was a large statuesque white mare who had a soul that seemed bonded to mine immediately.  I learned that a relationship to a horse was different than other animals as my safety and security depended on her.  She taught me how to ride off opposing players and her size gave us the advantage of mass, opposing players trying to push us in one direction or another ran into her strength and willpower.

A disadvantage was her independence.. After a long hard charge down the field, the direction of play might change, but in Snowbird’s mind, we were advancing forward. My commands were just simply ignored.  On occasion I was in the adjacent cornfield while my teammates were at the other end of the field. I forgave her for  embarrassing me and celebrated her individuality, because on many other occasions we were mutually effective, and besides, polo was really just a game.

Our communication had the magic many pet owners experience. I would bring her treats in the barn and she would snuggle her head up against me and prod me for more carrots or more caresses. It was a private time of peaceful meditation, so different than the competition we enjoyed together on the playing field.

 On the playing field, she intuitively knew how to follow the polo ball and respond to the signals I gave her.  If I applied pressure to her side with my right knee, she steered to the right, and if I gently moved her reign while holding them in one hand to one side or the other, she responded to that touch…unless she decided to go for the cornfield.

My next lesson from her was how to jump over fences. This was really her forte.  She was as graceful as she was physically beautiful, and we went on to win ribbons together.  Trust me, it was all her.  I was just along for the ride.

 On one occasion, after a wine tasting, we entered a pairs over fences competition.  This challenge required two horses and riders to jump fences at the same time, simultaneously clearing the hurdle in unison. She was so steady; we were able to jump the fences while I held the hand of my female co-jumping equestrian.  That stunt won a ribbon and a front page photo in the local newspaper.

Love from animals comes in all shapes and sizes, and I have been fortunate in having creatures in my life that have changed me and taught me many lessons.   Each experience is different, each taught me new things and all shared the common denominator of mutual respect and love. All the experiences included a special shared companionship, and in Snowbird’s case, a  trust and confidence in the physical ability of another being.  It was an experience I will never forget, and  I will always remember Snowbird for helping me  endure the long and tiresome winters and for giving me the opportunity to do something that I considered way beyond my reach .

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