By Courtney Maum | The Guardian | 27 April 2022
ON A BALMY DAY in early October, I found an aged polo pony named Abuelita panting in a locked stall, her matted hair bearing the mark of the saddle that had recently been on her, a gash across her cheek. Her legs were trembling from exhaustion, her eyes sunken from dehydration, her ribs pushing through her coat.
It was my third week riding at the private farm of a Connecticut-based polo player, a property I’d landed at when my arena polo club closed during the pandemic, leaving me without the hobby that had proved an unlikely medicine for my chronic insomnia.
Desperate to keep up the riding that tempered my anxiety, but operating on a freelance writer’s salary, a fellow rider cautiously suggested that I contact a man that we’ll call Roger, a horse flipper and polo professional who had more horses than he could ride.
Roger had a problem with the bottle, my friend warned, but a fantastic eye for horses. I called him and visited his property. It was storybook bucolic: stone walls, red oaks, and a pasture full of polo mounts. We worked out a deal where I’d pay a flat fee every month to ride as often as I liked.
Everything ran like clockwork for the first two weeks. My interactions with Roger, when they occurred, were brief and amicable. Though I often found airplane bottles of alcohol behind trees while I was tidying up, Roger was not the first functioning alcoholic that I’d come across in the horse world, nor would he be the last. As the daughter to a long line of alcoholics myself, I was preset with a patience for substance abuse that could sometimes shift to optimism. Polo was still in season and Roger was keeping it together; sober adjacent, the horses gaunt but fit, the farm ticking along.
When October hit and the east coast polo season ended, things started to unravel. By the time I found the injured mare locked up without food or water, Roger’s drinking had reached a Bacchanalian level and he was feeding the horses erratically in between blackouts.
The hay supply had dwindled to several dusty bales and the pipes froze after an early frost, making it impossible to get water to the animals. The farrier who was supposed to rid the horses of their summer shoes never materialized; neither did the groom that Roger claimed he’d hired to cover his increasingly long absences.
What was supposed to be a low-stakes place for me to blow off steam had become a boiler room of stress, but as a middle-aged, amateur rider with more expertise in word processing than animal rescue, I wasn’t sure what to do. I badgered Roger, begged and threatened, decreased what I was paying him. None of this convinced him to buy groceries for his animals.
I lost track of who needed saving. The horses? Roger? Me?
HERE IS THE THING about domesticated horses, and mares especially. They are universally valued for the potential of their bodies: their physical ability to go fast, turn quickly, haul things – and to reproduce.
The autumn I landed at Roger’s, I was a 43-year-old woman with a miscarriage behind me that an anesthesiologist had chided me for crying over, a lost period that my male gynecologist shrugged off as perimenopause. Male politicians were lobbying for womb control and incels were murdering women. This was not the year that I was going to watch mares suffer because a horse owner was “done” with them.
I started raising money behind Roger’s back through my newsletter and used those donations and my own savings on horse food, all the while searching for a longer-term solution. Calling animal control would seem the obvious answer, but friends warned that could land the horses in a slaughter pen: with winter knocking and hay prices sky-high, few people would be willing to take horses in.
Abuelita was not the obvious horse to save. She was pastured by herself in a back field and dangerous, Roger said, too quick to bite and kick.
I experienced this firsthand the day I found her injured. I led her outside with two flakes of precious hay, bandages, and antiseptic, determined to dress the gash I’d later find out she received from Roger trailering her to an off-season match, drunk. Although she pinned her ears when I first approached her face — a clear sign that her priority was calorie absorption — I went in for a second try. And then a naïve third. In a flash, she spun and kicked me hard in my right thigh. I was hurt and bruised, but also schooled.
That day, I recognized a survival instinct in Abuelita that both thrilled and scared me.
It didn’t make sense from an equestrian standpoint to go to bat for Abuelita, but in terms of rescue, it did.
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