Riding full tilt in a polo-playing frenzy both wonderful and terrifying, Sarah Runnells Martin realized, too late, that she was about to crash.
“I was galloping up the field toward the goal, with my head turned behind me to look for my teammate to pass me the ball,” Martin says. “I had recently started playing, and I hadn’t developed a great sense of ‘field awareness’ and was completely focused on looking behind me … and not what was coming up right in front of me.
“A player from the other team was riding up diagonally to meet me.”
In the very last instant, just a heartbeat of time that could have brought a catastrophic disaster, her race-trained Thoroughbred Mo noticed the other horse, saw the field, and saved them both.
“Mo saved both he and I, and the other player and her horse by pulling to a spectacular stop from a full-out run just inches before I would have run head-first into the oncoming player,” Martin says. “Before I really knew what was happening, he had slammed on the brakes, and I was totally out of the saddle, sitting on Mo’s neck.”
She lost her reins and stirrups, and would have gone over the top had he not been a gentleman about it, holding his neck and head high enough to prevent her fall.
During that Fourth of July women’s tournament at Brandywine Polo Club in Unionville, PA in 2009, the Connecticut corporate attorney and litigator, who keeps a cool head in a stressful litigation career, felt her heart melt for the 16.1 hand, near black Thoroughbred.
Mo, she has since learned, is her best partner on the polo field; he is so smart he anticipates moves by other players, so agile he will change direction by leaping and spinning and darting off toward the new direction of play.
“He actually knows the rules of the game better than I do, and he anticipates, Martin adds.”
So keen is his focus, and quick is his brain that the subtle shift of another player on horseback back brings an immediate and defensive response from the 19-year-old Thoroughbred.
Mo’s prowess came to the fore in a tournament final at Giant Valley Polo Club in Connecticut last summer.
In the last chukker of the game, an opposing player was preparing to back the ball to a teammate. As Martin rode up from behind, and the other player was winding up to take the back shot, Mo proved he could play this game at another level.
As Martin tells it, “As the direction of play was about to turn, Mo saw the rider in the act of winding up to hit it back and … before the player even made contact with the ball, Mo had spun around in mid-air and taken off in the other direction!”
In all of the excitement of play, with all the shifting and maneuvering, there is one constant that never changes for Martin: Thoroughbreds, she says, make the very best polo ponies.
“They’re the handiest in terms of stopping and turning, and I think their merit has been proved at the highest levels of the polo sport, where the majority of horse are Thoroughbreds because they have the athleticism and stamina to do the job,” Martin says.
Polo is an intense, all-out sport requiring horses move at top speed, stop, pivot, and sprint off in a new direction, much like professional hockey players. It’s so exhausting and demanding of total fitness that at the highest levels, horses only play for 2 minutes at a time, before they come of the field to be replaced by other horse and riders.
“Of all the horse sports, I think polo is the most physically and mentally demanding,” she says. “When I first started playing, I was shocked at the degree of athleticism that polo ponies are required to have.”
Martin obtained Mo from her friend Lizzie Beer, in 2009, shortly after she learned to play polo. Originally purchased from a Louisiana racetrack, the un-tattooed Thoroughbred worked as a polo pony for 10 years before Martin had a chance to try him.
“My friend Lizzie Beer recognized that although I was not yet the most accomplished polo player, I had the riding skills to handle a horse like Mo. She arranged for him to be shipped from Aiken to Pennsylvania for me to try him,” Martin says. “I played him in one practice, and it was love. I bought him immediately.”
Although she and her husband, who also plays polo, would acquire a total of 10 horses for the sport, including five Thoroughbreds, only one is Martin’s go-to guy.
“Mo has saved my butt on many occasions, and he’s very special to me. I joke with my husband that if I ever left him, it would be for Mo,” Martin says.
“Everywhere I go with Mo, people try to buy him. He is almost 20 years old, and I wouldn’t trade him in for a younger model for any price in the world.”