Spared from the dead end of a kill pen in October 2016 to currently stabling and training at the polo powerhouse of Valiente less than three years later, Stella is more than just a mare with a pretty face and a heartwarming success story. Striking on the field as a black and white paint in a sea of bays and greys, Stella is Pamela Flanagan’s widely recognizable rescue success, the pair making their women’s high-goal debut in the Susan G. Komen U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™. Although still a bit green with less than two years of playing experience, the five-year-old’s willingness and gentle demeanor have allowed her potential to be molded through a number of skilled hands into the polo pony she is today. Participating in her first Florida season as part of Flanagan’s string with Hawaii Polo Life, Stella has shown improvement in leaps and bounds far beyond what Flanagan could have ever imagined. Sitting down with Flanagan on Valiente’s upper deck overlooking the vast property, the USPA learned the story of Stella’s progression from discarded Lot #743 to an energetic polo pony continually striving to give her best effort on the field.
How did you choose the name Stella?
“When I found her online she was called Lot #743 and I needed a name quickly for her Coggins. My dog Bella has the same markings, black with white legs, so I was looking at Bella while on the phone trying to think of a name and I thought, ‘Stella will work’!”
What is Stella’s biggest asset or strength on the field?
“She’s super handy. Although she might not be able to run as fast as some of the Thoroughbreds she can stop and turn on a dime. She is the first to turn after a backshot and for women’s polo that’s very important. She makes it so easy for me to get to the ball first. Although she isn’t the fastest running down the field she is one of my quickest getting to the play.”
How would you describe her personality and temperament?
“She’s like a big dog! She likes to get in your face and wants to hang out. She’s like my partner in crime because she wants to do everything with me. When I walk up to the paddock she’s always the first horse to greet me at the gate. She’s just super friendly and easy going. On the field she’s a little different, she has a lot more energy and is really sharp.
She gets along well with horses, dogs, and kids and nothing spooks her. We worked with an incredible photographer last summer who didn’t know that much about horses and he had the idea to bring smoke bombs to the photoshoot. At first Stella was a little skeptical, but after about 30 seconds she was fine with the pink smoke.”
What are some of your favorite playing memories on her?
“Last weekend we were playing at Port Mayaca Polo Club with quite a crowd during the first throw in and it was really loud with speakers, people, and a lot of action going on around us. It was Stella’s second game of the season and when we got out to the boards there were people on one side and a cluster of horses on the other. I thought, ‘I hope she doesn’t suck out of this play,’ but instead she dropped her little shoulder into the player next to me, took her out of the play, followed along the boards and we ran to goal.
I also love watching her play practices with the kids. I get videos from Rob [Jornayvaz] when I’m in Chicago and that’s something I really enjoy because I can play her and so can kids. This horse was only started two years ago and she’s been playing polo for less than two years!”
Which chukker do you normally play her?
“I normally play her in the first half of the first chukker because I’ve spent more hours on her than any other horse that I own so I’m by far the most comfortable on her. Often times before the game they do the opening celebration with flags, the national anthem and the crowd and I want to expose her to all of those things. I want her to be a really well-rounded horse so I want her to see all of that and for it to be totally normal for her. My plan is to play her two to three minutes until I feel she is getting tired. I know her well enough to know when she is really trying and when she is getting a little apprehensive. For the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™ I have so many great horses, but I still want to incorporate her into my string because I want her to experience this just as much as I want to experience it.
For me it’s exciting when you feel them changing. When you feel them become a little bit more confident, when they get that lead change and they do the things they once struggled to do and you know it’s because you’ve been working with them and focusing on that point; it’s such a cool feeling. Every time I play Stella whether she is my best horse or my worst that day it’s always a great feeling.”
What was the process of training Stella and repurposing her for polo?
“When I first got her I sent her to quarantine because when you first get a rescue you want to ensure they are healthy before introducing them to your herd. After 30 days I went to pick her up and took her to a friend’s farm in Texas. I was working in Chicago so I traveled down to Texas for almost a week and just tried to figure her out. I had just seen a photo online, I didn’t know anything about her, so I introduced her to everything slowly as you would a horse that knows nothing. The first couple of days I spent just getting to know her, 90% of the time hanging out with her and 10% of the time trying to teach her something.
After that I turned her out for three months and just let her be a horse, letting all those things that happened to her be in the past. After that I sent her to Joshua Hill for 30 days, a friend of mine in Texas who has done professional colt starting competitions and a lot of natural horsemanship work. I had her shipped to Chicago March 2017 and during that time of year it’s very cold and snowy so the whole month we worked every day in the indoor arena, and everything Joshua had started with her we continued. We started trotting circles, neck reining, serpentines, cantering, picking up the correct lead, moving off the leg, stopping, backing up, and turning around. After a few weeks I introduced the mallet and we did the same routine while I held the mallet. Then I added hitting a beach ball a few times to the routine and nothing scared her. She’s such a brave horse, she never looked at the ball or the mallet. We would be riding around doing lead changes and my dog would run in front of us trying to play and Stella never spooked. I think it was a blessing in disguise because had I had a difficult time with her I probably wouldn’t have been so inspired to continue this work.
After six weeks of arena work I brought her to Arranmore Farms in Chicago. She lived outside in a paddock by the field so she saw polo every day. They would play chukkers daily and have events with a lot of people by the field and I think seeing that helped her. I stick and balled her in the arena and then out in the field with the outdoor ball which makes a different sound. For Stella it was no problem, she just did whatever I asked. I would bring the dogs out to create chaos and they would chase the ball and nothing phased her. I also jumped in on a few practice chukkers with her that summer and I had her referee games whenever they needed just so she could get that experience. From there I started playing more and more practice chukkers and threw her in a few low-goal games just for a half chukker. I also brought her to Denver and played her in quite a few practices and one or two games for a full chukker and then let her relax again.
I never want to overdo it with her because she is so young and I don’t want to push her. I don’t want to take advantage of the fact that she is so willing, I’m appreciative of that, so I really try to push her towards success without going overboard. Playing at Port Mayaca I found in the first game that she got a little overwhelmed after about four minutes with all that traffic so the second game I played her for three minutes and switched her out. I’d rather do that and just increase the length of time I play her each time in the higher level high-impact games so she builds more confidence. Her issue right now is clustering and traffic which we need to get past.”
How has Stella improved and developed into a polo pony since you first got her?
“What has been beneficial for her is being in a proper polo program with Valiente, here [in Florida] and in Colorado, and going on sets every day. That’s what took her from a green horse to a polo pony. Although she’s still new, she could not have made the jump without the help of my boyfriend Rob Jornayvaz, Valiente Manager Robertito Zedda, Iñaki (Rob’s groom) and Victor the man who takes care of my horses all coming together and ensuring Stella was constantly being worked and taken on sets. I still ride her most often and do most of her singles, but these guys have been so helpful in making sure she is happy, healthy and fit.”