Rescue. Rehab. Retrain. Rehome.
Together this string of verbs form the powerful mantra of polo player Pamela Flanagan, a passionate advocate for eliminating the stigmas associated with slaughter-bound horses and educating people on slaughter industry issues. After stumbling upon a listing for a young mare in a kill pen (Stella is alive and well), Flanagan was abruptly exposed to the complex and illicit horse slaughter business, which brutally claims the lives of over 150,000 American horses per year.
Ever since her first rescue in October 2016, Flanagan has continued to educate herself on all sides of the issue, sparking a series of adoptions and using her social media platform to share their stories. As an international female athlete, lawyer, and brand ambassador for U.S. Polo Assn., Hawaii Polo Life and American Equus, Flanagan (A/3) sits at the perfect intersection to have influence in the polo community. On a mission to challenge perceptions about both women and their equine partners, Flanagan does this in many areas of her dynamic life.
With four older brothers and a younger sister, Flanagan differentiated herself as the only sibling with a deep love for horses. As a child, she was active in other horse sports, including show jumping, and first discovered polo as a teenager at Culver Academy. While Flanagan was in undergrad at Southern Methodist University, she co-founded the university’s polo team alongside her ‘polo dad’ and coach Tom Goodspeed.
Coming from a family of attorneys, Flanagan elected to earn her J.D. at SMU’s Dedman School of Law so that she could continue intercollegiate polo. Ambitious and talented, she has traveled to compete in tournaments across the U.S., Argentina, China, Guatemala, and Mexico, truly embracing the “polo handicap as passport to the world” mentality.
How does this young woman excel in a vast array of areas, including her efforts in advocacy? How does she balance her polo schedule with her law career at Flanagan Bilton LLC in Chicago? Thriving in the “sport of kings,” Flanagan is challenging the traditional landscape of polo with progressive ideologies, inspiring women to pick up a mallet and #LiveAuthentically.
Why were you drawn to polo over the other equestrian disciplines?
Polo is a team sport where you’re working together as a cohesive unit. I’ve played sports all my life. I have four older brothers, so being involved in competitive sports was ingrained in me from day one. The fact that I could bring my love of horses together with the competitive nature of polo is what really got me hooked.
Where was your most memorable tournament?
Playing in China was the most unique experience because they built a polo arena on a boat marina. We played at a yacht show and polo was the entertainment.
As for my favorite, I had the most fun playing down in Argentina with some of the Argentine girls. It was an absolute blast! The fields are wonderful, the horses are fantastic, and the players are extremely competitive, but really friendly.
Who has been most influential in your polo career?
Tom Goodspeed. He is the one that got me into polo when I was in high school and my coach for the SMU Polo Team. He has been so wonderful and we are still close —I always refer to him as my polo dad. Nobody in my family knows anything about horses so when I do have a serious question or a general inquiry he’s the one I always go to. He’s been there for me from day one and I’m always going to be thankful for having him in my life.
If you could put together your ultimate dream team, including yourself, who would be on it?
Adolfo Cambiaso, Facundo Pieres and Juan Martin Nero, all mounted on incredibly talented rescue horses.
Women are the fastest growing demographic in the USPA. What is the overall reception to the growing influx of women in the sport?
There is not so much this dichotomy anymore of only men play and women trickle in when they can. Women are becoming not only high-level patrons, but also high-level players. Look at Nina Clarkin, she’s a real inspiration because of the level she’s reached and maintained. She’s a phenomenal player yet still feminine and so talented. She’s not trying to be a man in a man’s world, she’s trying to be a woman in a man’s world and she’s succeeding.
And on top of that, more women are becoming sponsors and playing at higher levels than ever before. It’s not this influx of all beginners either. Women are coming in and growing with the sport.
What I really enjoy is women playing polo as women. You don’t need to be one of the guys —that day and age has passed. You can be feminine, elegant and still play this rough and tumble sport and that doesn’t take anything away from your athleticism or ability.
How can the polo industry evolve to encourage more women to play polo?
Having the USPA and other organizations really promote the sport to women specifically. The organizations around the world are helping women’s polo by increasing women’s tournaments and bringing more exposure to the women who are playing.
When you are playing with other women you have a more established role in the game because it’s 4 women against 4 women. You’re not relying on a high level pro to pass you the ball like in a regular tournament. When you are playing women’s tournaments you have to be integrated in the game and you have to be a player, you’re forced to be a player. I think that having the opportunity to have these tournaments and those experiences make women more confident, skilled players and it helps them grow.
If you as a spectator go out to the field and see eight women and you even have the slightest interest you would know you can do this too. Eight women of all ages who started playing at different times in their life. Seeing that gives you more of an opening. You could really imagine yourself out there.
You’re a huge advocate for repurposing horses bound for slaughter. Given your career in law, do you see yourself pursuing legislative action to fight the horse slaughter industry?
Absolutely, no question. Until recently, there was language in the Agriculture Appropriations Bill that defunded USDA inspection of horse slaughter plants in the U.S., which effectively banned the practice. However, the latest version of this bill (voted on in July 2017) does not contain such language and as such, opens the doors for horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. to reopen. Proponents of this decision point out the benefit of having horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. which eliminates the inhumane transport to unregulated facilities in Mexico, where barbaric tactics are used in the slaughter process. Opponents argue there is no such thing as “humane slaughter” and reopening horse slaughter facilities in the U.S. makes horse slaughter for human consumption one step further from being entirely eradicated, and rather normalizes the practice as it is now right in our backyards.
My focus is to find ways to regulate and minimize reckless backyard breeding, promote repurposing discarded horses, and do away with the stigma of adopted or rescued horses. It is not the well established breeding operations that have their horses end up in these situations, those horses are valuable and as such are typically highly sought after, and well cared for throughout their lives. It is the uneducated breeders who breed just to breed, then later to make a few bucks, they dump their horses at auctions, often landing these horses in kill buyers’ hands.
I would love to one day set up a non-profit that could help with these horses. I’ve learned so much in a very short period of time and because of my passion for this I am constantly researching and reaching out to others. I have no problem picking up the phone and calling someone I’ve never spoken to before to get their insights. I’ve called various rescue organizations and kill buyers directly to get their perspectives. My end goal is to hear what they have to say and learn from it. The best way to form my opinion is to hear from everybody in the industry, not just one side.
What are the perspectives you’ve come across since learning about the issue?
There are those who support horse slaughter in the U.S. because it does away with the issues of inhumane transport and unregulated foreign facilities, and there are those who want to eradicate horse slaughter all together. Some believe that if horse slaughter is entirely eradicated, there will be 150,000 horses each year that are abandoned, abused or left to starve. Of course there are arguments made that discredit this assumption.
On the issue of kill pen ponies specifically, I think often times people are very short sighted. Their focus is to shut down the kill pen brokerage system where the kill buyers offer their horses first to the public and make 100-200 dollars extra off the sale of the horse than they would the meat price. One perspective is that this purchase lines the kill buyers pockets and perpetuates the system. However, I don’t think that shutting down this avenue of re-homing horses should be the focus of people’s efforts. If the kill pen horses are not seen and purchased by the public they go directly to slaughter, so what people are really doing is shutting down an alternate route for these horses to be rescued. Maybe you are lining the kill buyers pockets, but it’s not a significant amount at this point. Saving a horse is saving a life.
What are common misconceptions that people have about kill pen horses?
Unlike what most people think, these horses are not in this predicament because they are all sick, old, lame, or crazy. Actually a lot of them are really young. People dump these horses for a variety of reasons. With my first kill pen horse Stella, I posted her story and her photo everywhere. I had a lot of people saying “oh so wonderful” which I sincerely appreciate, but there were a lot of people also who sent me private messages along the lines of, “I wouldn’t be so quick to post about her, I bet she’s crazy or lame” or “you’ll find out soon enough there’s something wrong with her.” When I did demonstrate that she was physically sound, I then received messages stating “she may be physically sound, but highly unlikely she is mentally sound.” In light of those comments, I was sure to share videos demonstrating both her physical and mental soundness.
It is not about me proving people wrong about this particular horse, my goal is to change that negative perception overall. It motivated me to make Stella an example. I don’t want people thinking that these horses are not adoptable because of the situations they find them in. They aren’t bad horses — they just at some point end up with bad people. Stella is from a kill pen and she’s a wonderful horse. She didn’t end up in a kill pen due to any fault of her own. It was because of the person who had her prior to the kill buyer. I became very vocal about Stella’s successful journey and my experiences with her. She is a really special horse.
What are your thoughts on rescuing and repurposing OTTB’s* into polo ponies?
I think it is wonderful. I know OTTBs are often times purchased at the track and re-purposed into polo ponies. It is a great fit. The members of the polo community from my experience have not really been exposed to the horse slaughter industry, or chose to turn a blind eye, so even when OTTBs are found in pens, people still turn away based on the negative stigma associated with kill pen horses. Out of the 150,000 horses that are slaughtered every year, it is estimated that 10,000 of them are registered thoroughbreds. This seems like a small portion, but that number becomes concerning when Jockey Club statistics show around 20,000 registered thoroughbreds every year. That means 50% of registered thoroughbreds are being slaughtered. There is so much potential for collaboration between the racing industry and polo to help minimize that percentage.
Stella, the sweet, black and white paint that first opened Flanagan’s eyes to the hidden world of horse slaughter, has since sparked two more rescues named Bandit and Sunny. A third horse is in the process of being rescued. These abandoned horses that would have otherwise been counted among the multitude of casualties are proof that the majority of kill pen horses have potential to be repurposed. Flanagan asks, “Why not for polo?” Her frequent and impassioned blogging and social media updates are focused on her efforts to alter the way people view horses in these dire situations and position them as favorable candidates for adoption. As she marches on with her mission, be on the lookout for an exciting new development, as Flanagan has a project in the works that hopes to get the polo community actively involved, and speaking for the lives that have no voice.
Going forth, Flanagan has established a brand to identify each horse she has rescued. Simple but symbolic, she has transformed a recycling logo to form the shape of a heart as her brand that will grace the horses fortunate enough to be offered a second chance.
“I don’t want to hide the fact that these horses came from bad situations or that they were rescued,” Flanagan stated. “I don’t think of that as a negative stigma, if anything I want people to see that these horses have been repurposed and recognize the great potential that lies within these little muddied misfits.”
Break the cycle. Reconsider. Repurpose. Relove.
To view progression pictures, current updates and horses available for adoption please follow Pamela Flanagan on Instagram @pamela_alina. For more information on the horse slaughter industry, watch the documentary From the Kill Pen.