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Polo Life: Horses, Sport, 10 and Zen


Book Review by Nancy Brannon, Ph.D.

Co-written by American ten-goal polo player Adam Snow and his veterinarian wife Shelley Onderdonk, Polo Life: Horses, Sport, 10 and Zen covers the professional polo career of Adam Snow and his complementary partnership with his wife that insures the health and fitness of their array of polo ponies.

How does an equestrian rise to the apex of his/her sport? With only the best of horses. “The best team tactics and most skilled ball-handling ability of the player are worthless if he/she can’t get there, arriving at precisely the right time and place on a field…every seven-and-a-half minute chukker…” (p. 25) “Alfonso Pieres wisely advised him early on in his career, ‘it is hard to play badly on a good horse.’” (pp. 123-124) Alfonso became his mentor and a source of confidence in his playing.

Adam’s father Terry played polo and kept several horses, which his sons helped take care of. At a summer clinic at the Myopia Polo Club, Adam really got into chasing the little white ball and loving it. But when he started college, his athletic interests involved hockey and LaCrosse.

After Adam graduated college, he went to Argentina and spent several months working for Hector Barrantes. If one country embodies the life and soul of polo, it is Argentina. It dominates the world with the most and best polo players, the highest concentration of polo fields and tournaments, and the largest breeder of polo ponies. (p. 139) Hector advised him: “Ride them [horses] every day and always have a reason for what you are doing.” (p. 141). “We were in the presence of a legend…” Adam notes. (p. 141)

Adam had been dating Shelley Onderdonk, who was two years behind him at Yale his senior year. His marriage to her, June 3, 1989, began a partnership that would help him maintain a string of polo ponies that would take him to the top.
Shelley’s holistic veterinary practice is an essential factor in keeping horses healthy and increasing their active life span. She gives their horses “the best life possible, with plentiful turnout, socialization, and top medical care and nutrition.” Her veterinary practice combines sports medicine with integrative medicine, and she is a certified veterinary acupuncturist. (pp. 68-69) Her holistic medicine path included classes in acupuncture, chiropractic, physical therapy, and sports medicine – all of which taught her to be a keen observer. (p. 69) A horse’s posture and attitude speak volumes.” (p. 73)

Adam Snow achieved the absolute highest rating any polo play can strive for: a 10-goal player. “Why me?” he asks. “I had my work ethic and the benefit of all the other sports training. Some transferable lessons consisted of how to sleep, establish a pre-game routine, practice imagery, position myself on defense, and get open for a pass.” (p. 50) “The last factor linked to my initial success as a professional was horsemanship. Through Shelley, with her holistic approach to veterinary medicine, I learned to become a good custodian of my horses.” (p. 52)

Adam once attended a horsemanship clinic with Buck Brannaman at Wildwood Farms in Germantown, TN, where he also learned from Tommy Wayman, “Play the horse in what it plays best.” (p. 52)

He relished the travel and cultural experiences of the polo life, but eschewed the popular image of the luxury lifestyle. “I felt far more comfortable in the barn – mucking, exercising, icing, cleaning tack or repairing mallets – than in any social setting in the sport.” (p. 50) “During my busiest years as a professional player, I found farm work relaxing and a welcome break from the pressures of tournament play.” (p. 184-185)

Another important influence in his life was Stilani (Ani) Chroni, sports psychologist, whom he met initially when she was working on her dissertation. (p. 53) Ani’s credo was that you do good by doing right. She saw integrity as an integral component of a healthy level of competitiveness. (p. 57)

Yoga became an important part of his training and playing, as he “focused on the act of mindfully breathing.” Yoga also helped increased his flexibility, improve his balance, and minimize the effects of injuries. Yoga brought a sense of peace amid the tension of tournament polo. (p. 63)

Lessons from Training Horses. A trainer must be honest and trustworthy to the horse. (p. 77) “Let each training session not be focused on you….let the horse lead.” (p. 79) “Giving a horse a good start will serve it well for the rest of its life – no matter what discipline it may end up in.” (p. 80)

The Unsung Heroesof any riding discipline are the grooms, who do much more than feed and clean horses. They are accomplished riders; long-distance truck drives; organizers of feed, tack and equipment; and dedicated to their horses as well as their player-employer. (p. 106)

In 2014 Adam was inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame. (p. 188)

The book is a good read for polo enthusiasts, as well as having valuable lessons in life for everyone.

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