A love for polo and a knack for training

Professional horseman Martin Maldonado started Ramona under saddle for owner Nina McKee, who says the American Saddlebred mare, 7, seems best suited for distance riding, but Maldonado has been swinging a polo mallet off her “just for fun.”Nina McKee
Professional horseman Martin Maldonado started Ramona under saddle for owner Nina McKee, who says the American Saddlebred mare, 7, seems best suited for distance riding, but Maldonado has been swinging a polo mallet off her “just for fun.”

Martin Maldonado may be one of the best riders and trainers in the area, possibly the state, but he’s a quiet man when it comes to his equestrian talents. Polo is his preferred field of expertise, but he’ll be the first to tell you that his goal is to train a horse that anyone can ride.

Ask someone who has ridden one of Maldonado’s “polo ponies” – they’re actually horses – and you’ll get an eloquent earful.

“Martin’s polo ponies are so lovely to ride – light and responsive,” writes Nina McKee, who lives in Little Washington, not far from the Blue Rock Inn, where Maldonado is based. “He has incredible patience and doesn’t take the horses’ antics personally (as so many “trainers” seem to do). I have too many horses, so when the time finally came to turn my young American Saddlebred mare from a pasture ornament into a riding horse, sending her to Martin was the obvious solution. Ramona is very sensitive, intelligent, and rather willful – she could have easily been ruined by the wrong handling. Martin has done a brilliant job.”

McKee was so pleased with her mare that she recommended Martin to her mother in-law.

“She had a huge, young warmblood in training with a ‘professional’ in Florida, but her horse was rearing – a lot, so I convinced her to ship him to Martin – not one rearing incident since that horse arrived at Blue Rock last summer!” states McKee. “Not that I want to encourage people to send dangerous horses to Martin!”

When it comes to unbridled enthusiasm about Maldonado, McKee isn’t alone. A group of polo enthusiasts nicknamed themselves the “Martini Girls” in a play on the pronunciation of their mentor’s name (Mar-teen) and had T-shirts made with the name and logo. They have nothing but good things to say about the ponies, their ride-ability, and what a joy it is to learn on them.

Polo, the centuries-old game, is something like hockey played on horseback. Traditional polo is played on a grass field the size of five football fields by riders rated according to their level of expertise from zero to 10, 10 being the best. But many new players have have come to the sport through “arena polo,” which offers great fun, a superb workout and plenty of excitement. Best of all, they do not have to own their own horses in order to play. If you’re interested in seeing what arena polo is all about, contact Maldonado and arrange to come and watch a game. Ladies play on Friday evenings, but there are also “chukkers” on Sunday and other times by prior arrangement. 

Maldonado grew up in a family of vaqueros in Mexico. When he arrived in the U.S. 25 years ago, he fell for polo immediately. Already an experienced rider, he watched the best polo players of the day compete, and credits his horsemanship in particular to one of them, a fellow countryman.

“Memo Gracida – one of the top, top players,” states Maldonado. “He’s a 10-goaler in the game and outside of the field. He’s one of the best. I worked for him just one year only. From the time I was young, I try to copy the really good players. You always get something from watching better players.”

(Gracida, a member of Mexico’s “first family of polo,” has won 16 U.S. Opens, the Superbowl of polo, and has played at 10 goals for 21 years – two records that have yet to be matched, let alone bested.)

Maldonado has a gentle manner with the horses, who receive the most meticulous care. He prefers thoroughbreds, considered by many to be too “hot” for average riders. Yet Maldonado’s polo ponies all stand quietly and calmly under the overhang outside the Blue Rock barn, a single cross-tie hooked to their halters, awaiting their turn at riding, or one of  Maldonado’s “pedicures” – which are some of the best-looking functional hoof-trimming by someone not working full-time as a professional blacksmith.

His students appreciate the way Maldonado matches them to their playing ponies, how the right horse, saddle and bridle help them gain confidence in their mounts, which helps them to follow the action and play a little better. They praise his patience, and the way he explains the intricate rules of the game until they get it.

When asked how he does it, Maldonado replies simply: “I love coming to work everyday.”

Five years ago, Maldonado relocated back to the barns and facility behind the Blue Rock Inn, the place he’d been before he moved to The Plains, a hub of the local polo world where, every week, he played two games each of four- and eight-goal polo. That was before the economy tanked.

Maldonado’s Polo at Blue Rock offers lessons in general horsemanship, polo, starting young horses, remedial training for problems, arena polo parties where you get to learn to give that ball a whack, and birthday party lessons. There are horses for sale and for lease. The first concern is safety, followed by enjoyment. It’s a given that kids of all ages will be comfortable with the soft-spoken Maldonado.

“It’s a lot of fun to teach when they really want to learn,” Maldonado says, “and every lesson they try hard. Teaching riding and how to play polo comes naturally to me. I love the game, but it’s important for my students to learn the rules and to go slowly at first. If one thing goes wrong, it’s like being on the highway – you go too fast, you can crash. There are so many rules and the No. 1 rule is, ‘Don’t be ugly on the field.’

“From polo you learn about life, because you learn to control yourself and your horse. Most of all, I want everyone to have fun.”

For more information about Maldonado and polo at the Blue Rock, call 540-878-7100 or visit facebook.com/bluerockpolo.