Get Back On The Horse In Polo, Running & Life

get back on the horse, polo

Players from Newport Polo (red) and Far Reach (blue) race to the ball. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Sometimes in life you have to get back on the horse.


There’s a horse—an actual four-legged animal with a mane and a tail. You fell off of it, dirt and grass covering the shoulder of your white polo shirt. You’re breathless, having had the wind knocked out of you by a collision with the hard ground. You lie there a moment and catch your breath. You make sure nothing is broken, stand up, and walk over to the horse. You pet her and tell her it’s OK. Then you plant one foot in the stirrup and swing your leg over her back. You get back on the horse.

I’ve been taking polo lessons for two years now. Two weeks ago, I fell off my horse. Suddenly, an old cliché had real-world meaning.

A Family of Riders

I started riding horses when I was a little girl. I come from a long line of riders. My great-grandfather was a traveling shoe salesman who rode a donkey. I have the photo to prove it.

get back on the horse

My great-grandfather.

My grandfather and namesake, Karl, was a sergeant on horseback in World War I. He survived Somme, the Third Battle of the Aisne, the Second Battle of the Marne, and the Battle of the Argonne Forest. He died before I was born, already 51 when my dad was born. But I was born on his birthday and inherited his name along with his love of horses.

get back on the horse

My grandfather before being deployed to France in 1917.

Karl taught his sons—my dad and uncle—to ride.

get back on the horse

My uncle (left), grandfather (center), and dad (right).

They, in turn, taught me.

get back on the horse

Riding with my dad at my uncle’s ranch.

My uncle, an expert horseman and rodeo rider, had a cattle ranch in North Florida sandwiched between Gainesville and Jacksonville. Every year, my dad would take us to visit along with our annual trek to Walt Disney World. My uncle would plunk me on a sweet horse named Pokey.

get back on the horse

Riding Pokey at 4-years-old.

Every time I visited I begged my cousins to take me for a ride, and they always obliged. They competed on the rodeo circuit in barrel racing, pole bending and calf roping. We rode all over the ranch’s seemingly endless acres on Western saddles and sometimes bareback. I loved it.

get back on the horse

Riding the ranch as a kid with my cousin Laura. She passed away from cancer in 2012.

My dad, who grew up in a small Central Florida town sandwiched between Tampa and Orlando, used to joke that his first car was actually a horse named Blackie. My dad was expert at braiding my sister’s and my hair, a skill he learned from keeping horses as a child.

get back on the horse

My dad died in 2003. I think he’d be tickled that I play polo.

So my dad signed me up for riding lessons back home in Chicago, where I learned dressage and show jumping in an English saddle. I hated dressage, but loved jumping. Clearing higher and harder obstacles was thrilling.

get back on the horse

Taking a jumping lesson as a child.

But that’s also when I learned our trusty cliché. During the time I took lessons, I fell twice that I can remember: once when I was being sloppy and lost my stirrup; and once when I was prepping for a jump and my horse stopped short. I went flying over the jump. My horse did not.

get back on the horse

Riding became my favorite thing to do on vacation.

I was 8 or 9-years-old at the time and was little more than stunned. I got up, completely uninjured, brushed the dirt from the arena floor off of me and climbed back on my horse.

Eventually, I gave up riding because I just didn’t have the time. I was also a competitive swimmer. As I got older, swim practices got longer and meets started taking up entire weekends. I had to choose: swimming or riding. Riding got the old heave ho.

Getting on a horse was soon relegated to visiting my uncle’s ranch and any other vacation where I was within spitting distance of a horse—at a dude ranch in Wisconsin or in the hills of Hawaii.

Learning To Play Polo

In 2010, my husband Phil and I went to a polo match while on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island. We had a blast. He too had been a rider as a child, but had quit once other sports got in the way. So when we took a 2011 vacation to Argentina, the polo capital of the world, we thought it would be fun to give the sport a try. We went to Estancia La Sofia, a polo resort in the countryside beyond Buenos Aires that specializes in letting beginners try their hand at the sport.

get back on the horse, polo

After my very first polo lesson in Argentina. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

We had so much fun that we decided to try the Newport Polo Club school, affiliated with the Newport International Polo Series, where we’d seen that first polo match. Getting started was surprisingly easy. The school provided the horses and all necessary equipment, including mallets and helmets. Once we knew we wanted to stick with it, we bought helmets and some other riding gear of our own.

Over the last two years, we’ve been going once or twice a month from March to October. All told, we’ve probably had 25 lessons.

get back on the horse, polo

Self-portraits on horseback. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Phil is a natural. All of our teachers have commented on his raw talent, how remarkable his progress is, that he has the makings of a fantastic player.

Me? I’ve never played a ball sport in my life—unless you count the one summer I took golf lessons when I was 10, also at my father’s behest. I went from swimming to rowing to running. So my hand eye co-ordination? Not so great.

Most of our polo lessons start with riding drills, then “stick and ball” drills with a polo mallet, before finishing with a friendly scrimmage.

get back on the horse, polo

Ready for “stick and ball.” (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Last summer, we got a new instructor who complimented my riding skills during the drills.

“Wait ’til you see me hit the ball,” I said. “Or not hit the ball. I’m terrible.”

“No, no. To be a good polo player you have to be a good rider,” he said. “Ball skills are only a small part of it.”

When he finally saw me swing a mallet, he laughed. “You weren’t kidding!” he said. “You’re terrible! Let’s fix that.”

That was a full year ago. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I am in the mix during scrimmage and actually feel like an asset, not a hindrance, to my team. I’ve also gotten quite comfortable on a horse again.

My uncle and aunt even gave me my own horse recently. Here she is:

get back on the horse

“Cowgirls Rule.” They sure do.

She showed up in the mail one day with a note from my uncle that said, “Thought you might like your own horse!” I sure do. She says “Cowgirls Rule.” I love it so much I put it on my bookshelves next to my desk where I work every day. She makes me smile. My uncle has since given up the cattle ranch, but still keeps a few horses and travels the rodeo circuit. He is a real life cowboy.

The Fall
get back on the horse, polo

A polo player from Far Reach in Massachusetts. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Polo is like every other riding discipline: eventually, you might fall. You try your darndest not to, but it still happens. I’ve even seen it happen to pros in matches. And it happened to me two weeks ago.

For non-riders, horses have four natural gaits that increase in speed: walk, trot, canter and gallop. It’s kind of like our walk, jog, run, sprint. In class, we ride at a trot on the slow end and a canter on the fast end. In the middle of scrimmage, my horse got excited and set off into a gallop. It caught me off guard. I tried reining her in—another horse idiom we use colloquially but rarely literally—but she wanted to run. Just as I finally got her to start slowing down, I lost control and fell.

get back on the horse, polo

Players jockey for the ball at a polo match. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Once I realized what was happening, I tried to fall as smartly as possible. I got my feet clear of the stirrups—the last thing you want is to have a foot caught and get dragged. I let go of the reins and my mallet and rolled off the horse, tucking my arms into my chest—never make the mistake of trying to break a fall with your hands. It’s a surefire way to break a wrist or an arm. I hit the rump of another horse on the way down and finally landed on the grass. My left hip hit first, then my left shoulder, then my head. My eyes instinctively closed. I heard the crunch of my helmet and was very glad to be wearing one.

get back on the horse, polo

A Far Reach player reaches for the ball at a Newport Polo match. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

The impact knocked the wind out of me. The instructor got off his horse and came to check me. I tried to get up right away, saying “I’m OK!” But he made me lie there to get my breath back and to make sure nothing was seriously hurt. My hip, shoulder, and neck were sore but I could still walk and move fine.

So I walked over to my horse, Ginger, and told her it wasn’t her fault. I use the word “my” loosely. I don’t own her. The polo club does. She was just mine for the lesson. But I’ve probably ridden her 15 of the 25 lessons I’ve had. She a fantastic horse who knows what’s she doing a heck of a lot better than I do.

Then I got right back in the saddle and back into the game. I even scored two goals. They were the proudest goals of my life.

Get Back On The Horse
get back on the horse

Polo ponies were ready to ride this Spring. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

Sometimes you have to get back on the horse.

It’s a cliché in life for a reason. I know if I didn’t get back on the horse right then and there, my last memory of riding would have been falling. It could have easily become a mental block the next time I wanted to ride.

But instead, I think of those goals. Every time my husband tells the story he finishes: “Get this: she got right back on the horse and scored two goals!”

That’s why the cliché to “get back on the horse” has been so enduring. If you fall, you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and pick-up right where you left off. It’s as true in running as it is in polo and anything else in life. Even if I never ride another horse in my life, it’s important that I got back on the horse at that moment.

My hip hurt like heck and I couldn’t turn my neck to the left, but I played better after falling than before. In addition to the goals I scored, I played some great defense and my team won the scrimmage. It’s a valuable lesson that I want to always remember.

get back on the horse, polo

Getting back on the horse is a great lesson for life. (Photo: Phil Hospod)

The fall knocked me out for about a week. I went to the doctor for an x-ray just to be sure that nothing was seriously injured. Nothing was. The doc says I probably have a bruised hipbone and some bursitis in the joint, both of which will go away in a few weeks. My hip is still a bit sore, largely from the bursitis. But after a week of rest and a week of just cycling and swimming, my doctor cleared me to run and to ride again.

I know that I was very lucky to have such a clean fall. It could have been ugly. But it reminds me that life is short and all we can do is live life to the fullest.

And sometimes that means getting back on the horse that threw you.

Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ show about running. She has finished six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla at, The Washington Times Communities, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a race announcer at the TCS New York City Marathon + other major events, TV host for the New York City Triathlon + contributor to Shape, Redbook, Runner's World + other publications. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now it's her job. She's run 8 marathons, 30 halves, 10 triathlons + open water swims. When she's not running, talking about running or writing about running, she's snuggling her baby, spoiling her dog + compulsively traveling.


06 2013

16 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. 1

    So cool that you and Phil taking polo lessons. I used to ride too. I would love to get back into it, but lessons are difficult to schedule in with my current schedule right now. Maybe in the future.
    Elle recently posted..My Own Long Slow DistanceMy Profile

  2. 3

    Love love love this post! :) I’m seriously counting down the weeks until grad school is over so I can head to the barn for my first lesson in probably 3 years. Love all the old photos of your family on horseback!
    Jenn recently posted..2013 WDW Full Marathon Race RecapMy Profile

  3. 5

    That is so incredibly awesome that you and your family have such a history with horses and polo! Makes for some great stories and photos! I’ve never been much of a horse person but mainly because I wasn’t around them much growing up. I have probably ridden 5 times in my life. The first time I rode a horse was EPIC though. I was 7 or 8 and my aunt/uncle took my sister and I out to Yellowstone National Park for a few weeks in the summer. We went riding, and I was more scared than my sister (me being the younger one) and she ended up having her horse take off with her on it and everyone had to go chase it down! Meanwhile I was just sitting there on a big horse named “lightning”. Ended up being a great time, but definitely memorable watching my sister take off!
    Laura recently posted..Why Bother Tri-ing?My Profile

    • Karla Bruning

      That’s a funny story! Glad your sister was OK. And glad it didn’t scare you from riding again. Yeah, I find that being a horse person either requires that you grew up with it or were somehow proactive in seeking it out. It’s not something most people stumble into.
      Karla recently posted..Get Back On The Horse In Polo, Running & LifeMy Profile

  4. 7

    I love the picture of your great grandfather on the donkey – what an awesome picture to have lasted through the years without getting lost!

    I’m glad that you are okay and got back up on the horse – a wonderful and literal lesson. When I was younger I would go to a horse camp every summer where each camper was assigned a horse to care for and ride. It was so much fun and I loved every moment of it. As of today I haven’t ridden in probably five years or more. Reading your post has made me want to saddle up again!
    Kristina @ Blog About Running recently posted..Changing Up My Workout Routine for Summer!My Profile

    • Karla Bruning

      A horse camp sounds super fun! I would have loved that as a kid. It’s been really fun riding again. It had been many years for me too. Yes, the donkey picture cracks me up every time I see it. Especially since he’s dressed in a 3-piece suit, riding a donkey, though a stream. Amazing.
      Karla recently posted..Get Back On The Horse In Polo, Running & LifeMy Profile

  5. 9

    Ouch! I’m glad you’re healing physically and were just fine mentally right away. Also, I LOVE the old-timey pictures! So neat to learn about family histories.
    Sadye recently posted..The secret to running motivationMy Profile

  6. 11

    I don’t even know where to begin to comment on this post. First of all, it’s amazing that you have pictures of your great-grandfather. It’s great to have things like that. I’m also so jealous of the Polo! Not so much for the game, but just for getting to ride a horse on a regular basis. Whenever I go on (non-Disney) vacation, if there is a horseback riding option, I take it. I’m so glad you were ok after your fall. Thank can be really scary. And then getting back on the horse, way to set an awesome example! :)
    Kellie recently posted..2 Weeks in Training Recap (and maybe someday I’ll get to cooking again)My Profile

    • Karla Bruning

      Thanks, Kellie! I have pics of my mother’s maternal grandparents and my father’s paternal grandparents. It is amazing. What’s so amazing about these ones are that my grandfather was born in 1894–and I have baby pictures of him along with portraits of both his parents! They’re going on 120 years old! Which is why I’m in the process of scanning and documenting all of them. So glad my dad held onto them.
      Karla recently posted..Get Back On The Horse In Polo, Running & LifeMy Profile

  7. 13

    Soooo interesting and cool that you know all of that history about your family AND have the pictures! Good for you for getting right back on and finishing the game and glad to hear you weren’t hurt badly.

    My sister is a big horseback rider and still shows competitively, I bet she would love trying polo, she’s a great rider and athlete so I bet she’d be pretty good! Even though I’ve grown up around horses they were never really my thing, I enjoy riding occasionally, but my family still makes fun of me for a vacation we went on where you could ride the horses in the water and I freaked out because I thought it felt so gross and slimy!
    Danielle recently posted..Weekend Disney Trip (& lots of food pictures!)My Profile

  8. 15

    That’s quite a story. You’re gutsier than me — I’ve been wary of horses ever since being thrown from my Uncle’s farm horse as a child. Give me the safety of a motorcycle any day! Even if I were game, wouldn’t have the hand/eye coordination to play polo — can appreciate the skill of those who to though.
    Ewen recently posted..Bookend RunsMy Profile


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