by Frank Bell
Connecting with others on a deep meaningful level is a rarity in our hurried world. When it does happen, it is truly a gift that needs to be recognized and acted upon. Sometimes we aren't quite ready or even aware of such connections and it's gone before we realize what has been lost. In the late summer of 1988 I had such a connection with one of the most beautiful young ladies I've ever known. I long to reconnect with Ambella.
I took a job that summer at Indian Creek Ranch near the one horse town of Cameron, Montana. The ranch was owned by some very well-to-do polo people who had homes throughout the world and hobnobbed with the most famous polo player of all, Prince Charles.
In the polo world, the thoroughbreds have a career that usually ends in their mid-teens when they lose their speed or break down physically. From there they often become brood mares as they did at Indian Creek Ranch. With two famous stallions to service the mares, a new crop of foals arrived every year to welcome the warm springtime weather and green grass. As the sun just started to light the sky on the morning of the equinox, March 21st, a very special foal was taking her first breaths on that cool beginning. She was the color of aged hay, a buckskin with a prominent dark stripe running down the middle of her back. With a black mane and tail and dark lower legs, she wasn't common like all the bays that dominate the polo scene. She marched to the beat of her own drum, right from day one.
On my second day at the ranch I was assigned to the fence repair detail, beginning with the fences close-in just walking distance from the main buildings. I donned a tool belt with plenty of staples and a specialized tool for stretching wire, pulling staples, and pounding them back into the posts, and started working my way away from the barn.
The weanlings, born only several months before hurried over as a group and watched curiously from a distance as I worked. They kicked up and played, especially as I pounded. It kind of became a game for all of us. They would get very quiet and creep in closer and closer as I did the quiet work. Then when I began pounding, the tempo picked up until they were dancing around like kindergartners to loud music. The second the pounding stopped, they would freeze, ears forward intent on my work. Each time it got quiet, they inched in closer with the little buckskin leading the way. Finally as I was bent over retrieving staples off the ground I felt a soft nose on my arm. I very slowly turned to find the lovely buckskin extending a warm greeting to me. I sat down and allowed her to sniff me all over. Her timid friends stayed back and watched as she bravely paved the way to our new-found friendship. With my back against the fence pole and knees up, I gently stroked her face all over, then under her chin in the hollow of her jaw. She cocked her head to the side as I found her spot and itched it for a bit, then quit. I had work to do, so asked her to leave. She fully understood my wishes and hurried off to join her friends, almost gloating at her huge accomplishment as if to say, "Look what I just did!"
It was the same the rest of the day. The gang of eight weanlings would come and go, each time becoming a little more brave with the buckskin always leading the way. She was actually smaller than the other horses, but didn't know it. As the day progressed I handled most of the horses, getting more aggressive with them each time, as they did with me. Little did I know at the time that I was doing a great job of gentling them, while teaching respect. It all seemed like the right thing to do at that time and I just loved getting my hands on the youngsters.
The following morning I had some mechanical work to do in front of the barn on the old Massey Ferguson tractor. As I walked out the back door of main house, who should greet me but my new girlfriend. I walked right up to her and gave her a hearty hello, stroking her head and neck first, then all over her body. I finished with a big hug, wrapping my arms all around her neck and pulling her into me tight, ending with a strong squeeze, then walked off toward the barn just yards away. I slid the barn door open, walked in and started organizing the tools I would need to work on the tractor. As I was busily searching in the low light for a specialized wrench at the bottom of the tool box, I sensed a presence nearby. I then felt the warm breath and whiskers of my favorite girl. She had walked right into the barn amidst farm equipment and sharp objects. I very delicately showed her the way back out, told her how much I appreciated her help, and went back to work, this time closing the door behind me. I had diverted a potentially very dangerous situation. Had she spooked suddenly, it would have meant certain injury in all that pointed and dangerous clutter.
Tools in hand I emerged to find her waiting patiently for me right by the tractor. It was as if she knew exactly what I had to do and really did want to help. I spent about an hour over, under, around, and through that old unit with the buckskin right by my side. I believe she would have jumped into my lap and taken a drive if I'd have encouraged it. From that day on, she was my number one girl.
As a student, she was as good as it gets. She was always eager to learn and enjoyed the process thoroughly. But she also had a mind of her own and would voice her opinion readily when asked by either horses or humans. If something wasn't fair, she would stand right up to it. Upon returning to South Carolina in the fall of 1990, she let me know some bad handling had taken place over the summer.
The horses had been left in the care of summer help who had used a variety of workers as the summer progressed. When I reintroduced myself that fall, her attitude was combative and she struck me when worming her. She had obviously been in a fight with a human and had developed an attitude. It didn't take long for me to sort out just what had happened. The farrier had worked her over and she didn't have a lot of use for men, even me. I was heartbroken. The bad news: horses never forget. The good news: they do forgive. She was a little mad at me for leaving for so long and for being mistreated. I, then took the time to reconnect, just loving all over her. She melted like butter into my attentions and the bad behavior ended immediately. What a relief for me as this was the year to teach her to accept me on her back.
By now I had started about a half dozen horses on my own and my confidence was growing like a weed. I couldn't get enough. Working with the two year old crop of eight was likely the most enjoyable and meaningful period of my life. I knew these kids. They were all my friends. We had grown up together from the get-go. I taught them to lead and to enter stalls and trailers. I trimmed their feet. And we all went on the big road trip to South Carolina moving the whole ranch of thirty-five horses to the south in three trailers. What a road trip! But the moment of truth was upon me as Ambella and I entered the round pen on the day that would truly change her life, forever.
Being my favorite of the gang of eight, I started with her, absolutely confident that this would be an experience never to be forgotten. And it wasn't. The dance, I had perfected. The harmony that I had strived for and the partnership that we had created, all came together with this horse who I so loved. Within minutes we were gliding around that round pen like a couple of seasoned ballroom dancers. She seemed to say to me, "I've just been waiting for this moment. Now we can have big fun." She progressed like no horse I've ever worked with. Within a couple of weeks we were cantering forward and moving laterally simultaneously like a sharp knife cutting through soft butter. Her perfect balance and my medium size fit like a well-used leather glove. My mental pictures became her's as we prepared her for the fast and exciting world of polo. I dreaded the day of her departure and even contemplated purchasing her myself. To this day I regret not exercising that option, but then the story would not be nearly so interesting.
In the spring of '91 Omar Viale drove up from Sun South, Abercrombie and Kent's polo headquarters in Lake Worth, Florida. A fabulous trainer originally from Argentina, Omar had lived at the farm next to ours in South Carolina the previous year. He had taken me under his wing and shared his vast knowledge with me. Now he was here to take my lady away. It was a hard day for me. He roached her beautiful black mane as she watched the thick hair pile up on the ground below. He then got on her and experienced a lightness unlike anything he had ever dreamed of. "Very nice Frankie. Very, very light. Very, very nice", he reiterated over and over. The tears welled in my eyes as I said good-bye and hugged that horse fiercely. She took part of me with her that day. That once in a lifetime connection drove off, headed south. I let it happen and have regretted it ever since.
I kept track of Ambella as best I could over the years. She was a star and one of the fastest horses in the game. She led Geoffrey Kent and his Abercrombie and Kent/Rolex team to several championships, then I got busy and almost forgot the pain of missing her. She was gone. She had a great life in polo, a job, meaning, had moved on. Leave it behind Frank. But down inside I couldn't let her go, ever.
In January of '99 , I called Omar to invite him to a clinic I was doing in the Tampa area in mid-February. "Ah Frankie. I come up and see you. . . No, you come down here and do a demonstration for our polo friends. I set it up for you. Okay?" he asked. "Hey Omar, where's that buckskin filly I worked with? I'd really like to see her." I inquired. "You mean Ambella. Oh she's in England Frankie. That horse is fast, one of the fastest in the game." "I'd like to see her. I may be over there this summer. How would I find her Omar?" "Geoffrey gave her to Prince Charles after he got hurt and quit the game. He gave him both she and Moonstruck." I thought back on the horse who had taught me the most and changed my life. That was Moonstruck. I thought back on the horse I had loved the most and had the best connection. And that was Ambella.
I will do everything in my power to see her again. If there's a way to give her a home to live out the rest of her life when her polo career ends, I want that home to be the one I provide. I long to reconnect with Ambella.