Jerry Lee’s life could have taken a turn for the worse a couple years ago.
The thoroughbred once known as “Doctor Wu” was nearing the end of his career in racing at Finger Lakes. In 29 starts, he had amassed about $15,000 in winnings and placed first only once — stats that landed him among the roughly 400 horses culled from competition at the racetrack annually.
Some of these horses are pulled into equestrian competitions — show jumping or steeplechasing. Others — like Jerry Lee — simply don’t have the physical characteristics trainers are looking for.
“He’s a smaller, compact, well-balanced horse,” explained Robert Donnan, who purchased the slender gelding about two years ago. “He’s not a big, striking macho man like the show people want.”
And that meant Jerry Lee had a strong likelihood of landing in a slaughterhouse, an ignoble end that befalls some unwanted thoroughbreds. But Donnan and Terry Mehlenbacher saw a good temperament in the horse, a sign that he could be trained into a new line of work.
Today, Jerry Lee is among a dozen former racehorses Donnan and Mehlenbacher use for the Western New York Polo Club. Founded in 2004, the club provides rural children the opportunity to learn polo and serves as a last refuge for horses running short on options.
“We take horses right off the track and retrain them ourselves to play polo,” he said Sunday during Cornell Cooperative Extension Equine’s Saratoga Horse Symposium.
The polo club was among about a dozen organizations and speakers at the two-day symposium. Now in its 23rd year, the symposium featured a number of equine speakers ranging from some of the top veterinarians in the field to specialists in exercise physiology.
Jennifer Stevens, the community educator for CCE Equine, said the event is hosted each spring at the 4-H Training Center, right before show season. The breadth of speakers and demonstrations are representative of the broad range of interests horse owners and lovers have around the Capital Region.
“We try to make classes that address what horse owners are looking for,” she said.
Other segments featured a concept that is working somewhere in the state and could perhaps take root in a new community. Donnan’s polo club, for instance, has been a success story for an area outside of Geneseo.
The program involves about eight high school students who help train the thoroughbreds for arena competition. After several rough years in the beginning, the polo club has become one of the top competitors in the nation, landing a victory at the U.S. Polo Association’s Northeast Regional tournament this year.
More importantly though, Donnan said the time members of the club spend working with the thoroughbreds is valuable experience they can use in the workforce later in life. He said club members could easily parlay their work with the horses into future employment in the equine industry.
“They’re getting skills with thoroughbreds,” he said. “These kids could walk in and go right to work.”