The most famous magician and escape artist in the world at the turn of the century was one Harry Handcuff Houdini, who escaped from straitjackets, handcuffs, and storage chests chained shut and then dropped into the bay.
He was so widely known that even novices capable of no more than beginning legerdemain were sometimes referred to as “Houdinis,” throughout the world.
Now meet Harry’s (near) equine namesake and modern-day counterpart, a five-year-old called Boudini, who escapes halters, lead ropes, you name it. Just leave him unattended next to the trailer some time, with available grass nearby, and Boudini will free himself from any restrictive device in the way of an awaiting snack.
Boudini once thought about becoming a racehorse and instead wound up in the barn of Cathy DeGonda, a member of the Twin Cities Polo Club.
Like many former racetrack horses, Boudini found his new vocation fun and interesting. “Thoroughbreds are wonderful,” said DeGonda. “They love playing polo. I haven’t had one that doesn’t enjoy it. They actually love to chase a ball, to move within a crowd of horses, which I’m sure they got from the races. They are used to having contact with other horses.”
Boudini is no different and fits the description well.
He, like other racehorses, doesn’t take to all aspects of the game naturally. “In polo they have to learn how to stop and turn. They don’t do that naturally,” DeGonda added. That, too, is partly muscle memory acquired while training to run in one direction.
Boudini is one of five horses DeGonda has acquired, from Canterbury Park trainers or owners through track veterinarian Lynn Hovda, for retraining to the maneuvers required for polo.
This former racehorse, perhaps not well suited to the racing profession, has demonstrated a true willingness to chase a ball through a chukker or two.
A polo player needs at least two and sometimes three or four horses to play a game, dependent on the number of chukkers being played.
“Some games are six chukkers, some are four,” said DeGonda. “I usually play four chukkers so I get by with two horses, switching off so one doesn’t have to play back-to-back chukkers.”
Boudini is DeGonda’s most recent acquisition from Canterbury, 2 ½ years ago. “He only raced twice and failed so miserably that his people probably just wanted him out of there,” DeGonda continued.
Wasn’t it Ulysses S. Grant who failed miserably in every business venture or endeavor undertaken until the Civil War presented him with the perfect opportunity to excel.
It is often no different with horses, as is certainly true with the magician of Maple Plain, Boudini.
“He’s an absolute sweetheart,” said DeGonda, who began working with Houdini the autumn after acquiring him.
DeGonda also has a horse named Mary from Canterbury that raced under the name It’s All About Mary. “She’s really a very pretty chestnut,” DeGonda added.
“She’s a nice, steady horse, a little taller than Boudini at about 15.2 hands.”
She also has a horse named Susie that has acquired the barn name “Susie Q,” another “sweetheart” according to her owner.
DeGonda started playing polo 11 years ago after taking up an invitation to watch a chukker of two from a friend who played the game.
“I went on a trail ride with some girlfriends and one of them said she had just started playing polo. I decided I needed a hobby so I came out and took a couple of lessons. After watching it, I thought ‘oh, my God, I have to do this.'”
She was hooked.
And she has discovered that retrained thoroughbreds are actually good polo ponies. “All of them have been pretty easy to train. She (Lynn Hovda) has a great eye for horses and has pointed me in the direction of some pretty nice ones.”
There are exceptions, of course. “A lot of them are a little nuts coming off the track,” she said. “But I’ve found that if you keep on riding them right away, instead of turning them out the way some people do, they get to know you and trust you.”
Nevertheless, some habits die hard or are never changed. Escaping the bonds of a halter, for instance, with a tasty grass snack nearby.
This blog was written by Canterbury Staff Writer Jim Wells. Wells was a longtime sportswriter at the Pioneer Press and is a member of the Canterbury Park Hall of Fame.