Paul Wollenman’s name is synonymous with veterinary work in Wellington, Florida, where Palm Beach Equine Clinic is the largest and longest running facility in the area. Arriving in Wellington on the cusp of its evolution from small time polo zone to the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World, timing was key for the Texan healer. For the last four decades he has been treating some of the world’s top equestrian athletes in a surgery that has grown and developed beyond all recognition. The USPA spoke with the living legend himself to find out his story, how he came to be at the center of one of the largest and most extensive equestrian regions in the world, and what it is about polo that made him a leader in the industry.
What made you decide to open a clinic in Wellington, Florida?
“I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, and I came here originally to do horse work at the Lion Country Safari. In 1975 there was only Gulfstream Polo Club over on Lake Worth Road—it was a really friendly club. But in 1978, Palm Beach Polo Club started and Bill Ylvisaker came. I just happened to be here when it landed, and as I worked there he talked me into building my own clinic, which I did in 1981. In 1984, I took on a partner [Dr.] Scott Swerdlin, and then I took on another partner, and then a fourth. When we started out, polo was our biggest industry, there were no hunter jumpers or competition horses. Palm Beach Polo started the horse show and that was around 1983, so everybody kind of branched out and began to specialize. I stayed with polo, it’s what I started with and what I enjoy.”
Was there something specific that made you want to specialize in polo?
“When I first came here I didn’t know which end of the stick you hit a ball with! I had brought my roping horse from Texas. I was working, and one of my mentors in polo Glenn Hart said to me, ‘bring your horse and come play polo and I’ll teach you.’ I’ve always liked horse related activities, but here was an action sport and a team sport similar to basketball and hockey on horses, at speed, and it grabbed ahold of me. So I bought a couple of old ponies that people had given up on, and I doctored them and played those through the 80s. I stopped for a while to build the practice, but then took it up again in the 90s. In terms of working in it, I was always going to do equine, and then polo just came in to it and was a perfect fit. I can’t imagine working in anything else.”
“One of the nicest things about polo ponies is that they mature early, they’re playing by about six and seven so it’s an older horse sport. They’ve been handled and tied together so they’re easy to work on. Of course you get the odd tricky ones but for the most part they’re easy to manage horses that are calm and simple.”
What high-goal teams do you work for?
“Coke, Valiente, Pilot, Marc and Melissa Ganzi [Audi, Flexjet, Grand Champions Polo Club, Aspen Valley Polo Club], Tonkawa, SD Farms and then just a myriad of the lower and medium-goal players. Mainly I just oversee everything. Most of the teams have their own vets that are under our supervision. We call them trainers and they get in touch with any problems. They’re the ones that are watching the horses every day, watching the matches and the practices, they’re the eyes and the management.”
What are the most common polo related injuries you see?
“Polo ponies are all about tendons and fetlocks. Show horses are very few tendons, more hocks, stifles, backs and necks. It’s like hockey players versus ballet dancers. The practice has evolved gradually to manage all disciplines. Every sport has their own injuries and generally have their own veterinarians.”
“There are all kinds of reasons why you get injuries, and if you ask me the best way of preventing injuries in polo, I’d say really sharp grooms. When it comes to who you have working in your barns with your horse, the cheaper option is not always the cheapest in the long run. Grooms that are able to notice something early on are worth their weight in gold. ”
What is the best way to avoid injuries?
“There are all kinds of reasons why you get injuries, and if you ask me the best way of preventing injuries in polo, I’d say really sharp grooms. When it comes to who you have working in your barns with your horse, the cheaper option is not always the cheapest in the long run. Grooms that are able to notice something early on are worth their weight in gold. You need people who go to the barn, see the horses every day, have a feeling for each horse, are riding a lot of singles and are really good at picking things up early before they become catastrophic. When we treat a horse and send it home, you need those people who are good at following through with the treatment and aftercare. An ideal groom is realistic, they’re not calling you for every horse that breaks out in hives or coughs.
Now with polo barns getting bigger, the strings are gigantic, there are polo barns with 150 horses, and things can be difficult to manage. That’s when managers must rely on grooms. The old-time grooms are great at spotting stuff and caring for horses and reducing the risk of injuries. Today, there can be a really high turnover of personnel, new people may not pay attention to some of the little things. In a four or five-month season, details such as which horses shouldn’t be tied together, which ones need riding and not ponying, which ones shouldn’t be ridden together and that kind of stuff has to be learned as soon as possible.”
How many staff do you have working at the clinic?
“There are a lot of horses here in Florida. It’s a big, big business. It becomes your life and it’s a great community. We have a staff here 24/7. Right now I would say there’s probably two vets that just do polo, three or four that do polo and show horses, a bunch that just do jumpers, some that just do dressage, and some that do both. We have vets who specialize in the reproduction side of it, chiropractors, those that focus on acupuncture. It’s just grown and grown, and then we brought in specialists, surgeons specifically. We have three board-certified surgeons with us, a board-certified radiologist, as well as a medicine expert and an ophthalmologist. We also have a resident and four interns that do rounds like a normal hospital. It’s the big time and it’s not like the little surgery I built in 1981 anymore! Between all of that you’re getting top-quality service.”
What happens in the “off season”?
“South Florida is very seasonal. Even though a lot of our clients leave during the summer and early fall, more and more have made Florida their home base. We have a lot of people who stay, especially with their show horses, and then the Ganzis have a late spring league and a fall league [at Grand Champions Polo Club], so there is stuff going on all year. We go from a staff of 30 veterinarians to probably about 12. All the others follow their discipline’s circuit.”
Are you here all year?
“Florida is not for me in the summer, I’m not an ocean and beach kind of person, so my wife and I (she also played and she worked polo) went looking for a summer place out west to play. We ended up in Sheridan, Wyoming, surprisingly that’s a big polo place. There are a few clubs there with different levels. We go to Big Horn Polo Club, I play and work out there. I have a small surgical facility, but I don’t do any of the big surgeries. I work here five months and I go there for about seven. I love Wyoming, I tell everyone that the best thing about Wyoming is that it’s like everything used to be 50 years ago and the bad thing about Wyoming is it’s like everything used to be 50 years ago.”