There are few jobs more rewarding and least glorified in the polo world than that of the horse trainer. While there are many layers to the process, building a solid foundation can set in motion the upward trajectory of a polo pony’s career. While top polo ponies pass through many hands before arriving on high-goal fields, it is often what happens at the very beginning that can make or break a horse’s future in the sport. The West has historically been regarded as a source for some of the best polo stock and subsequently trainers in the country; husband and wife CJ and Sheila Lequerica are no exception. Mentored by one of the earliest practitioners of modern natural horsemanship, one step into their barn in Sealy, Texas, and you will instantly sense the calm that pervades. The duo behind Vintage Polo Ponies Inc. they are power couple indeed, and a force to be reckoned with when it comes to molding young equine minds and bodies, yet they remain humble to the core. Generally flying under the radar, you may never guess that Hall of Famer Memo Gracida is a regular buyer, or that they put the first miles on a staple of 10-goaler Facundo Pieres’ American string.
While the Lequericas now call Texas home along with their two children Lily and Joe Bob, they initially met around the polo fields of Indio, California. Sheila, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, grew up showing hunter jumpers. She discovered polo in college while attending Colorado State University which propelled her into an intercollegiate polo career along with summers dedicated to her new found hobby. Meanwhile, CJ born and raised on his family’s cattle ranch in Central Oregon, opted to skip a formal degree for an opportunity to train with Tink Elordi, a pupil of Tom Dorrance, one of the founders of the natural horsemanship movement. Years later, after a stint working a nine to five which she admittedly despised, the two joined forces at high-goal team owner Fred Mannix’s Fish Creek. “He [CJ] actually hired me to work for him starting horses at Fish Creek,” recounted Sheila. “They needed someone that could ride young horses and get them on the polo field. They were all cowboys and they knew how to break and start them, but no one played polo.” Eventually, the couple decided to break out on their own, buying some prospects to train and sell while still riding for others. “It wasn’t really a certain thing that happened, it just kind of fell into my lap,” said Sheila. “I always wanted horses in my life, I never thought it would be my profession. I didn’t know I could really do it, to tell you the truth, but I couldn’t do it without CJ.So, when he brought me on, and then we went on our own, this became our life—instead of just a hobby.”
Bumping and splashing along the long orange dirt roads inundated with standing water due to the heavy rainfall this season, the Lequerica’s large covered arena pops out first as you round the corner to their ranch. “Horse training is hard work,” says Sheila, “and Memo Gracida said it best one time, ‘if you miss a day on a green horse, it’s like missing a week,’” so it’s no wonder they describe the arena as their “saving grace.” With as many as 54 horses in work during their busiest time of year, and copious amounts of rainfall throughout this season particularly, one can undoubtedly recognize the importance of such an investment. “We built it to stay dry, but in the summertime we ride all day and it’s hotter than hell here, let me tell you, but that covered arena saves our tails. We can go all day, it’s like the air conditioner is on when we ride in the shade.”
The entire Lequerica family specialize in horse training, CJ’s brother Troy and sister-in-law Joscelyn can easily load up horses and drive five minutes down the road from their neighboring farm to make use of the round pen, situated under the arena roof. On this day specifically they are saddling two of their own client’s horses, a pair of unusually large chestnut yearlings, but during colt starting season Troy will often be counted among the ranks to assist. As Sheila prepares for an afternoon practice where CJ will help groom, Troy and Joscelyn offer to pick the kids up from school discussing chores and schoolwork. “They’ll probably have homework,” Sheila calls from the arena, “but they can clean up the barn first.” A family operation through and through, despite the demands of a rigorous horse training schedule, the Lequerica’s prove it’s always easier with family by your side and CJ and Sheila’s playful natures infuse fun into every element of the process.
When it comes to the day-to-day work, the Lequericas are fortunate to have had a steady flow of apprentices over the years, particularly young aspiring polo professionals. Team USPA members such as Remy Muller, Russell Stimmel and most recently Neil Osburg, along with his fiancé Ashlie Manno, have dedicated time to learning the trade. “We do enjoy teaching,” Sheila said. “All of those boys that have worked for us are amazing. CJ can’t stop talking enough about Neil, he’s has a natural feel on a horse. We’ve learned a lot from him too, it’s not just him learning from us. Everyone has something to teach.” Ten minutes in their company and you feel like family, making it easy to recognize how it is they maintain quality help considering the heavy workload.
A working operation, CJ stresses the importance of constantly fine-tuning his craft. “It’s kind of never-ending,” he remarks about why he has dedicated his life to the job. “Once you think you’ve figured it out, you haven’t. That’s what keeps me going. Trying to get better, trying to get the horses better. If I’m not improving, I’m quitting. Once you stop learning, it kind of all goes out the window,” he comments. The couple’s differing backgrounds in horses offer a unique perspective on training that incorporates a myriad of disciplines including dressage—which may come as a surprise in the land of cattle and cowboy hats—but the end result is as the Lequericas put it, a “soft and supple” horse. While Memo Gracida asserts that both CJ and Sheila are equally talented in their own right, their dynamic partnership produces horses that reflect the best qualities of each trainer. CJ’s years of high school rodeo produce a great stop and rate in his trainees, while Sheila creates a solid handle across the neck. When any up-and-coming young horse is lacking in either, they often trade for an ideal finish.
It was a chance meeting between CJ and Whistle Uys at a bar in Florida that set the stage for one of their biggest and longest working relationships—Graymar Farms. Almost a decade into the partnership, the Lequericas have a consistent flow of two, three and four-year-old Graymar groups that cycle through their program, each staying approximately 16 months. Similarly, they train Charlie Armstrong’s embryo transfer babies, embryos out of clones of a world-renowned American Thoroughbred named Sage, who became a star of Argentine polo.
The most easy-going of humans, CJ and Sheila Lequerica are the epitome of cool—knowledgeable, confident, yet insanely modest in their achievements. When asked about a favorite horse they have trained, they unanimously answer “Bucky,” a dapper buckskin gelding and staple of the U.S. Open Women’s Handicap with his uncharacteristic flowy mane. The 14-year-old quarter horse heartthrob with numerous Best Playing Pony awards to his name, not only plays polo, but rodeos with their children, and can be roped off of to help pony and start colts. It isn’t until you prod them that you make the connection between their organization, Graymar, and a famous chestnut mare named Olé, formerly known as O’Lace, played by 10-goaler Facundo Pieres in the 2018 Florida winter season and English season. Or Nic Roldan’s chestnut mare Cullette (alternate spelling Culotte), trained and sold by the Lequericas to Canadian Todd Offen, later purchased by Roldan in 2005 and has since become an essential part of his 26-goal string. And the list goes on, Memo Gracida’s famous Sprite or Mariano Aguerre’s bay mare Denial (previously called Denali). “Whistle’s brother Neels Uys was working for us and rode that mare [Olé]a lot,” Sheila recalls. “Neil Osburg rode that mare too, it’s not just us, it’s kind of a group—we all put our time, we all contribute. They are not finished when they leave here. Maybe second grade—and Whistle and his guys go on to put the finishing touches on them, we just put a good foundation them.” “Just” being the operative word.
The Lequericas contribution to the world of polo is priceless. Using training techniques based on respect, patience and a keener sense of the innate abilities of their equine pupils, their results are proven. “I don’t think there is anyone in the United States that makes horses like them,” shared Gracida. “They are people that identify talent in the horses, they protect it and they develop it.” Their passion is palpable and their hard work inspiring to those around them. When asked about advice they would give to aspiring horse trainers, Sheila said succinctly, “I would tell them it’s a lot of work. If they are going to be training horses and working for yourself, you better be the toughest boss you have ever had.”