Nochebuena (meaning Christmas Eve in Spanish) is not your typical polo pony. The beautiful, jet black mare from Uruguay started her career in an unconventional way and has continued to be defiantly and valiantly unique since she was brought to the United States at age six. The feisty, quirky mare who takes center stage in Team USPA* member Felipe Viana’s high-goal string started competing in local races (“pencas”) across the Uruguayan countryside at an early age, her life transitioning after a few races into that of a rodeo horse. To clarify, she was not the bucking horse, but a “caballo de apadrinar,” the horse who raced in after the rodeo rider had completed his eight seconds to help him off the horse to safety. There in the rodeo rings of Uruguay Nochebuena developed the athletic skills and fearless temperament that makes her a world-class polo pony today.
While her breeding remains a mystery, there is no question about the raw talent and athleticism that make this nine-year-old horse a brilliant and brave asset during Cessna matches in the GAUNTLET OF POLO™ this season. As one of Viana’s favorite mares, she is brought out in the last chukker to give him the wings to finish each game on a high, regardless of the score. The USPA talked to Viana about this special mare in which he sees himself reflected.
Where is Nochebuena from?
“She is from Uruguay. I don’t have a breeding operation back home, so I buy horses from the rodeo. There are the guys who ride the broncos, that have to last eight seconds on a bucking horse, then there are the guys that ride in on either side of the rider to take him off the bronco to safety. We call those horses ‘caballos de apadrinar.’ The horses used for this job tend to be very athletic. Because of what they are being asked to do they are very fast with quick acceleration, good bones, good temperaments and they are strong minded because they’ve been pushed under pressure. I have found that they make really good polo horses.
Of my 13 horses that are playing here in GAUNTLET OF POLO™, four of them used to be rodeo horses when they were young. Most of them have unknown breeding, but whenever I head to Uruguay, I usually buy a horse that is five years old or around that age and they go straight into stick and balling. I try to get horses with good bloodlines that look athletic and ‘thoroughbred-like.’ If I like them physically and I know that they’re going to stop, turn and be able to handle the pressure, it’s a great shortcut to get the polo horse that I want which already has all the attributes and qualities needed to play.
When you buy horses like that they’re not very expensive, so when you see natural ability it’s best to just buy them and if they don’t work for polo you can sell them locally. Sometimes you’re lucky and end up with an amazing horse like Nochebuena.”
What are her strengths?
“Her strengths are her mouth, her turns and her mentality, plus she can run incredibly fast. She’s such a quick mare and she has a very strong start. She’s one of those horses that you get on and know has been through a lot and they know how to win. You can go into those plays that are 50-50 knowing that you have a seriously high chance of winning them.”
What is her biggest asset on the field?
“She’s a mare that you can put wherever you want. She’s very flexible, she’s got a good bump so when I’m on her I know I can gamble and go into those risky plays.
She’s just a winning horse—you can see it in her eyes. There’s never a time she would let me down. She will play through anything and she will never give up and that’s the thing that I like best about her. I see a lot of her in myself as well. A lot of hard work, a lot of personality and a lot of effort. Whenever I get on her, I see memories of my past and it gives me that extra incentive.”
What makes her different from the others in your string?
“I just feel like she’s one of those horses that no matter the kind of game or what’s happening in a match she can just fit into whatever style the game asks for. If it’s a running chukker she’ll do well, if it’s a quick chukker she’ll do well. She can play on a small or large field.”
How would you describe her personality off the field?
“She’s very protective of her space. If you go in her stall, she doesn’t want you in there and she’ll put her ears back. No other horse pushes her around in the corral. Wherever she is, the other horses know she’s there. I like that about her.”
Did you train her yourself?
“My brother bought her and he mainly trained her. I added some of it when I went to Uruguay to see how she was doing. I had no doubt that she was going to be a very good horse for me over here.”
What are your plans for her future?
“I plan to keep her in my string. I think she makes me a better player so I want to keep her as long as I can.”
How much do you travel with her? Where next?
“She travels quite a bit. For the last three years I’ve played her in Florida, California and in Massachusetts. She has played in Kentucky and then obviously she was in Uruguay before I brought her over when she was six. My next season for her will be the 14 goal in Kentucky.”
We all know that the backstage heroes of polo are the grooms. They are the ones who are with our favorite equine athletes day in and day out, in charge of their well-being, their health and ensuring that they are at their peak physical condition before they head into competition. Certainly not lacking in character, Nochebuena is notorious off the field as well as on. We spoke to Felipe Viana’s groom Allison Mandriota to get the low down on the off-field antics of the so called “Queen of Sass” when she is not competing at the top level of American polo.
What is Nochebuena like off the field?
“She’s a little feisty. I call her Captain Cranky Pants because she’s got this bubble around her and whenever you go in the bubble she gets really grouchy. She doesn’t like being touched and you definitely can’t go in her stall when she’s eating. If you go up to her with a treat she’ll have her ears pinned back right up until you have that treat at her mouth and then ears forward and she immediately eats it. She tries to be mean and cranky, but she’s definitely a sweetheart under it all.”
What is special about Nochebuena?
“She’s one of my favorite horses. She’s beautiful and she’s a machine. She plays amazingly. Plus, because her name is Christmas Eve, we have a little photoshoot with her before Christmas every year.”
Does she have any quirks?
“She loves water! Being in water and drinking water. Whenever we finish sets or she’s been singled and we get her back to the wash rack she’ll drink water straight out of the hose. When you try to wash her face she won’t let you because she’s too busy trying to drink it. She’ll drink water off the other horses that are next to her. If you let her, she would walk straight into a pond every time you finish exercising.”
*Felipe Vianais a member of Team USPA. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.