Dr. Margaux Buchanan, an equine veterinarian and polo player, raises Appaloosas on her 12-acre Menagerie Farm.
She looks positively regal, sitting straight-backed atop Cowgirl Tough, one of her eight polo ponies. On a sweltering morning in mid-September, Dr. Margaux Buchanan is clad in the full regalia — a purple jersey with No. 3 on the chest, signifying that she’s captain of the Avalon Farms team, a matching helmet strapped snugly on her head, white riding pants, gloves, boots, knee pads. She’s out on a field at Sarasota Polo Club, not a patch of shade in sight. If Buchanan is uncomfortably hot, she’s not letting on. Her smile says she’d rather be no place else.
The club’s polo season is 109 days away, but Buchanan has agreed to stage a brief exhibition with several of her fellow players. Seen from a distance, the eight amateurs — all women — play a spirited contest, but do not appear to go all out, if for no other reason than not to overtax their horses in the suffocating heat. “Eighty percent of the game is the horse,” Buchanan says post-match, during which she scored a goal. “Twenty percent is hours and hours of riding and practicing with the mallet.”
You might say that Buchanan is in the right line of work. She’s a veterinarian — one of five doctors at Sarasota Equine, a practice that specializes in treating horses. Her job mitigates at least some of the expenses incurred from what is a costly pastime. She also provides care for many of the steeds that compete at Sarasota Polo Club.
Buchanan treats horses for colic, gas, dehydration, constipation, fecal impactions and other common ailments. She levels out teeth while the animal is sedated. She gives vaccinations, evaluates horses with a limp, helps mend injuries. She’s wanted to be a vet since age 3, says her mother, Jennifer Buchanan, who’s chatting with me in the cozy living room of their ranch-style house in Menagerie Farm. Margaux Buchanan bought the 12-acre property in 2021. Mom and daughter and three cats occupy the main house, while 11 horses and one cat reside in the barn.
The star attraction is Safari, a 6-month-old female birthed by Pigpen, a 21-year-old Appaloosa whose polo career is winding down. Frisky and mischievous, and spotted like her mother, Safari is destined to become a polo pony. That’s Buchanan’s hope, at least. There’s no guarantee. “Horses are built for speed, not contact, so you need a particular type to make a good polo pony,” she explains.
A lovely lunch and lively conversation
After watching Safari frolic with her barn-mates, we return to the house for a buffet lunch that Jennifer has laid out on the kitchen counter. Buchanan’s hair is still wet from a shower. A light-blue sundress drapes her lithe, 5-foot-11 frame. She speaks warmly but firmly, her thoughts flowing in a concise narrative.
Eating a salad, Buchanan, 39, explains that she’s a “zero goal” player, on a scale that runs from minus-2 to 10 (there are all of six 10-goal players in the U.S.). The rating is based on the number of goals a player is expected to score in a match. “Essentially, I’m supposed to not mess up, and if I score a goal, that’s a bonus,” she says. “Ninety-five percent of polo players never make it above zero.”
As sponsor of the Avalon Farms squad, Buchanan takes the lead in recruiting talent. The four-person, co-ed rosters are fluid from season to season, and combine amateurs and pros. Polo is probably the only sport in the world where a rank amateur can play on a team with a professional. Buchanan, and perhaps a co-sponsor, pays the pros (their earnings are not exorbitant), covers tournament entry fees, which run about $5,000, and other ad hoc expenses. And then there are dollars laid out to feed her horses; about $2,000 a month for eight polo ponies. (She uses between five and eight for a match.)
I ask her if she spends about 50 grand a year on polo. “That’s a fair assessment,” she replies. “I have my ranch and polo. Every single dollar that’s not going toward living expenses and retirement goes toward polo.” And then she adds with a sly smile, “But it just so happens I know a doctor.”
A veterinary destiny, a polo passion
“Mommy, I wanna be a vegetarian.”
Jennifer Buchanan laughs as she recalls her daughter’s pronouncement at age 3. Little Margaux meant veterinarian, of course. “I was so relieved that I wouldn’t have to cook her zucchini for the next 15 years,” she quips.
Let’s pause briefly to reflect on a child staking out a career path two years before entering kindergarten — and then making it so.
Buchanan grew up in the wealthy enclave of Fairfield, Connecticut, the middle child of three. Her father, Ken, was a “financially savvy architect in New York,” she says. “We were comfortable, not super-wealthy, but we never wanted for anything.” Actually, she did. A horse. “Every Christmas, I begged my dad for one, and the closest I got was a saddle, and that was when I was 16.”
She started taking lessons at a local barn at age 5, first cantered during summer camp a year later, then practiced English riding throughout her youth.
Top-notch grades and a college fund set up by her paternal grandmother allowed Buchanan to select from a menu of elite colleges. She chose Smith, a women-only institution in Massachusetts, mostly because of its well-regarded science programs and small class sizes.
Buchanan tried out for the school’s English horse-jumping team but didn’t make the cut. Instead, she rowed for the crew squad for all four years. During college summers, Buchanan shadowed a veterinarian on Long Island, New York, where she witnessed her first polo match. “I had zero idea of what was going on, other than it was fast and it involved horses,” she remembers. “I just knew I was going to do it at some point in my life.”
Buchanan studied veterinary medicine at The Ohio State University, which is routinely ranked in the nation’s top 5. After earning her degree in 2011, she finally bought her first horse, Babe. The newly minted grad landed an internship in Vero Beach with a vet who had the local polo club as a client. She signed up for lessons. “I hit my first polo ball in the spring of 2012,” she says. “I was a good horse rider, but putting a mallet in my hand was the most humbling thing. Still, I was hooked.”
Buchanan’s veterinary and polo careers took her to California’s Central Valley, then back to Massachusetts. While visiting her father, who had retired in Sarasota, she saw an ad for Sarasota Equine and inquired. “I was a Covid refugee to Florida,” she says. “I couldn’t see myself being in lockdown and dealing with cold weather up north. I came down and rented for two months and decided this is where I wanted to be.”
A “very patient” Realtor spent three months finding a place that would meet Buchanan’s exacting needs. She took one tour of Menagerie Farm and bought it, then soon formed her team at the Sarasota Polo Club.
When you fall off a horse, get back on
In March of ’21, Buchanan was competing in an all-women tournament when she and her horse Flora took a strong run outside the field boundary. “I turned around, opened her up to a full gallop and her front and rear shoes hooked together,” she recounts. “We did a full somersault, I catapulted off her and landed on my back. I can’t say that I was in excruciating pain, so I wasn’t too alarmed.”
Flora was not injured in the fall. Buchanan was transported by ambulance to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. After a battery of tests, for which she declined pain medication, a doctor came in and said that her vertebrae “looked like a bag of ice,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Okay, we’re in trouble. Now give me drugs.’”
That was on a Friday. Because she was in stable condition, Buchanan had to lie in a hospital bed until the following Monday. On March 1, 2021, she underwent a six-hour surgery that involved fusing seven vertebrae and inserting an 8-inch rod in her back. “I have a big scar right down the middle,” she says. “I keep threatening to put a tattoo there, maybe put some hoof prints around it.”
Buchanan jumped headlong into an arduous rehab. A friend came and got her horses and took care of them in Ocala. The doctor’s orders were not to lift anything heavier than 8 pounds, so she could only perform certain veterinary tasks. Buchanan says that her colleagues at Sarasota Equine were supportive. Her neurosurgeon’s official recommendation? Find another sport.
On Sept. 1, six months to the day after surgery, Buchanan got back on a horse. She concentrated on building core muscles and, with the help of an instructor, reworked her mallet swing to compensate for a diminished ability to twist her torso. The result, she feels, has been an improved overall technique. On Nov. 1, Buchanan was back practicing. She was a go for the season opener.
During our hours together, Buchanan’s zeal for polo was on full display. Even so, I asked if she could articulate what the sport means to her.
“Sure,” she replied instantly. “I have a high-pressure job caring for people’s four-legged family members. It comes with a lot of stress. When I get on a horse for a match, that horse becomes my legs. And then I get to a certain point where all the background noise fades away. There’s only that moment, that match, on a horse that I love that’s an extension of me.”