From Rescue To Ribbons: Gunshot Survivor Finds New Life On The Polo Field

After Emily Smedlund lost her Andalusian cross after 11 years together, she decided to rescue another horse to help ease her broken heart.

“I wanted to give something that didn’t have anyone all this love I had,” explained Smedlund, 41, of Cary, Illinois. “I wanted to save a life.”

Smedlund also hoped the horse she found might be willing to participate in her favorite equestrian sport, polo. A member of the Barrington Hills Polo Club in Wauconda, Illinois, for years she had groomed for others in order to get riding time during matches, taking time off from work and leaving her family—husband Michael Tomkowiak and their two young children—so she could get horses ready. Having her own polo horse meant she could pursue her game without having to do quite as much extra work for others. 

After browsing on various social media pages, Smedlund’s attention was captured by a gray gelding being advertised by Kaufman Horses, formerly Kaufman Kill Pen, in Texas. He was advertised as around 5 years old and broke to ride; Smedlund liked his conformation and 15-hand size and thought he might be suitable for playing polo. 

Emily Smedlund hoped that Orion, the horse she rescued from a “kill pen,” would become her polo partner one day. He has, but it took Smedlund’s commitment to sticking by the horse who “literally was not something anyone wanted,” through his post-rescue training challenges. Photo Courtesy Of Michael Tomkowiak

Smedlund is originally from Oklahoma, and her parents still live there. They agreed to drive down and provide video confirmation that the horse Smedlund was buying matched the horse in the photo. Due to their relative inexperience with horses, when they told their daughter that the gelding was “difficult to catch,” she didn’t think much of it.

“That’s a yellow flag, not a red flag, for me,” Smedlund said. “I had a plan. I had a friend in Oklahoma, an older lady I’d ridden with forever who had land, and she said she could take him in quarantine. Then I had a friend with a trailer who hauls a lot of horses, and she said she could go pick him up.”

On Dec. 5, 2019, the gelding she named Orion officially became hers. 

Not long after arriving at his quarantine farm, Smedlund received a call from her friend: Orion was proving too much for her to handle. As Smedlund made arrangements for the horse to finish his quarantine at a professional facility, she wondered what exactly her friend meant. After completing quarantine, Orion spent the month of February with players at the Oklahoma State University polo club in Stillwater, Oklahoma; they also reported his behavior was difficult.

“I kept thinking, ‘He’s supposed to be broke to ride,’ ” Smedlund remembered. “It just wasn’t making sense.”

In March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, Smedlund headed out to Oklahoma to retrieve her new horse. Upon getting him home to Illinois, she determined he was older than 5, closer to 8 or 9 years. She also quickly realized that Orion didn’t act like a horse who was familiar with human contact. Although he led cooperatively enough, he flinched whenever he was touched, and became nervous when someone approached him.

“He wasn’t quite feral, but he definitely was not super tame,” she said. “He didn’t trust people at all. He wouldn’t even take treats.”

Smedlund spent about a month working with him—handwalking, grooming and, eventually, introducing him to wearing tack and longeing. One day, a friend was available to hold him, so Smedlund decided to try laying across his back. Orion panicked, and Smedlund immediately backed off.

“I decided, ‘This is not a project I can get into right now,’ ” she said. “I didn’t want to end up in the hospital during COVID.”

Through a friend, she found a trainer in Wisconsin to take Orion for three months, after which she assumed he was ready to ride.

“But as soon as I got on him, I could feel he wanted to explode,” she said. “He wasn’t yet a broke-broke, quiet horse. He was a very attentive, nervous horse.”

One day, an experienced friend offered to take Orion on a trail ride, while Smedlund rode another horse. Orion bucked the friend off three times before Smedlund asked her to stop trying. 

“I was starting to get afraid of him,” Smedlund admitted. “I’m usually a pretty brave horseperson, but I was nervous. He scared me, and people were getting in my head. They would say things like, ‘He was in a kill pen for a reason; what do you expect? He’s probably broken.’ ”

But Smedlund remembered her original commitment—to save a horse—and was determined to not give up. With her job on hiatus due to the pandemic, Smedlund had the time to work with Orion at a nearby riding facility every day. At first, she could only bear to sit on him for a few strides before she would get nervous and need to dismount. It took months, but gradually she was able to stay on Orion for longer periods of time. By the end of the year, she started stick-and-ball training with him at the walk and trot, swinging a mallet and tapping the ball from horseback, without other horses around.

That fall, she asked one of Barrington Hills’ professionals, Pedro Manion, for his opinion about Orion’s potential for polo. With Manion aboard, the still-green Orion offered flying changes and smoothly performed other basic maneuvers. Smedlund was encouraged.

By spring 2021, Smedlund felt brave enough to bring Orion to “polo school” at her club—mounted lessons during which play is slow as students learn and practice their technique. When her friend Joan-Carles Brugue, an experienced rider who has introduced many horses to the sport, offered to help with Orion, she jumped at the opportunity. Brugue’s assistance with Orion’s training helped to increase both the horse’s confidence and Smedlund’s faith in his future; Brugue and Smedlund ended up sharing Orion for the season.

“He would play him a chukker, then I would play a chukker,” Smedlund said. “That was Orion’s first season, and it was about just getting out there and trying it. But for a horse, who was not even broke the year before, to jump right into polo and be that good at it—I was really amazed.”

Orion’s second involved several tournaments with Smedlund, both on the grass and in the arena, always wearing her signature pink. But as fall approached, Smedlund’s attention was required elsewhere, and she offered Orion to the Oklahoma State University polo club again. This time, the experience was a positive one.

Orion’s second stay with the Oklahoma State University Polo Club was a positive one—so much so that the horse was used in a photo shoot for the men’s polo team’s promotional materials. Photo Courtesy Of Sydney Burke

“He was perfect for them,” she said. “He played all their tournaments, including the Fall Fandango, a big arena polo exposition in Texas. He did everything they asked him to, even carting around beginner students. And this was just his second year into polo.”

When Orion returned to Illinois last spring, Smedlund was ready to set some bigger goals with him. He became a regular participant in the Barrington Hills Polo School, even serving as a mount for a physically disabled rider. His confidence on the grass polo field—a venue in which he had still retained some nervous energy—seemed to be increasing. And with each positive experience, Smedlund realized that her own fear was resolving.

“It was like, I’m not afraid of you,” she recalled. “I get you: You are a very sensitive kind of horse, but you’re not a bad horse. I don’t care what these people say about your past—you have put that abuse behind you. You’re trusting me and trusting the people in my life.”

Concurrently with his growth on the polo field, a young woman named Maya Samlan, who helped at Smedlund’s barn in exchange for riding time, asked if she could teach Orion how to jump, and later that year took him to a horse show. 

“There were flower boxes, and colors, and people sitting on the bleachers, and horses calling, and he was like, ‘You want me to do this, we’ll do it,’ ” Smedlund said. 

He was equally accommodating when Smedlund took him to the biggest event of their career together, the LeCompte/Kalaway Trailowners Cup, a fundraising tournament hosted by her club each year. 

Smedlund and Orion made it to the big time when they played in the LeCompte/Kalaway Trailowners Cup (Ill.), the Barrington Hills Polo Club’s biggest event, in September 2023. Photo Courtesy Of Hannah Bourne

“It’s a big event with hats and tents and cars and people everywhere,” Smedlund recalled. “But he didn’t bat an eyelash. He just went in and did his job, and was stoic and calm the whole time. It was like he knew it was important, and stepped up.”

Despite his growth, Smedlund doesn’t think Orion will never be a totally calm horse, and she said she still longes before she gets on, especially if he’s had a few days off. He doesn’t respond well to any sort of rough handling, yet he proved totally trustworthy the day her 10-year-old daughter wanted to play stick and ball with a friend.

“He’s coming around,” Smedlund said. “He does give his heart, and he is trying to trust people. He tries really hard for the people who are trying to give him a chance.”

This fact was driven home when she learned that, at some point in his past, Orion had been shot and still had a bullet lodged in his body, below his right knee. It was discovered by accident, when an x-ray was required for an unrelated injury (and as it seems stable, Orion’s veterinarian decided to leave it in place). 

“That, to me, was a testament to how much he’d been through with people, and how much he probably shouldn’t trust people, because they were bad to him,” she said. “At some point, he was shot—but he is still willing to be OK and listen to me.”

Orion has become a steadfast companion to Smedlund’s 10-year-old daughter. Photo Courtesy Of Hannah Bourne

Smedlund believes that Orion’s story is common and hopes that sharing it may inspire others to take a chance on a “thrown away” animal.

“I think he was a horse that didn’t have a job, that was in the loose pen when he was auctioned, and they realized he was a little weird, and not broke, so he got tossed around and abused, until he got to the point where he literally was not something anyone wanted,” she said. “But I’m so glad I gave him a chance, because look at him now. He’s a great horse. He’s competitive, he’s fun, he’s great to my kids and my friends. He’s everything I wanted in a polo horse.”

“I think that for these horses that don’t have a person, or have a rocky fate of possibly being slaughtered,” she added, “to give them a chance is so important.”

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