08/11/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
Back in 1993, Bonita was a Thoroughbred galloping toward destruction. Too unpredictable to ride, she became even more unmanageable when her owners tried to break her with beatings. Finally they decided to cut their losses and sold her to be slaughtered. Crammed into a cattle truck in California, she was hours from being processed into meat when her life's course changed: She was bought for $800 by Union, Ore., horse trainer Malia Boles. "She was sickly, pretty thin" and pregnant, recalls Boles, who rescued the horse from the truck during a stop in Washington state. "But I felt that with food and tender work she'd make a nice polo mare."
Since then, Boles, 32, has ridden a healthy, obedient Bonita into polo tournaments around the world and turned her foal, Betty Boop, into a topflight polo pony too. In a sport where horses can cost more than $100,000, Boles has become the horse whisperer of the polo world, turning cast-off horses into the sport's only team of all-rescued mounts. Her secret? "Extreme patience and never expecting more than what a horse is capable of doing."
Says polo club owner Jan Michel: "I've seen her take horses you couldn't pay me to get on. She can really communicate with these animals."
Boles, who is wed to Steve, 52, an insurance salesman, hopes other Bonitas will avoid the slaughterhouse. "It sickens me," she says. "So many could be given a second life."