By Britney Grover
Mary Ellen Sencer first began searching for the right horse at 3 years old. “My interest in horses started because I was difficult in a car, like a lot of 3-year-olds,” she said. “So my grandfather gave me a rope, and he said, ‘I want you to sit there and watch for a horse. When you see one, we’ll catch it.’ It was a great plan on his part.” Since they lived in Long Island, her grandfather’s word was never put to the test, but his plan set Mary Ellen on the hunt for her very own horse of a lifetime — and the path for her entire life.
With decades of searching, Mary Ellen finally found ‘the horse’ — after learning to jump on construction sites in the Dominican Republic, founding an equestrian real estate company, and enduring a terrible horseback accident. But without each of her life experiences, she wouldn’t have been in the right place at the right time to find the right horse.
The Search Begins
“When I was younger, we lived in the suburbs in Long Island, and I desperately wanted a horse,” Mary Ellen recalled. “I had an invisible horse, to convince my family that I needed to have a horse, otherwise I was not in my right frame of mind. That was the plan, and I made a stall in my garage, and I had buckets out there and I put ropes on the end of my bicycle.”
Young Mary Ellen’s ploy seemed to work, too. “All of the sudden, my dad calls me up and says, ‘Your horse is arriving.’ The whole neighborhood was there, and off the truck came my horse: the kind you put a dime in at the supermarket. Of course, I was devastated. They put it in my stall, complete with a bale of hay at that point.” Down but not out, Mary Ellen made the best of the situation. “I’d go to camp as a kid in the summer, so I’d ridden a little bit, and I gave riding lessons on it!”
Despite her yearning and searching, it wasn’t until after she was married, around 21 years old, that she finally got her first horse — for $50. “My husband went to med school in the Dominican Republic. We were there for about 3 1/2 years, and I got a horse. It looked more like a donkey, but I did my grocery shopping on her. I kept her in my backyard, I built a thatched roof hut area to protect her, and I rode her around and used her as a car. I used her socially, and rode into the cane fields, and found secret towns, and rode in the ocean with that horse.”
Moments With Mango
Ever one to maximize opportunity, Mary Ellen even learned to jump on her first horse, named Mango. “I used to take a book that my mom gave me and put it under my shoulder. I had a little motorcycle helmet, because I didn’t have a real helmet, and I went out to an area where they were putting in foundations to build homes. I decided I was going to learn how to jump right from that book, and I did. I’d try and then say, ‘Mm, that’s not right, let me turn the page.’”
A pivotal moment in Mary Ellen’s life came on Mango’s back in a cane field in the Dominican Republic. She and a friend were out riding, and they knew their time there was nearing an end. “We were out in the cane fields, and she said, ‘Stop. Stop everything. Just halt.’ I said, ‘Okay, what’s the matter? What did you see?’ She said, ‘I want you to just look around and really be here. Breathe this, see it, feel it, and take it with you for the rest of your life, because it’s never going to be like this ever again.’ And you know, the interesting thing is, whenever life is hard, I go back there to the cane field. It was a gift.”
After the Dominican Republic, Mary Ellen returned to New York, where she continued her equestrian pursuits. “I purchased a horse in New England where my parents lived, and brought it to New York City — I was going to ride it in the park. I didn’t have much education, and it didn’t work out; the horse didn’t do well there. It actually got out on 89th Street,” she recalled with a laugh. “I moved it to Staten Island, and at the barn there they jumped, so I learned how to jump. Then I ended up one or two trainers down the road doing the amateur owners division and doing pretty well in it.”
After some time of showing on the A-circuit, Mary Ellen was ready for a change. Eventually, she and her husband, Mark, moved to Florida, and she decided that she needed to do more flatwork with her young horse. “So I thought, I’m gonna ask a dressage person to give me some lessons to work on the flat, to get this horse straight to the jumps, and in a better frame, and to get some help. I went to a trainer and I said, ‘Listen, I’m not interested in riding dressage; I’m not going to buy one of your saddles, none of that, but I could use your help with flatwork.’ He worked with me, and about two months later I was at my first dressage show in my new dressage saddle.”
Mary Ellen was hooked. “I loved it, because there was somewhere to go with it. There’s always somewhere to go with it, and from my experience in hunters, you generally have a longer relationship with your horse in dressage,” she shared. “It’s funny because people say that when people get older they move from jumping to dressage, because it’s safer. But true dressage is really almost sitting on a very big explosion, creating an explosion and being able to sit and manipulate it into something beautiful. It’s not just riding around in circles saying you’re a dressage rider.”
Creating a Career
Mary Ellen managed Mark’s three medical practices in Florida for over eight years when Mark decided he wanted to go to law school. “So we went back to New York, and I thought, What am I going to do?” said Mary Ellen. “I said, ‘You know, I liked the lady who showed us this house. I don’t know, maybe I’ll check that out.’ So I joined a real estate company. I didn’t even know where I was — we didn’t have GPS back then, we had maps. I drove a pickup truck and did real estate out there, and I was successful.”
After missing Florida became too much, the couple moved back to the Sunshine State in 2001 — to an equestrian estate in Wellington’s renowned Saddle Tree Park. Mary Ellen couldn’t find a real estate company that offered the philosophy and support she wanted, so, in her true intrepid fashion, she became a broker and founded Saddle Trails Realty. “I was fortunate, because my husband was a doctor, so I didn’t have to produce a huge living; I had time to make it grow and do it without pressure,” she said. “It’s great because I feel we can incorporate the horses and the properties. I’ve gotten involved with a lot of site work for barns, and it’s been a help having a barn and knowing what you really need to have. It’s hard to sell a farm unless you understand all the disciplines, which will dictate what kind of amenities they need. I love what I do.”
When she got involved in realty, Mary Ellen had no idea it would pave the way to finally finding her horse of a lifetime — and a terrible riding accident.
Mary Ellen was sold an amateur horse by someone she trusted – the 14th horse in her search for ‘the one.’ “It didn’t work out because it wasn’t an amateur horse, and I was an amateur rider,” she said. “It was a bolter, and that’s how the accident happened.” The fall resulted in 12 breaks in Mary Ellen’s shoulder, repaired with 12 pins, a metal plate, and months of healing.
The Right Horse
“I was sitting in front of a computer with 12 breaks in my shoulder, looking at the ads I was using to sell the horse,” Mary Ellen said. “I found myself on the wrong website and across the screen comes, ‘The Amateur Dream Dressage Horse.’ I’d had a glass of wine or two. I said, Right. That’s ridiculous. I looked at the video, and I was on the edge of my seat. I thought, Wow. I can’t afford a horse like this. But it was affordable. I thought, Well, it’s going to be in Texas or Missouri or California. But it was in Loxahatchee.”
Though she realized that she couldn’t yet ride after her accident, Mary Ellen called the horse’s owner. “She had moved here from New Jersey, and needed some real estate help. She was in the middle of a difficult situation, so I went and visited her in Loxahatchee to help her out. I saw the horse, and it was a beautiful horse.” Fate was on Mary Ellen’s side, because the owner’s situation resulted in holding onto the horse, a Sir Donnerhall mare named Suri, for longer than anticipated.
“I called her a couple of months later and I said, ‘I’m feeling a little bit better; would it be possible to take a lesson or two on Suri?’ She said sure. So I did, and I got my confidence back; I was really a mess, with the 12 breaks in my shoulder and all that. The horse helped me get my confidence back.” It was a perfect match; in stark contrast to Mary Ellen’s previous horse, Suri needed a little push to get going. After riding on a lunge line for a while, Mary Ellen was ready to vet and buy Suri.
Fifteenth Time’s the Charm
“It was exactly what it was advertised to be,” Mary Ellen shared of her Amateur Dream Dressage Horse. “The last two years I’ve had this horse, and I’ve healed, and I’m ready to go back into the ring and show again on this fabulous horse. I guess I spent my whole life looking for this horse,” she said with a laugh. “She’s the 15th horse I’ve had throughout my life. Everybody goes with trainers and looks for horses, and makes a whole big caravan out of it. I just had a glass of wine or two one night.”
Mary Ellen rides with Jessica Kozel, who was assistant to Lisa Wilcox for nine years. “She’s so from-the-heart,” Mary Ellen said. “The three of us, the horse, Jessica and I, have become an incredible team. We’ve watched this horse develop, and I’ve come back.” As Mary Ellen prepares to re-enter the show ring, she and Jessica will share Suri, who’s currently working on Fourth Level. “We’re excited to see her developing into the FEI levels.”
But Mary Ellen doesn’t believe her story is unique. “A lot of us have the same journey; we’re looking for ‘that horse,’” she said. “There’s that horse out there, that horse of your lifetime. Everybody’s needs are slightly different, but the horse is out there. If the passion is there, the horse is there. It’s really about the horse.”
And for Mary Ellen, it’s been worth the wait. “Every day I wake up and I’m just thrilled to be alive, because of this horse. I went to that farm because the owner needed some help with real estate. I had a terrible experience with a horse and got very, very hurt. But even that, even that led up to the night I was sitting there and hit the wrong button on the computer because I had a glass of wine, and the horse just popped up,” she laughed. “It was just meant to happen.”
Now that she’s finally found her horse of a lifetime, Mary Ellen’s goal is simple. “I want to enjoy it. I want to just enjoy the moment, because every time you get on a horse, you don’t know if it’s going to be your last ride. Things happen. You just don’t know. I want to go back to the Dominican Republic in my mind, and be in the moment, and just enjoy being in the moment with the horse. That’s my goal.”