Focus On Discipline: Polo

Gallop gallop gallop thwack! The polo pony (actually a full-sized horse) carries the player to the ball which the rider hits in the line of play. In this fast-paced game the horse and rider partner to play as a single unit. Each horse bonds with his rider to play the line of the ball. Both horse and rider keep their eyes on the ball and the power of the horse's gallop increases the impact of the rider's mallet.


Sarah Libbey Greenhalgh

Polo requires a horse which can run fast, stop quickly, and turn at speed.

"When you're on a good polo mare, you feel like you control the four players on the other side, the three players on your side, and the two umpires," said Scott Swerdlin, DVM, a polo player in Palm Beach, Fla. "You just have that much power and you know you won't get beaten."

Polo has a reputation as an elite sport popular with aristocrats and the well-to-do. Enclaves such as the Hamptons Aspen Palm Springs and Palm Beach host tournaments. Spectators at polo grounds hope to watch celebrity players such as Prince Charles or Tommy Lee Jones.

The cachet of polo has made it one of the most familiar equestrian sports. Icons like the polo shirt and Ralph Lauren's famous scent keep the sport in the public eye.

Demands Of The Team

Polo is played worldwide. In this country the U.S. Polo Association sets rules for regulation polo. A match consists of six periods called chukkers (also known as chukkas). Traditionally these last 7 1/2 minutes.

As in other stick-and-ball games, players aim to score goals and prevent their opponents from scoring. The ponies participate in the offense and defense by positioning riders to follow the line of the ball. Players in regulation polo ride on a grass polo field that measures 160 by 300 yards. Two teams of four riders try to hit the ball through their team's goalposts.

High-goal polo is the top level. Each rider has a rating (handicap) of the number of goals with the game's best contenders ranked as 10-goal players. In a tournament a 26-goal polo match such as the U.S. Open reflects the total handicap of each team. Most players in high-goal polo are professionals.

Horses and riders compete at a fast pace with the eight horses running almost the entire chukker. (The clock stops when an umpire calls a foul and a player is given the opportunity to take a penalty shot.)

Medium-goal polo (15-18 goals) and low-goal polo are played at a slower speed by players with lesser handicaps. Whatever the level regulation polo requires a string of ponies for a game. Generally each pony plays a single chukker which demands a string of six horses ready to play a game. For a tournament a pony might play four or five games and maybe only two or three tournaments in a season.

High-goal players--with handicaps of eight nine or 10 goals--maintain a large string of world-class ponies. For example the eight-goal player Adam Snow has between 30 and 40 horses including active competitors and young horses in training.

As an alternative to regulation polo arena polo is played in a confined space of 50 by 100 yards on dirt footing. Arena walls limit the play and change the ball's direction through rebounds. Arena polo uses three players on a team and four chukkers.

Several colleges and universities field teams for college polo. Students aren't rated by handicaps and they ride on donated horses. At games both home and visiting players share the same string of 12 each visiting player having two chukkers on the two horses played by his opponent on the home team.

Another variation is polocrosse which combines the games of polo and lacrosse. The player carries a special racquet and rides only one horse in a tournament. Played on a field measuring 60 by 160 yards this game originated in Australia.

Pony Perfection

Polo requires a horse which can run fast stop quickly and turn at speed. He's able to maneuver at speed to spin in a 180 degree rollback or swerve to the side to put himself in position.

Players look for an equine athlete of a compact size and smooth action. Polo ponies stand in the range of 15 to 16 hands. A taller horse places more distance between the player and the ball.

The horse must be able to gallop "flat" or low to the ground and with his legs underneath himself. He has to lengthen and shorten stride readily so a long-strided horse might not be able to collect himself as quickly to stop and turn.

"The horse has to be well-balanced" said Ed Scanlon who manages the Las Colinas Polo Club in Irving Texas. He looks for a horse with the same balance and substance as in eventing, but with less height. "He has to be balanced on a dead run as well as the walk."

The polo pony needs to be "catty" in his movement. Shelley Onderdonk DVM of Aiken S.C. looks for horses with a special combination of attributes: "Physically you look for a handiness. You want a horse that's almost as handy as a reining horse. It's a combination of being very responsive to the rider and speed. To compete successfully in high-goal tournaments speed is very important." Onderdonk is married to the player Adam Snow and she cares for his string of ponies.

She cited good conformation features as straight legs a short back and a good foot. "We look for a certain class--a horse that has the ability to run and be athletic."

Contributing to the horse's speed is a well-muscled hindquarter. Strength in the back end helps the horse push off hard and fast, and turn quickly.

Scanlon said "When you ask a horse to make a maneuver at a dead run he transfers his weight back. He needs a well-developed hindquarter and a good strong gaskin. The hock joint is put under a lot of pressure but if it has a well-muscled gaskin there's a bone and muscle structure. The horse can support his momentum when he changes direction."

He added "You run as fast as you can run but you turn and rarely stop. The horse moves the center of gravity from six inches behind the ears to behind the withers. That weight transfer is the key to having a horse you can handle."

The placement of the rear leg slightly under the horse's body can make it easier for him to transfer weight back. Some players feel a cowhocked horse can be more desirable but this build can increase stress on the hind legs.

Trainer Rege Ludwig has supplied top players with polo ponies. Based at the El Dorado Polo Club in Palm Desert Calif. he leads polo clinics for aspiring players. Ludwig looks for a short cannon bone along with "a good strong full gaskin muscle. Normally you have that gaskin along with a good butt rounded loin and strength in the back. The polo pony uses his back and hind leg to a tremendous degree. In a pony most people would choose to suffer an abnormality in the front than in the rear."

Ludwig described the ideal horse as standing with a leg on each corner. As for leg conformation he said "Generally speaking you want equal angles on hoof and pasternso you see the same angle of slope. You don't want a too-long or too-short pasternbecause it's related to the ability to absorb shock. And the horse shouldn't be over at the knee or back at the knee."

About movementLudwig said"The foot should hit square. It's okay if the horse paddlesas long as he lands true and the shock is distributed up the leg. But if he paddles and lands on the outside firstC I'd tend to pass him up. He'd be predisposed to knee problems or blowing a suspensory on the outside of the leg."

A short back helps the horse turn sharper and maneuver more easily. Scanlon said"We say if a back is long enough to fit a saddle on it that's perfect."

Running non-stop in a chukker demands energy. For efficient oxygen intake the polo pony needs a deep heart girth and a sizable throatlatch to breathe. "The throatlatch has to be big enough so the horse can gulp vast amounts of air but narrow so there's not so much muscle that the horse can resist the rider" said Scanlon. "You want a middling neck not too short or too long."

A polo pony shows Thoroughbred ancestry in his proportions. However the ideal might not match a particular model as top contenders vary in shape and size. What makes the difference for professional polo is the horse's passion for the game.

"It's attitude and heart" said Swerdlin. "There's no doubt in my mind that these horses really enjoy what they're doing."

Ludwig also prefers the horse with mettle: "It's the desire to go out and work that makes them really good. I've had horses with legs that should not have held up but they wound up playing polo for 15 years. They learn to work around what would be abnormal conformation."

The desire to play can be attributed to the hot blood in high-goal polo. At the top levels horses are full seven-eighths or three-quarters Thoroughbred. The outcross is usually Argentine Criollo.

"At the upper levels it's full out for seven minutes" said Ludwig. "A good player will play better on a Thoroughbred. A Thoroughbred will give more. He tries harder longer.

"Thoroughbreds conditioned correctly can go seven minutes. You don't go to the bottom of them and they still have something left in the tank. The average Arabian Quarter Horse or Standardbred just won't last--you have to go to the bottom of them every time you go to the field and the horse starts to resent that."

Onderdonk and Snow buy Thoroughbred racehorses. Onderdonk said "We generally buy horses that have been broken. There are so many in the U.S. that are sold off the track as three-year- for different reasons." She noted that they also buy youngsters which have been bred specifically for polo by Thoroughbred stallions out of proven polo mares.

For arena polo or polocrosse players might choose breeds other than the Thoroughbred. The scrimmages can be just as intense but horses don't need the "bottom" demanded by the longer distances on the polo field.

Unlike most equestrian sports polo seems to be dominated by mares. Swerdlin said "Mares tend to give you more spectacular performance. They tend to be exemplary in their performance."

Claude Stephenson DVM of Folsom La. agreed about mares. "When you bottom them out mares will keep stopping will keep turning where geldings quit. I've found that to be consistent."

Playing The Game

The ideal horse is tough and agile eager to start and stop as the ball shifts to and from his team. He can gallop in a straight line to the ball to put his rider in position for the shot.

Ludwig sees the polo pony as a special animal. "The horse has to respond to the demands to run hard shut down hard go left or right hard. The whole time he keeps a friendly frame of mind in order to accept more and more. At the end of the period the rider throws the reins away and the horse walks off the polo field."

Polo ponies help their riders execute the game's four basic shots. The easier two are the off-side backhand and off-side forehand. (All riders hit the ball while holding the mallet in the right hand, reins in the left.) For the two near-side shots the player must swing the stick over the pony's head before using the near-side forehand or backhand.

To get into position the horse gallops from a halt then dances past opponents to approach the ball. Swerdlin said "The best thing about polo is watching the horses perform. It's like ballet or a combination of ballet and racing. You watch the horse speed turn collect himself all on the correct lead."

Training for the game can take up to two years. The prospect learns to accept the rider's swinging the mallet and to respond to the rider's body position seat legs and reins.

On the field the polo pony shows boldness. "You look for a certain competitiveness" said Onderdonk. "You need a horse who's very game who can win a horse race and bump the other horses. Yet there's a certain mental calmness. The game itself is so heady for horses--you need one who can handle that. Some horses who are very physically talented don't become relaxed on the field. They have to be cool in a crisis."

Playing polo can resemble equine bumper cars. Players may "ride off" opponents angling one horse into another to vie for the ball or prevent the other side from interfering with a teammate. They lean into each other as they bunch together in pursuit of the ball. Two horses can collide pushing shoulder to shoulder. The more aggressive horse and rider shove the opponent out of position.

"The horses like the body contact" said Swerdlin. As in professional contact sports it's much easier to hit someone than it is to get hit.

"You cannot bump at more than a 45-degree angle. It's more like pushing or checking in a hockey game. The horse sees the opponent coming and she just drops her shoulder and pushes into the other horse. You don't even have to ask."

A pony of this caliber is uncannily responsive. Because much of the game is anticipation she learns strategy and how to rate herself. She can sense which direction to move by the rider's shift in weight.

Ludwig described the seats of the polo player which cue the horse: "The polo player needs to ride like a jockey because the pony has to run at maximum speed quite often. The rider has to ride like a reining horse rider because the pony does sliding stops. The rider has to ride like a cutting horse rider because of the extreme lateral movment." He added another position that of the foxhunter. The rider stands in the stirrups and braces the back--while swinging the stick instead of jumping a fence.

The pony might even be one step ahead of the human partner by keeping her eye on the ball and other players. Riders seek to interfere with the opposing team's control of the ball by hooking. When a player attempts a stroke an opponent can impede play by galloping close behind and hooking mallets.

Swerdlin recalled "I had a mare who could read the play as it started to develop faster than I could read. I would have to wait to see if the opposing player was going to the ball and she could watch and put me right on the ball. Or she would watch behind her and see someone coming up. As they would come to hook me she would take the other mare and push her off and leave the ball on the near side for me."

Swerdlin noted that ponies watch the game and they know when it's their turn to play. "They get geared up and they start getting nervous. Some polo ponies you can't tie them on the backside of the trailer because they want to watch the game the whole time."

Speed varies according to the tournament conditions and even the locale. Weather conditions affect the footing and the grass can get slippery. Shoeing helps the horses maintain their equilibrium although falls can occur.

"A polo shoe has rim on it to provide good traction" said Onderdonk. "It's not so much traction that the horse will stick as he tries to turn so he'd twist his foot. These are light shoes." For games on heavier footing rear shoes can be fitted with studs.

Swerdlin cited British polo as more controlled compared to the more open faster game played in Palm Beach. He said "Some mares prefer to play polo with a lot of speed. They get very aggravated if they have to be checked in play or to play a slower game."

Besides speed the horse needs the endurance to keep playing throughout the chukker. She must be conditioned for the game and not carry excess weight. Riders keep ponies fit by exercising them in sets. A single rider leads one two or even three other ponies through roadwork usually at the trot.

For the game horses wear a polo breastplate that holds the saddle in place. Most wear a standing martingale. Their tails are wrapped and manes roached to keep long hairs out of the rider's way.

Staying Sound

Polo is a fast sometimes dangerous game. The rules enforce safety for the equine--not necessarily the human--players. Riders incur penalties for dangerous actions such as bumping another horse at a direct angle or moving a mallet too close to a horse's front legs.

Boots cover all four legs from fetlock up to the knee and hock joints. Some riders use polo wraps or bandages and many add bell boots.

Scanlon likened the polo pony to a football player who can suffer catastrophic injury in a fall. He recommended "A properly applied bandage gives support and protection from impact. An improperly applied bandage will bow a tendon. A lot of players will go with a bandage and put a boot cover over it or use only the bandage." He prefers Professional Choice boots to multiple layers of wraps.

Swerdlin compares the musculoskeletal problems of polo ponies as being similar to those of other performance horses citing "a combination of the problems of cutting horses and racehorses. Because they are so athletic we see problems with fetlock joint arthrosis." He added that veterinarians recognize and treat ligament and tendon problems at the onset and the horses are given time off for recovery.

The game's frequent stops and turns can result in suspensory injuries. Ludwig explained "When the pony runs he stretches the tendons and ligaments and stresses them laterally as well. A racehorse going straight forward would put equal pressure on both sides of the leg--the polo pony puts unequal pressure on the sides of the leg."

Proper training can help the horse withstand the stresses of the game. Onderdonk noted "The most common would be front fetlock and ankle problems because of the turning and stopping with a lot of weight on the front end."

The horse can pivot more effectively with weight on the haunches. Ludwig said "Ideally the horse will fall into the turn drop his shoulder and at the same time bring his hind end underneath. That takes a really good rider. With 65% of the horse's weight on his forehand when the hind end hits the ground you have less weight jarring the horse."

Some trainers do try to turn the pony on its forehand arguing that the horse can turn faster. Authorities debate the value of exerting more pressure on the front legs.

Ludwig explained how the movement seen in Argentine-trained horses can speed up the initial turn but lose time as the horse scrambles to gallop into the new direction. "The horse can drop the shoulder down and in and the weight carries her. But then she doesn't have the impulsion to turn. She can get around the turn in a hurry but sacrifices the immediate explosion out of the turn."

Polo ponies play the game into their teens. Swerdlin said "They usually peak at seven eight or nine and play well through 11. At 12 the horse may come down a little in his abilities and speed--then he goes on to play a less demanding level of polo. At 14 or 15 the good mares are retired and sent to be broodmares."

Onderdonk feels that the polo pony enjoys natural not "fussy" treatment. "Polo asks the horse to do what is completely natural--to run stop and turn. The horses live in a group they're exercised in a group and they're turned out for six months." It's the good life--polo style!

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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