Polo and motorsports are among the few sports in the world in which men and women compete with and against one another. The act of swinging the polo mallet and captaining a pony at a high speed is very much a technical skill. The horses themselves serve as equalizers on the field, meaning that men, women, and children can compete with and against one another so long as they are mounted on polo ponies that suit their riding style and skill level.
A widely respected adage in the world of polo says that 80% of a polo player’s ability on the field can be attributed to their polo pony. The size, strength, and controls of the pony must be tuned to suit the rider, much like drivers set up race cars for themselves. But polo is different from motorsports and many other sports in one crucial way: polo involves teamwork between two species of athletes: human and equine.
Equine polo athletes are referred to as “ponies” even though they are, in fact, full-size horses. In North America, most polo ponies are of thoroughbred origin. Throughout a match, these equine athletes must stop sharply, accelerate quickly, and body check other players and ponies. This contact between opposing players and ponies is referred to as a “ride-off,” and is like a body check in hockey. Ponies must be strong and confident as the sport is physically challenging and strenuous. Polo ponies that play in the highest-level tournaments are akin to Formula One cars; they require skill and technique to handle, as they’re incredibly tuned, unbelievably fast and highly maneuverable.
There are no rules for what breeds of horses can play polo. One common breed of pony is referred to as Argentine. These horses are a cross between the thoroughbred (who contributes speed, stamina, and build) with the Argentine Criollo or working horse which lends their strength and hardiness to the breed.
Well-trained polo ponies understand the basics of the game and anticipate plays such as ball movements and changes of direction. The ability of a polo pony to mentally participate in the game is referred to as a pony’s ‘mind’ while the spirit of a pony who will stop at nothing to win is referred to as their ‘heart.’ A pony with the right combination of mind and heart can sometimes be a once in a lifetime find for a player. To increase their odds, some of the best polo players in the world are now cloning their top horses: using leading-edge technology, at any cost, to re-create that once in a lifetime best playing pony!
When it comes to the athletic training and expertise of human athletes on the field, like any sport, most professional polo players start at a young age. The world’s best players originate from Argentina: where the national sport is entrenched from childhood. In the USA, professional players and instructors run polo training programs, most of which are accredited through the United States Polo Association. It takes an average person about 2-3 years to learn to play polo; and it takes a horse trainer a similar period of time to properly train a pony to play.
For players to compete at the highest level of the sport, they must be excellent riders as well as physically fit and mentally sharp. The mental aspect of a polo match is akin to playing a high-speed game of chess. The world’s best players and horses can anticipate plays and read the field even with their adrenaline on high.
The relationship between a player and their ponies is what truly sets polo apart from other sports. The next time an opportunity arises to watch a game or better yet to try the sport of polo for yourself; take note of the special connection and communication between the human and equine athletes of the game.