The one question that is seldom asked is what is a polo pony? Horses are naturally strong and athletic animals, and that’s one of the many reasons that has endeared them to us. If you’ve ever watched a game of polo, however, you might have noticed how the athletic ability of the horses involved differs compared to other horse breeds we’re used to.
These horses are called polo ponies. They’re simply horses that have been bred to be used in competitive polo matches. Despite using the word pony to describe them, polo ponies are fully grown horses.
Through careful breeding, polo ponies have been made to bring out the best potential in terms of speed and agility, qualities that are extremely important in a game of polo.
In this post, we’ll highlight several details about polo and polo ponies to help you understand them better.
A Look at the Game of Polo
Polo as a sport has its origins going as far back as the year 6 BC in Persia. The fact that it’s still being played across the world among the equestrian community is a testament to what an awesome game it is!
The game is played by two opposing teams, with each team consisting of four players on a field measuring 300 by 160 yards.
The players all have a long mallet which they use to hit a ball around with the aim of driving it past the opposing team’s goal post to score. (Much like the game of football)
Over the years, several variations of the game have been created, a testament to the popularity of this sport. Polo also interestingly holds the place of being the oldest equine sport ever.
A Few Facts about the Game
Length of Play
A typical game of polo goes on for a little under 2 hours. The game is played in different periods called chukkas. A chukka lasts 7 and a half minutes, with 6 chukkas being the standard amount.
A team consists of 4 players who each have a position they play in the team. The positions are denoted in numbers, from 1 to 4. Depending on your number, your style of play and rating differs with number 3 often being the most important player on a team.
The horses participating in the game are called polo ponies. They are quick and agile, as you’d expect of such an intensive and demanding sport.
These polo ponies are switched out typically after every chukka to maintain a competitive edge. The game is a truly intense sport.
In top-level polo competitions, players may switch horses every 4 or so minutes to maintain an even better competitive edge. This meaning a game can utilize more than 40 horses!
In polo, two umpires ride horseback, and there’s also a referee who observes from outside the pitch. They ensure rules are kept to and award penalties for any rule-breaking or fouls committed. Umpires will often use two horses each for the entirety of the match.
Aside from the typical form of polo, several variations of the game exist.
Indoor polo, for instance, is played in an indoor arena that houses a field that has smaller dimensions compared to outdoor polo. This form of polo is played with teams of three players each.
Other variations include beach polo, which is played on a sand surface, and snow polo played on snowy and icy surfaces.
Aside from the difference in location, the number of chukkas may differ in these polo game variations.
Qualities of a Polo Pony
Considering the pace and intensity of polo, the horses involved need to be up for the challenge. While it’s arguable that horses are generally fast and strong, an extra edge is required for them to take part in a competitive sport.
Some of the desirable qualities of polo ponies include:
The ability to demonstrate great physical abilities
This aspect is in terms of speed, strength, and fortitude mainly. They need to be able to perform at a high level with great endurance.
To learn and participate in polo, a horse has to have the aptitude to take up the training challenge. Some horses are simply better than others in this regard.
A polo pony has to have especially strong hindquarters. Given the physicality and pace of the sport, strong hindquarters are required to achieve better speeds and maneuverability.
Types of Polo Ponies
Over the course of the polo’s existence, several types of horses were used for the sport before finally settling on a select few that proved best for the job.
4 main horse breeds are used as polo ponies in the modern game, each with its set of merits. They are:
Thoroughbred Polo Horses
Thoroughbred horses are a popular breed across the equestrian world thanks to their versatility. With the Darley Arabian, Byerly Turk, and Godolphin Arabian as the foundation stock for this breed, thoroughbreds have evolved to have exceptional traits.
Their hindquarters are especially desirable, which allows them to run faster. They also boast high endurance levels, an important quality for a sport as intense as polo.
Argentine Polo Pony
This type of polo pony is a result of crossbreeding a thoroughbred and a Criollo. A Criollo is a horse breed that originates from Argentina.
Criollos are notable for their high-level agility and strength, and crossbreeding them with thoroughbreds creates exceptionally agile horses with great endurance. These qualities make them a popular option for polo.
Quarter horses are a breed developed in the USA over two centuries ago. These horses are notable for their ability to run faster than most horses.
Combined with the qualities of a thoroughbred horse, a thoroughbred-quarter horse proves more agile, faster, and powerful. They are also called appendix horses, and besides polo, they thrive in several other equine sports.
The Manipuri Breed
Manipuri polo ponies originate from India. When they first came about, they were used in military settings before their qualities saw them diversify into sports.
They are commonly shorter than other notable breeds, but their temperament and the fact that they’re powerful and have very high endurance abilities make them a great choice for polo.
They’re also elegant-looking horses, and well, it never hurts to have a good-looking horse!
Training for Polo
This aspect is considered two-fold:
For the Horse
The first step for a polo pony is being allowed to mature up to at least two years old before any polo training can begin. Most start training when in the range of 2-4 years old.
When they start, they’re taught a few tricks and how to go about the game. When they are mature enough to withstand a rider’s weight, a training regimen with a rider is incorporated into their training sessions.
The training can take anywhere between 6 months and 2 years before participating in competitive games.
The aim is to teach them young so by the time they reach maturity (age 5 and above), they can be considered for participation in the sport.
With proper care, polo ponies can reach their peak 2 years after starting active participation in polo and can perform all the way to the age of 20.
For the Rider
For the complete equine novice, they first have to start with the basics. These include how to safely handle and engage horses, balancing, and basic riding positions.
After clearing that part, the instructions start focusing on how to ride specifically for polo, drills on how to handle the mallet while riding, among several other subtleties required for the game.
The rider’s training must equip them with exceptional horse handling skills since the game demands that they be able to maneuver the horse precisely without hurting it or breaching trust and respect with the horse.
Training for both the rider and polo ponies involves great determination and a significant investment of both time and resources.
Why are they called Ponies?
In the equine world, the word pony is used to describe horses on a specific scale of height. The height of ponies varies from around 50 inches and 58 inches.
When used in the context of polo, the word pony is meant to describe the quality of the horses being agile and fast, not describing anything to do with their height.
In comparison to actual ponies, polo ponies have an average height of 61 inches and higher.
What’s the Sex of Polo Ponies?
Most polo ponies are females. Given the difference in temperament compared to both gelded and ungelded males, mares have by far been the best option for polo training and play.
Polo is a game that demands great cooperation from both rider and horse, and with mares being easier to handle, they’ve always been the best option for polo ponies.
Aside from their temperament, they are also useful in that they can be used for breeding purposes.
We’ve explored a great deal of detail about polo ponies in this post and hopefully, you’ve learned something new whether you’re new to the equestrian world or a long-time enthusiast.
To get a better feel for polo and polo ponies, you should try watching a polo match and see for yourself what a great experience it is for both the horses and the riders. Spectators enjoy the game a great deal too!