Engineered for Players

Why Thoroughbreds

Traditionally a polo pony was a small crossbred horse consisting of local Argentine criollo bloodlines and a small percentage of thoroughbred. The criollo bred horse was used to herd cattle as well as to provide a form of transport to and from work. This was the job of the ‘Gauchos’ back in the days when the exportation of beef was farmers' main source of income and the farming of cattle was a bigger industry than crops. If you see a gaucho these days, sadly you will see a mobile phone on his belt where he would have traditionally carried his knife and he’ll probably be in a tractor rather than on a horse. But this is evolution I guess as well as the result of farmers growing soya amongst other crops instead of farming cattle. These days crops fetch a better price abroad than cattle. Of course the ban of beef export by the Argentina’s colourful government had a major part to play in this too!

The appealing features that these criollo horses had in those days making them desirable on the polo field was the ability they had to stop and turn very quickly and easily, earning them the reputation of being able to ‘turn on a sixpence’. As well as being very natural, this was what they learned from hours and hours of working with cattle. Most successful Argentine breeders of polo ponies believe that working with cattle is a fundamental part of the training process and contributes enormously towards making them into the finished product.

I too share this belief having ridden, trained and played every type of horse there is and from doing so learned the difference in the way a horse that has worked with cattle turns compared to a horse that hasn’t. The difference is that the horse that has worked with cattle in its early days turns much closer to its own back leg thus turning faster and pointing you in a different direction before competitors. This gives its rider and his team an advantage in the next play. Polo consists of many ‘plays’, like this, which all happen in very quick succession and include bursts of speed inbetween. If your horse can turn quicker and accelerate faster than your competitors whilst maintaining a level head you are at a consistent advantage from play to play because this gives you more time to think and make the correct play. If you find yourself rushing to get to the right place, and on arriving late have to rush the play it usually results in the wrong decision being made and then either the wrong shot being hit or the wrong play made. The horses which do this well give you the edge you need to win. We call these horses ‘match winners’.

However, this ability to stop and turn so well came at a price which people started to learn as the introduction of thoroughbreds to the game became increasingly popular. As time went on and the game evolved people started to realize that whilst their criollo cross-bred horses had this amazing ability to stop and turn so quickly, they simply weren’t fast enough when they had to sprint in between all these stops and turns. They were then trying to perform these manouveurs against highly trained thoroughbreds which marked the start of the huge changes which we have witnessed during the last decade.

There is a very simple explanation why these criollo horses could stop in a way which appeared to be extraordinary, and at the end of the stop be instantly prepared to turn either way on command of the faintest hint of a leg aid or the slightest change in balance from its rider. The explanation is that because their top speed isn't very fast, when they were asked to stop it was much easier. So people started to realise that any horse whether it is bigger and potentially faster but travelling at the same speed should be able to stop just as fast as the criollo cross-bred. This then prompted people to start thinking about how this could be used to their advantage on the polo field. During the last decade the speed that polo is played at has increased due to this introduction of thoroughbred horses and every year thoroughbreds are filling larger percentages of peoples' playing strings. The term ‘Playing String’ means the horses a player owns and takes with him to his matches. A playing string normally consists of six or seven horses.

As a result there is increasing focus on either breeding your own thoroughbred horses or sourcing them and training them to play polo. I specialize in this lengthily process as well as playing polo professionally. As a young lad working with my own horses and competing around the world I started to notice that a common factor most people who owned horses shared was that regardless of whether or not they had any experience in the matter, they were always convinced that they knew more about all the various training processes and disciplines associated with horses than everybody else. The result is reflected in today’s market where the price one has to pay for a good polo pony has been on a consistent upward trend and means that this is a fantastically exciting and volatile market.