Are horses abused in the sport of polo? How well are they typically treated? Are there largely different standards in different countries? As there are many aspects about the sport of polo that are not widely known by the general public, with the sport rising in popularity and exposure recently, there has been newly born curiosity and concern over the treatment of the horses used in polo, referred to as polo ponies. Polopony.com felt obliged to dig deeply into this subject and bring some answers to their readers. Extensive and direct research was compiled and they would like to provide these findings to their readers in the following article.
As in any sport with or without the use of animal assistance, there are always those that may break the rules and do things that are inappropriate or illegal to the sport intentionally, just to get ahead. In some sports more than others this happens more frequently, and might even be a team-wide decision, as we have seen exposed recently in the “bounty” acts the New Orleans Saints were carrying out in which they’d collect money for one of their teammates to illegally, physically knock someone out of the game.
One very important thing to know about the difference between polo and other professional sports, is that polo is still very much on a small-scale as far as exposure to the general public and the amount of professional players there are in the world. They have kept things very conservative and inconspicuous, trying to maintain the same sense of elegance and morality since the first official English set of rules were created in 1869. Unlike other professional sports such as football, basketball, soccer, and baseball, there is no betting done on different teams about who will win. In Polo, it just simply does not exist. There are no fantasy leagues. There are no multi-million dollar endorsement deals for the top individual players for athletic gear, breakfast cereals or sports beverages. Each high goal polo match is not televised internationally or even nationally. The extreme pressure put on players of other professional sports to bring in the money is just not there. This is where we begun our findings proving that the abuse of horses in polo does not occur simply because aside from being highly monitored in every country hosting the sport professionally, it is not something at all that would benefit the players, nor is there this intense pressure to break the rules for money. We found the players form extremely close bonds with their horses emotionally and physically. With polo widely considered the most dangerous team sport in the world, the players are entrusting their lives to their horses every time they ride onto the field with them.
For a better understanding of how small-scale in size the sport of polo is in comparison to other professional sports, here are a few key facts: Each professional polo team consists of only four players at a time. There are less than 20 countries in the world that have professional polo teams, only one country of which has a women’s professional team, the United States. There are really only just a few locations in the world that host the high goal games, Argentina, Spain, United States, France and the United Kingdom. At the very best of games,on week days, spectators are not even charged to come and watch the match. Most people simply pull up, field-side in the cars and sit on blankets or lawn-chairs. While it has long been considered a sport for the wealthy to be involved in, it is a rather low-key environment at most matches. Which makes another important point. The players and the spectators are in it for the love of horses and for the love of the game. The players work and train themselves extremely intensely all year with very little time off, while they always make sure to “turn out” to pasture their horses for several months in between playing seasons just so they can relax and be with others horses in a natural environment with plenty of free space to roam.
In this we learned that the mental, emotional state of being in a horse is just as important to the polo players as the physical state. If a polo pony is not a calm and happy horse, having formed a trusting bond with their respective polo player, they will simply not do well on or off the field. They won’t be as confident, healthy, strong or talented, which will be an undesirable and dangerous situation for the horse and the player on the field. A polo player’s horse’s well being all around is tantamount to the success of the player and their team. They are therefore treated with great care. They are provided with the best possible feed, supplements, electrolytes; they are assigned “grooms” that check on them continuously throughout the day, keeping their water supply full, bathing and grooming them every day, checking their entire body for any issues, stretching them carefully daily, walking them and so forth. They are exercised daily to keep in the best mental and physical state as well, so that when its time for a polo match, they are at ease.
Aside from the many thousands of dollars spent on their horses often monthly to keep them at their best and free of stress, the players also have an average of 15 horses each that they change as soon as a horse might be getting a bit tired during the game. They are allowed to change them as many times as they feel necessary, ensuring their horses are not over-worked and safer from injury. While the “patron” of a professionally polo team might contribute largely to the upkeep of their horses during a polo season, the players themselves purchase each of their horses with their own money. Polo ponies purchased in the high-goal world are typically very expensive, often well over $30,000 per horse. This is quite an investment for the players as each makes on average a few hundred thousand a year at the best level. As you can see this is not a sport in which the players are in it just to make money like most other professional sports. They are in it for the love of the sport and the beauty of the horses at play. This is clearly evident in their lack of profit margin annually. Often all of the money a player has made in a year, he has spent on a combination of personal expenses, the finest, customized gear for each of his horses, the costly maintenance of his existing horses and for purchasing new horses. Typically the longer the player has been in the professional polo world, the more horses he has accumulated. Most high goal polo players will invest all their earnings in purchasing Polo ponies and professionally maintain them. They often acquire a couple of “green” horses a year. They believe the more you can afford to have, the better for the player and their horse as each will be getting less match-time and will be more fresh and eager to play. This fact also shows that a horse would never have to be ridden under any undesirable conditions as they always have several back-up horses ready to play on the side of the field.
Having played countless professional matches, watched high goal and trained players I can attest from that key point of evidence that these individual athletes are very well taken care of. Teams retain equine veterinarians to pre-game evaluate each polo pony are at every practice and game. The veterinarian will draw blood, inject the joints, recommend chiropractor spinal adjustments, accupunture, vitamin regimes and so on. Ponies are the finest tuned athletes one may imagine and they are treated with the utter love. At every professional game there it is mandatory to have a designate equine ambulance with a team waiting on the side of the field, ready to rush in if needed. Mostly, it is the players that require to be “stretchered” off the fields. During a match, the horses that aren’t currently being used are all being warmed up and stretched for when their turn comes to play in the match. As soon as one of the polo ponies has finished the chukker, one of the player’s grooms immediately takes it off the sidelines to untack and cool down procedures begin. They have multiple professional “cooling stations” off of the field just for the horses. These stations consist of large, powerful fans with cool water being misted from them for an extra cooling effect for the horses. Once cooled down, they are dried and checked for any issues and safely put away in the shade in preparation for their ride back home after the match. Immediately after a match is over, the horses are not left to linger one minute. They are all prepared right away for travel and are transported directly back to their barns where they are further taken care of in whatever way needed and then given another meal right away and allowed to relax for the day.
After visiting many of the barns of professional polo players from around the world, often without notice, our final evidence was gathered. Each team prides itself on how nice of a barn they have for their polo ponies. They want to have the nicest fields for them to practice in, the nicest paddocks for them to relax in and the nicest stables for them when they need to be indoors. They pride themselves if they have the best vet in town looking after their horses, the nicest looking blankets and finest leather saddles and equipment. The goal being was to have the healthiest, happiest, well groomed polo ponies, hence the most talented.
Society has always thought true kings were meant to be majestic, yet humble, privileged yet generous, strong yet gentle to those in their care. In this we have come to feel the ancient polo expression still rings true: “Let other people play other things / the king of game is still the game of kings”. We contacted both the Humane Society and ASPCA and not one case of equine abuse had ever been reported in the professional polo world. It became quite clear it is a game played for love, not for money, with honor and out of pride.
I always said the polo pony is “Nobilty Without Pride” and Polo is truly still and will ever be the sport of kings.
Play Polo !
The PoloPony Team