‘How do I improve my polo?’
It’s a question we get time and time again at the Toronto Polo School and while each and every person that asks said question will have a unique set of things that they can work on to improve their game, from hitting and defense to strategy and positioning and more the list is endless of things for polo players to work on. There is, however, one thing that everyone, beginners and experienced players alike, can work on which will have a positive effect on their game and it’s something that most polo players are guilty of neglecting. Riding.
It’s so simple, it’s hard to believe! But, when you think about it, it makes sense. You’ve heard us say that ponies account for 80% of a player’s ability to play the game, so naturally, a player’s ability to ride said pony also accounts for a huge chunk of their ability to play the game. Not to mention, being a better rider means getting more out of your pony and the best players know how to get everything out of their ponies.
Great players can also play their handicaps off of any kind of horse; good, bad, old or green…these guys and gals know how to make the most of their ponies and it all comes down to…yep you guessed it…their riding.
The best players have great partnerships with their ponies. When they’re out on the field they play as one. But that kind of relationship doesn’t develop from game to game or from the odd ride once a month. The pony has to learn to be comfortable with you in all settings; if you only ever sit on your horse during a game, they’ll begin to associate you with the stress and nerves that they feel on the field and they’ll never relax with you. Those great horse and player relationships develop from hours and hours together, hours and hours spent riding, schooling, and stick and balling. The pony learns to relax and so does the rider; they begin to speak the same language and they develop a trust in each other…so the next time they take to the field they’re on the same wavelength. These relationships aren’t without their bad days either and part of your ability as the rider is to accept half the blame when things don’t go right, because it’s not always the pony’s fault. So next time you start to think that the pony wouldn’t stop or that the pony kept riding over the ball consider that maybe, just maybe, you played a part in that too.
Speaking of the horses; they aren’t machines (even though that’s sometimes the Spanish word used to describe a talented polo pony). They, like us, are living creatures who have good days and bad days and days where they just aren’t feeling it. And you have a responsibility to these big living creatures that you’re asking to help you run around a giant field chasing a tiny white ball. Your responsibility to them is to ride them to the best of your ability; and that means not yanking and balancing on the big piece of metal that you put in their mouth and helping them to keep their balance every time you ask for a stop or turn. So if you don’t want to work on your riding for you…work on it for your ponies…because they deserve you at your very best
And we know some of you are out there thinking I know how to ride, I don’t need to work on my riding but even the best players and those of us that are lucky enough to spend hours a day on polo ponies can admit that we’ve all been put in our places by a difficult horse or a good horse having a bad day. Just when you think you’ve seen it all horses will always find a way to put you in your place and show you something you haven’t yet learned.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is a big difference between staying on a horse and actually riding it. And if you’re sitting there saying I know how to stop, go and turn…isn’t that all there is to it? Think again, once you’ve got the basic commands down you can start to fine tune them; tighter rollbacks, picking up the correct lead (lead what?!) when you pick up your canter, stopping properly with the hind end, getting comfortable at faster and faster speeds…the list goes on. The minute you think you know it all you’ll meet a horse who will show you just how much more you have to learn and that’s the beautiful thing about riding and polo…you’re never done learning.
It’s really easy to sign up to play and arrive at the field to have your ponies looking fit and ready to play. But if you find yourself wondering why some of your contemporaries are improving and you’re not…chances are it all comes down to riding. Maybe they’re putting in those hours away from the field; spending hours riding and schooling their horses in the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter, around and around in circles all the while improving their balance, their trust and relationship with their ponies, and fine tuning all those skills. Practice and riding may not be the glamorous part of the sport…but they certainly separate the good from the greats. And we at the Toronto Polo School know that everyone can be great, it just takes a little practice and a lot of time in the saddle!