Mark Tomlinson: In praise of the Polo Pony, supreme athlete of the equine world

People ask me what makes a good polo pony and in response I could point them in the direction of the runners in a major sprint race at Royal Ascot as a pretty good comparison. After all, the polo pony is of a similar make and shape and will often reach very high speeds while competing. But then, what about the stopping and the turning? A Flat race sprinter has to run as fast as possible for five furlongs, whereas in polo not only speed is asked of the horse but also movements that would not look unfamiliar in a gymkhana or even in a Grand Prix dressage test.

Let us not forget the physicality involved either: the ‘ride offs’ and bashes that sometimes resemble scenes from ancient cavalry battles mean the polo pony must also be incredibly robust. In addition, the polo pony usually has to do all this while carrying a much heavier rider than a racehorse ever does.

So the question at the beginning of this article is perhaps not such an easy one to answer, as it would seem there are many attributes and qualities that the polo pony requires. I would not go as far as saying they are the perfect athlete of the horse world, but any animal that is asked to run as fast as it can then stop and turn on a sixpence, and also push another horse out of the way in a hard-fought ‘ride off’, to me must be close to that perfect athlete status. Whether used for show jumping, racing or hunting, any horse at the top level is a remarkable animal and all are extraordinary athletes in their own way. The polo pony, however, seems also to possess a charm and personality that is unique in the horse world, but perhaps I am a little biased.

If one were to dip briefly into the history of polo it can be seen not only how these trained competitors came about, but also more evidence of this sprinter/stock horse type of animal. There are many different versions of how the game started, and I am no expert on the history of my sport, but one thing that is apparent is that over the years polo has had strong ties with the military. The first people to play seem to have been ancient warriors in Persia, now Iran of course, and I imagine their mounts would have been the same as those on which they rode into battle. So already we have the image of sturdy, resilient, agile animals. If you look at the records of famous polo matches between the world wars most of the players involved have a rank in front of their name indicating their military status.

Just as a polo pony needs to do all of the above, a cavalry horse was trained also to be familiar with fracas and skirmishes. The Army regiments therefore merely used their everyday workhorses as polo ponies—and indeed army polo still thrives today all over the world. Where else can we see clues that give us ideas as to the origins of the ‘ideal polo pony’? Perhaps most simply was the need for the horse as a mode of transport. This is the first time we can refer to that polo Mecca Argentina where the rural man (‘gaucho’) fully required the horse and its services. The horse quickly became an Argentinian’s best friend—and thus was born the ‘Criollo’ horse, the name given to the traditional horse used by the ‘gaucho’. This horse resembles closely a type you would imagine pulling a cart or being used to cross rough mountainous terrain, and again we are reminded of that strong and thickly-set conformation.

In the same way that this animal needed to be strong to travel long distances over rough terrain, it also needed to be speedy and agile to herd the cattle. Here we are led on to another big aspect in the making of the polo pony: the working of cattle and other stock. This requirement is not only in Argentina of course, the ‘western’ style horse or quarter horse was and is used all over the world, including America and Australia where large cattle ranches are so prominent. I have tried rounding up cattle at home and the challenge of outmanoeuvring cows, especially those cheeky little bulls, is uncannily similar to the moves I would perform when I am trying to man mark top 9 and 10 goal players. In fact Adolfo Cambiaso on his best pony playing a game of tag with the cheekiest of the bulls would be quite a contest.

It therefore becomes clearer what a top polo pony is about and that also one can see the common denominators present throughout the history and origins of the sport. If you need any living reminders of what I am talking about then just take the best ponies played by the top players today and over the last 20 years. Whether it be Luna and Colibri from Argentina, Chesney from the UK or Music from Australia, these champions have all performed at the highest level in our sport and their conformation and skills merely underline my relatively novice and humble opinion as to what we are looking for in a high-class polo pony.

Over the last 10 years however there has been a twist in the story and this is on the subject of speed. Recently a greater emphasis has been placed on the speed of the polo pony and I would say the significance of speed has taken the game to another level. So much so in fact that nearly all of today’s ponies in the top bracket around the world are full thoroughbreds—and that is almost the same animal as the one you would see in the sprint race at Ascot. The playing surfaces have become much better and the competition much fiercer, to the extent that for many players the need for speed has become the top priority.

This has also come about because players realise it is easier and less expensive to buy racehorses off the track as three- or four-year-olds and spend a couple of years training them as polo ponies. Furthermore, even some of the big polo breeds are now based on stallions and mares that are full thoroughbreds.

From this it might seem a little as if there is actually no such thing as a ‘polo pony’, since players now merely take horses from other disciplines and sports and teach them to become used to the mallet and the ball. This is far from the case, but that suggestion does prove once again that the skills of a good polo pony are widespread and complex. In other words, Shannon, the best playing pony in a recent year’s Gold Cup final, would not look out of place in a Group One Flat race, would probably not do a bad dressage test, and would easily adapt to any sort of western riding. Quite a picture I know, but then we are talking about the polo pony—the supreme athlete.