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Polo Ponies

This article first appeared in Equestrian Life magazine, for more pick up your latest copy today



JUST LIKE MANY of the racehorses we retrain and introduce to competitive polo, I was brought up in a racing family before converting to the exciting sport of polo. I’ve had passion for horses from a young age, growing up in the heartland of British racing, Newmarket, where my parents still run a bloodstock business. Since getting the polo bug, however, the sport has taken me all over the world in various roles. From grooming to playing, managing professional players, clubs and teams. I have also had the privilege to represent both England and Australia in Ladies polo. But throughout, my main passion has always been the training and retraining of horses.

Polo Horses Katie Edmeades - Issue 17


I have been lucky to have worked for exceptional horsemen and women around the world from whom I’ve learnt a great deal.  My biggest influence was being surrounded by exceptional bloodstock from a young age and understanding the skill and work involved in producing a champion.  It is the same long slog for the racetrack and polo field alike. I came to Australia nine years ago, and it was while playing at a tournament in Melbourne that I met my boyfriend and business partner, Edward Matthies. We started JM Polo in 2006 and have been providing services to the polo community ever since. Edward is a talented horseman and has a great affinity with his horses. He is a professional polo player and we produce horses to mount him, myself and the country’s top professionals and to sell domestically and overseas. My main role is training the young horses. We have a proven breeding program in place, but we also supplement it by buying young horses with little to no education. I draw on my racing background to help me in their selection, on and off the track.

The first step is research, starting with the Australian Stud Book for the breeding and racing history of a horse. Where available, we watch races on archived video, and there’s the odd phone call to the UK to get my parents’ opinion if they have had dealings with the bloodlines. Another exciting avenue of supply has come from a great initiative by the NSW racing industry and the corrections system. We have formed a relationship with the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Trust, a not-for profit organisation that helps rehabilitate and re-educate former NSW Thoroughbred racehorses. The program is a working partnership between Racing NSW and Corrective Services NSW. Former racehorses given to the trust for re-education into other disciplines are first sent to St Heliers Correctional Centre, near Musswellbrook in north-east NSW, where they are spelled and given early retraining and handling by inmates. They are then sent to Canterbury Racecourse where TRT is based, to be retrained by TRT’s Thoroughbred rehabilitation manager, Scott Brodie, and his dedicated team. These horses are then offered for sale, with all proceeds going to further this fantastic cause.

All the horses we have purchased from TRT have been very well mannered, honest horses and we’re pleased with how they are developing as polo ponies. Scott is in tune with our requirements and lets us know if he thinks he has a candidate. He takes a lot of the hard work out of the selection process and we have a number of talented ex-TRT horses currently in our program. 

Training a polo pony is a slow process, but the rewards are immense. The horses we look to source off the track are judged not only on their current physique but we have to be mindful of their potential for growth, as many are as young as two. Upon inspection we look at the horse as a whole, paying particular attention to its legs and feet. We watch the horse walk towards us and away, and then watch while it’s being free lunged. This lets us see how the horse holds itself and, most importantly, its head carriage. We want our horses to run flat with their heads on the low side of level.

As in all sports, polo players come in all shapes and sizes and so do their horses, but in our experience horses between 15hh and 15.2hh suit most of the market and generally make the best polo ponies.  Typically, players prefer to play on a string of horses all roughly the same size, as they then don’t have to adjust their swing too much from one horse to another or play with different length mallets.

The ideal age we look for is two to four years. Polo ponies generally reach their full potential and most valuable point at six to eight years.  Once we have purchased a horse off the racetrack, we turn it out for a spell to get the feed out of it and also let them switch off and get racing out of their system. On all our young stock, we strongly believe in eliminating problems before they occur. We ensure a dentist looks at their teeth and also have it seen by our chiropractor and we have its feet assessed. We can then create a plan of how to proceed, allowing for any problems and knowing whether behavioural issues are associated with pain or discomfort.

Life as a polo pony is very different from that of a racehorse. In the initial training, each horse is worked individually most days and we integrate them into the polo way of life as soon as possible. When we exercise our playing ponies, we do so in groups of four or five, in what we call a set. This is when one horse is ridden and the others lead (pictured). This is a quick and effective way to get horses fit before the season. The horses that have come off the track can often have difficulties with this and as such we incorporate this into the early stages of training. It also helps acclimatise them to the contact with the other horses, reducing their inclination to race when they get out on a polo field.

Polo Horses Katie Edmeades - Issue 17

Whilst Equestrian Life does publish photos of riders without helmets, we strongly recommend the use of an Australian approved helmet at all times when horse riding.

When a racehorse is in training, it is usually stabled and paddocked by itself; however we run our horses in batches. They come in and get stabled through the day and are turned out in the evenings, generally running together in groups of up to 10-12 horses.  In a polo yard the staff-to-horse ratio is on average 1:10, so it is important the horses learn to comply with daily routines and processes. As we all know, each horse is an individual and training programs are tailored to suit the needs of each horse. We have targets we aim for, but we’re flexible in the pathways to achieve them.

All our horses, homebred and sourced, begin with a basic foundation of flat work. We find that an understanding of basic dressage not only balances and rounds our horses but sets them aside on the polo field. We use the round yard to aid us in much of our work, predominantly in the early stages of training but also later for fitness work. We tie back our horses using side reins and a roller on a regular basis to build up the muscles in their necks, often while they are free lunged.

Polo Horses Katie Edmeades - Issue 17

Neck reining is how we steer a polo pony: the reins are held in the left hand and the mallet in the right. Some horses take to this better than others. Polo horses need to be as responsive as possible, as the direction of play changes suddenly in a game. Initially a lot of work is done at home riding in pairs or small groups. We play games like tag to simulate the chasing and contact aspect of the sport. We often school around barrels or trees to give variety to keep the horses interested.

Our horses need to be confident and able to hold their position in what we call “riding off”. This is the contact element of the game where we are able to physically push another player out of the way to establish right of way to play the ball. Ride-offs must be performed at a safe angle and comparable speeds to be legal. We practice this at varying speeds and levels of contact and find that most horses take to it easily and like to push. When doing this in practice it is important to let the horse both win and lose ride-offs.

When horses are first introduced to the polo stick it is a non-threatening way. We usually go for quiet hack and begin by slowly swinging it. We make sure the horses are settled with the stick and that we can simulate every shot without it being worried, after which we introduce a ball. We begin using an arena polo ball, which is softer and bigger than a normal polo ball, before graduating to the smaller standard ball, which makes a sharper sound when struck.

Once basic stick work and shot play has been absorbed, we take horses to young horse chukkas, a practice match with a group of people all on green horses. We play fluid games and aim to keep the horses moving forward, putting all we have taught them in to practice but with no pressure on them. We start these at a trot or very slow canter and progressively get faster as the horses progress.

Alongside these chukkas, we take some of the younger horses to tournaments to use them to umpire on, a great avenue for green horses to get on the field and settle with other horses galloping and competing around them. This process can be a little more difficult for racehorses to master initially. A polo horse also spends a lot of its time before and after it plays tied to the truck with the other playing horses on the day. This can be a challenge for some young horses and often takes a while for some to get used to.

Polo Horses Katie Edmeades - Issue 17

After our young horses have showed progress and have participated in chukkas relatively successfully, they go out for a well deserved spell, allowing them time to relax and absorb their education to date. Depending on their age and ability, some come in again for another campaign of young horse chukkas, while the more advanced and physically mature step up to the main playing string. They play mostly a lower level of polo for their first season, and if up to it we integrate them into the higher levels for a couple of minutes at a time. This enables them to experience the game at a faster pace without the pressure of having to perform for a whole seven minutes.

The process of training a polo pony is a long and slow one, but being able to experience and develop a horse throughout their progression to an elite polo pony provides a great sense of achievement. To be a part of and see a horse realise their potential at the highest levels within Australia and abroad is immensely satisfying and rewarding when it all comes together.

To find out more about TRT’s work, visit www.trt.org.au

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