Polo Ponies by Andrea Damewood
From champion-level players to devoted amateurs, the marriage of a rider and his horse in polo is a bond unrivaled in sports. Memo Gracida, perhaps the best polo player in the world, checks on them before he sleeps. Pablo Llorente, president of the Argentina Polo Players Association and a top breeder, says that a good pony makes all the difference in competition.
Elite players are so attached to their best ponies—bred for speed, agility and demeanor—that today they’re willing to pay upwards of $100,000 to harness new technology and clone their most beloved horses. Spearheaded by the cloning of renowned Argentina player Adolfo Cambiaso’s star stallion Aiken Cura, the practice of creating replica ponies for play has been growing steadily over the last five years.
Daniel Juarez, a head pro and former breeder based in West Linn, Ore., calls it “probably the most interesting and exciting thing” happening in the polo world. He pointed to the recent US Open in Florida, where Cambiaso played two clone horses. Llorente says that the best horse he’s ever seen play is Cambiaso’s mare Cuartetera. She’s been cloned as well, with her offspring playing in matches today.“It’s awesome to see four or five clones of one ‘crack’ playing together in a match,” Llorente says.
The cloned horse, created from the cells of a top equestrian athlete, will resemble its predecessor right down to the markings—which may not be exact, but will certainly be in the same place. Players have found that despite being raised at a different time or in a different environment, these “children” of the original pony will have the same athletic ability, temperament and disposition.
But the high cost of cloning means the majority of polo ponies are still being bred via embryos carried in a surrogate mare, as they have been for the last couple of decades, Juarez explains. That allows the top mare to continue playing in matches while the colt spends the four or five years it needs to be fully trained under the care of another mother.
And no matter how the pony is born, players—many of whom can own dozens of horses and play nine different ponies in a game—are looking for specific characteristics. Historically, polo horses were about 14 hands tall; today, they range in the 15 to 16 hand range. Juarez says his top mare, Dairy Queen, is just over 15 hands.
“She’s the complete package,” he says. “She’s compact, powerfully built, she’s got speed, and she’s got the ability to change directions without even thinking about it. I don’t even have to think about what I do, I just do it.”
Training, veterinary care and nutrition have all improved tremendously, players say. Former Governor of the USPA Pacific Coast Circuit, Glen Holden, says, “The biggest change in polo in the last ten years has been the quality of the horses. In the early days of American polo, many of the ponies resulted from the breeding of ranch mares to Thoroughbred stallions. In contrast, many of the polo ponies today are Thoroughbreds from the racetrack.
A well-built horse of a player’s dreams includes physical characteristics—known as a pony’s conformation—including large muscling in the hindquarters, strong, clean legs and a supple neck. A good feature is a close-coupled back, which allows for those critical tight turns during play.
Training is also key. Experienced breeders know that even if the pony has the best athletic ability, it still has to have its skills harnessed and broken to the demands of polo play. Those early years are spent training and conditioning a horse to “accelerate to full speed, change direction or slow down to zero in the shortest distance,” Gracida has said.
The horse must also be able to act as one with its rider, and must be conditioned to “have patience and perseverance and to play and play and play,” Llorente says.
Horses are brought on slowly: players will put four-year-olds into club chukker matches and really immerse them in tournament play at six. A pony isn’t considered “made,” or completely trained, until it has has two full seasons of polo. The time and effort of training and care mean starting with a well-bred pony that has success in its very genes is of utmost importance.
“The horses are paramount,” Juarez says. “They’re the most important thing. You can overcome a lot of deficiencies in other parts of your game if you’ve got top horses.”