Skip to Content

Mastering the Basics: Polo Riding Techniques for Beginners

Published on: April 25, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

Since my daughter and I attended a polo match last summer, she’s been eager to join in on the excitement. As we ventured into the world of polo, we quickly realized that mastering basic riding techniques was a crucial first step for her to truly enjoy and excel in the sport. I immersed myself in research, seeking the best tips and guidance for beginners like her.

In this blog post, I share the valuable lessons we’ve learned. From seat position to executing basic polo shots, I’ll guide you through the essential techniques that every beginner polo player should know. Having a solid foundation will help you become a more confident and capable player.

Whether you’re a parent like me, helping your child embrace the world of polo, or an adult taking up the sport for the first time, I hope my insights will make your path to mastering the basics of polo riding smoother and more enjoyable. So, let’s saddle up and dive into the fundamentals of this exhilarating sport.

Preparing to Ride

Preparing to ride is a crucial step in your journey as an aspiring polo player. This includes selecting the ideal horse, fitting and adjusting your saddle and tack, and warming up and stretching before you mount. By taking care of these essential preparations, you’ll be well on your way to a successful ride, ensuring your and your horse’s safety and comfort.

Choosing the right horse for your skill level and size

When selecting the right horse for your skill level and size, it’s essential to consider several factors contributing to an ideal beginner’s polo pony. One of the most important aspects is the horse’s temperament. A calm and patient horse will be more forgiving and easier to handle as you learn the ropes of the game.

Another crucial factor is the horse’s size, which should be appropriate for your height and weight. A well-matched horse will allow you to maintain better control and feel more secure in the saddle. Certain breeds are commonly used in polo due to their athleticism, agility, and adaptability.

Thoroughbreds and Argentine Polo Ponies are two popular choices for the sport, as they typically possess the desired traits for polo, including speed, stamina, and responsiveness. Considering these factors, you’ll be able to select a suitable horse that will support and enhance your progress as a beginner polo player.

Picture of horse running during a polo match.

Properly fitting and adjusting your saddle and tack

Ensuring that your saddle and tack fit properly is essential for both rider comfort and horse safety. Follow these steps:

  1. Check the saddle position: Place it on the horse’s back, making sure it is snug but not too tight. There should be enough space for you to fit a few fingers between the saddle and the horse.
  2. Adjust the stirrups: Ensure your legs are slightly bent when your feet are in the stirrups. Adjust the length if necessary.
  3. Check the bridle: Ensure it is comfortable on the horse’s head and doesn’t pinch or rub. The bit should rest gently in the horse’s mouth, and the reins should be the correct length for you to hold comfortably.

Warming up and stretching before mounting your horse

Warming up and stretching before riding is crucial for preventing injuries and ensuring a more enjoyable experience. Here are some simple exercises to help riders prepare:

  1. Jumping jacks: Perform 10-15 jumping jacks to increase your heart rate and warm your muscles.
  2. Leg swings: Stand next to a fence or wall for balance, and swing each leg forward and backward 10 times to loosen up your hips and legs.
  3. Arm circles: Extend your arms out to the sides, and make small circles with them to warm up your shoulders and arms.
  4. Stretching: Gently stretch your legs, back, and arms, holding each stretch for about 20-30 seconds. This will help improve your flexibility and prevent muscle strains during your ride.

Basic Riding Position and Balance

As a polo player, it’s important to maintain a proper riding posture. Start by sitting upright in the saddle, with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Imagine a straight line running from your head, through your shoulders and hips, down to your heels.

Keep your head up and look in the direction you want to go. Hold the reins and mallet comfortably in your hands, keeping your elbows slightly bent. Relax your legs, allowing them to rest gently against the horse’s sides. Keep your heels down and toes up, with a slight bend in your knees and your feet securely placed in the stirrups.

How polo players control their horses.

Polo players control the horse by using their legs, seat, and reins. Legs provide cues for speed and direction, while the seat helps with balance and weight distribution. Reins, held in both hands, communicate with the horse through pressure and release, guiding the horse’s head to turn, slow down, or stop.

Maintaining balance while in motion

To stay balanced as your horse moves, focus on engaging your core muscles. This will help stabilize your body and keep you centered in the saddle. Keep your grip on the reins and mallet relaxed but firm, which will help you communicate smoothly with your horse.

As you ride, let your hips and lower back move naturally with the horse’s motion. This will allow you to absorb the movement and maintain balance more easily. Always look ahead in the direction you’re going, as this will help you stay focused and prevent you from leaning too far forward or backward.

Adjusting your position for different speeds and maneuvers

As you become more comfortable riding, you’ll need to learn how to adjust your position for different speeds and maneuvers. When your horse transitions from a walk to a trot, for example, you’ll need to rise slightly out of the saddle in rhythm with your horse’s stride. This is known as “posting” and helps you stay in sync with your horse’s movements.

During faster gaits like the canter and gallop, you’ll need to shift your weight slightly forward and maintain a more forward-leaning position. This will help you stay balanced and allow your horse to move more freely underneath you.

For sharp turns or sudden stops, brace yourself by slightly tightening your grip on the reins and mallet, engaging your core muscles, and sinking your weight into your heels. This will help you maintain balance and control during these more advanced maneuvers.

Picture of players in a polo match.
Polo match

Holding the Reins and Mallet

When holding the reins, it’s important to have a secure yet relaxed grip to maintain control and effectively communicate with your horse. Hold the reins in your left hand, with your fingers closed around them and your thumb on top, creating a comfortable and firm hold.

Make sure there’s enough slack in the reins so you don’t accidentally pull on the horse’s mouth. Your hand should be at a comfortable height, usually around the level of your belly button, with your elbow slightly bent and relaxed.

The correct way to grip and swing your polo mallet

Gripping your polo mallet correctly is essential for accurate and powerful shots. Hold the mallet with your right hand, placing your thumb along the flat side of the handle for added control. Your remaining fingers should wrap around the handle, with your pinky finger near the bottom.

To swing the mallet, use your wrist and forearm to generate power, keeping your arm and shoulder relaxed. As you become more advanced, you’ll use your entire upper body to create a fluid and powerful swing.

To hold the reins with both hands when playing, open your hand and let the mallet hang by its strap. This frees up your fingers to grasp the reins and allows for better control and communication with your horse while you’re in motion.

Here is a good YouTube video that explains this method.

As you become more experienced, you’ll develop a natural feel for managing the reins and mallet simultaneously, allowing you to effectively control your horse while executing various shots during a polo match.

Essential Riding Skills

As a beginner polo player, it’s important to become comfortable with the different gaits your horse will perform. Start by practicing the walk, which is the slowest and most controlled gait. To move into a trot, gently squeeze your legs against the horse’s sides while maintaining a steady rhythm. The trot is a two-beat gait that can be bouncy, so practice posting to stay in sync with your horse.

To transition into a canter, a three-beat gait, sit deep in the saddle and apply slightly more pressure with your outside leg behind the girth while maintaining steady rein contact. As you advance, you’ll learn to move into a gallop, the fastest gait. To do this, lean slightly forward and keep your weight centered over your horse while maintaining a secure seat in the saddle.

Being able to change direction and make turns is crucial for maneuvering around the polo field. To turn your horse, use the following techniques:

  1. Look in the direction you want to go.
  2. Shift your weight slightly toward the inside of the turn.
  3. Apply gentle pressure with your outside leg to cue your horse to turn.
  4. Use your reins to guide your horse in the desired direction, with the inside rein directing the horse’s head and the outside rein maintaining balance and control.

Performing the half-seat to prepare for more advanced maneuvers

Performing the half-seat is a crucial skill for polo players, as it allows for better balance and control during faster speeds, sharp turns, and advanced maneuvers. The half-seat position involves the rider lifting slightly out of the saddle, reducing the amount of contact between the rider’s seat and the saddle while maintaining a secure and stable position.

To perform the half-seat, follow these steps:

  1. Keep your heels down and your toes pointing slightly outward to maintain a secure base of support in the stirrups.
  2. Slightly bend your knees and allow them to act as shock absorbers, adjusting to the horse’s movements.
  3. Lean your upper body forward at the hips, maintaining a straight back and looking ahead in the direction you want to go.
  4. Keep your hands steady and maintain light contact with the horse’s mouth through the reins.

Practicing the half-seat will help you become more agile and responsive while riding, allowing you to execute advanced maneuvers with greater ease and precision. As you gain experience and confidence, you’ll find that transitioning into and out of the half-seat becomes more fluid and natural, significantly improving your overall performance on the polo field.

polo swing

Basic Polo Shots

Mastering basic polo shots is essential for any player looking to excel in the sport. This section will cover the fundamental shots every polo player should learn, including the forehand shot, the backhand shot, and the more advanced neck shot and tail shot. By getting a grasp and practicing these techniques, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a skilled and versatile player on the polo field.

A. The forehand shot

The forehand shot is the most common and basic shot in polo. It’s used to hit the ball forward, typically toward the goal. To execute a forehand shot, follow these steps:

  1. Approach the ball at a comfortable speed and angle, keeping your eyes on the ball.
  2. As you near the ball, begin your backswing by lifting the mallet up and behind you, using your wrist and forearm.
  3. Swing the mallet forward in a smooth, fluid motion, striking the ball with the wide face of the mallet head.
  4. Follow through with your swing, allowing your arm and mallet to naturally continue forward.

B. The backhand shot

The backhand shot is played by hitting the ball in the opposite direction of your horse’s movement, essentially sending the ball behind your horse. This shot is crucial for defensive plays and changing the direction of the ball. To execute a proper backhand shot, follow these steps:

  1. Approach the ball from the opposite side compared to a forehand shot, with the ball on your mallet side.
  2. Begin your backswing by lifting the mallet up and forward, keeping the wide face of the mallet’s head perpendicular to the ground.
  3. Rotate your upper body slightly, shifting your weight to your back foot.
  4. Swing the mallet backward and downward, striking the ball with the mallet head, and follow through with your swing.

By practicing this technique, you can effectively execute backhand shots and enhance your defensive skills on the polo field.

C. The neck shot and tail shot

The neck and tail shots are advanced polo shots that allow players to hit the ball at various angles in relation to their horse. These shots are used to strategically maneuver the ball on the field.

  1. Neck shot: This shot is played at an angle in front of the horse, sending the ball across the horse’s neck. To execute a neck shot, you should approach the ball at the correct angle and adjust your swing to make contact with it so it travels across your horse’s neck in the desired direction.
  2. Tail shot: The tail shot is executed similarly to the backhand shot but is played at an angle behind the horse, sending the ball across the horse’s hindquarters. To perform a tail shot, approach the ball as you would for a backhand shot, adjusting your angle and mallet position to strike the ball in a way that sends it diagonally behind your horse.

Please note that these shots are more advanced and may require a higher skill level and practice to execute effectively.

Picture of the lower half of polo horses during a match.

Riding Safely and Responsibly

Safety should always be a top priority when playing polo. Wearing appropriate safety gear can help prevent injuries and protect you and your horse. Some essential safety equipment includes a properly fitted helmet, riding boots with a small heel, gloves, and knee guards.

It would be best to consider wearing a riding vest or mouthguard for added protection. Ensuring your horse is equipped with well-maintained tack, such as the saddle, bridle, and girth, can also contribute to a safer riding experience.

Communicating with teammates and opponents on the field

Effective communication is crucial for ensuring the safety and success of all players on the field. Clear communication helps to prevent collisions and misunderstandings during the game. Develop verbal and non-verbal signals with your teammates to indicate your intentions, such as calling for a pass or signaling a change of direction. Additionally, always show sportsmanship and respect towards your opponents, as this creates a positive and safe playing environment.

Proper care for your horse before, during, and after a match

Taking care of your horses is essential for their well-being and overall performance. Before a match, ensure your horse is groomed, properly tacked, and warmed up. Check for any signs of discomfort or injury and address them immediately.

During the game, be mindful of your horse’s condition, avoiding overexertion and watching for signs of fatigue or stress. After the game, cool down your horse with a gentle walk, untack, groom, and provide fresh water and hay. Regular veterinary check-ups and proper care will ensure your horse remains healthy and ready for future matches.

Conclusion-Polo Riding Techniques for Beginners

Learning to play polo can be an exciting and rewarding experience. By mastering the basics of riding, understanding essential polo shots, and prioritizing safety, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a confident and skilled player. Remember that practice is vital; the more time you spend in the saddle, the more comfortable and adept you’ll become.

Don’t forget to communicate effectively with your teammates and always treat your horse with care and respect. As you continue to develop your skills and knowledge, you’ll discover the true joy of this exhilarating sport and become a valuable asset to your team on the field. Happy riding.


How many horses are used by a player in a polo match?

Each player typically uses multiple horses in a polo match, with a minimum of two horses per player per game. The number of horses used can vary depending on the duration of the match, the player’s skill level, and the horse’s stamina. Players will often switch horses between chukkers, allowing their mounts to rest and recover.

How many players are in a polo game?

A polo game typically consists of four players per team, with each player, assigned a specific position on the field. The positions include Number One, Two, Three, and Back. The teams try to score points by hitting the ball through the opposing team’s goalposts, with the team with the most points at the end of the game declared the winner.