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Is Polo A Cruel Sport? 5 Facts About the Game?

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While watching a polo match, I noticed some of the riders manhandle their horses into position to hit the ball. The horses turn their heads with looks of shock and pain. Seeing the horse’s reaction made me wonder if polo is a cruel sport.

Horse polo is not considered to be a cruel sport, and the horses are well cared for. Many polo ponies are retrained former racehorses that are still in exceptionally fit condition and can do polo for a few years with a little additional training.

picture of horse and rider during a polo game.

Did you ever see a rough polo game and wonder if those horses enjoyed running around chasing the ball? Or perhaps you heard that they get forced into it after years of whipping and strict training?

This article offers a behind-the-scenes look at horse polo and answers many of the questions you may have about whether trainers are pushing these animals to perform beyond their abilities. 

Is Horse Polo Cruel?

Animal cruelty is abhorrent when it occurs, and luckily some organizations make it their business to keep an eye out for abuse. One good source of information is The Humane Society of the United States.

And they currently have no record of any cruelty or abuse of polo horses, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been incidents.

A horrible event occurred back in 2009 when 21 polo ponies in perfect health died randomly at a polo club in Florida, raising serious concern over animal cruelty and the possible use of performance enhancement drugs in the sport.

Horse polo games put very little pressure on a horse because much of what’s required of them in the field in terms of performance and endurance is very similar to what they would normally do out in the wild.

The running is intense but manageable; there’s no over-bending or high jumping that could damage the back or front legs during landing: And it’s also important to note that most polo ponies live longer than horses used in other sports. 

Generally speaking, when a horse is used to play sports, there are always safety concerns from the activity’s competitive nature, and horse polo can be particularly rough.

But that being said, it is healthier for a horse to play polo outside for a few minutes than to spend most of its time locked away in a tiny stall.

As with many sporting activities involving animals, the problem has more to do with the people involved’s competitive nature, leading someone to push the animal beyond what’s typically accepted.

Are Polo Horses Treated Well?

Polo horses are treated reasonably well, and most will work only 15-20 minutes per day, sometimes less. It means that any strain they experience when playing won’t significantly impact their overall health.

It also helps that most horses enjoy polo, mainly running fast in competition with the other horses. Running is something wild horses do as well. They run very fast in groups and will often try to outrun or outperform each other.

It is fun for horses to run and play in the wild. In polo, the excitement can be seen on the pitch when a rider catches on to the ball and hits it, and his horse seems to enjoy it. 

In order to aid in injury prevention, polo horses are strapped with a tendon boot on each leg, making it nearly impossible to get injured. Although polo can be rough, the risk of injury is minimal and only increases if players disregard the rules.

In terms of causing stress to the animal, as we’ve mentioned, horse polo ponies are the happiest horses in sport; and part of it is that they feel the thrill from the rider as they play. 

As long as they’re not being pushed to perform unusual feats on the field, the horses are mostly safe. Horse polo ponies are provided with the best feed, including supplements and electrolytes.

Each horse is provided a ‘groom’ who continually checks on his horse to ensure that food and water are adequate and that the horse is bathed and groomed every day.

Every horse is then checked for performance issues by walking, stretching, and exercising every day to ensure the best physical and mental state so that when it’s time to play, they can keep up with the constant running, turning, and bumping into each other.

Before a horse is trained for polo, you must provide it three of the essential things all horse need, and these are:

  1. Food, shelter, security: Like any other mammal, these are the core needs that you must provide before any training starts.
  2. Routine: Horses love routine, so to get the best performance out of their ponies, trainers ensure that each horse follows a standard pattern of eating, grooming, resting, and so on.
  3. Roughage: Polo ponies, just like all horses, need roughage, and the best source is good quality hay. You can add grain to hay to get more calories and nutrients.   

How Are Horses Prepared for Polo?

Now, despite what you may have heard, horses are not pulled out of the wild and forced to play polo, nor are they whipped to make them turn or run in the direction the rider wants. There’s a particular process that is used to prepare every horse for polo.

picture of a smiling polo player riding her horse during a match, polo surely doesn't seem like a cruel sport,
Image by Iatya Prunkova from Pixabay

Some horses come into polo at a young age and undergo lengthy training to make them strong and fast enough to play; and on the other hand, some horses learn quickly, especially if they come from other competitive sports like racing. 

Every horse goes through a medical test before training to ensure that it has the capacity for speed and endurance and that it doesn’t have any medical disorders.

When a horse is picked and groomed to play polo, it is issued an Identity card that marks its name, age, color, eyes, and footprints. Polo horse trainers and riders come from years of exposure to horses, and they tend to live near where their horses originate.

They usually have their horses and have been accustomed to dealing with horses in general, and this experience becomes instrumental, particularly when setting a comfortable environment for a polo pony,

How Are Horses Trained for Polo?

Horses are first taught the most basic movements such as trod, roll, canter and gallop: and these are simple movements that come naturally to horses, except they have to be trained to perform them on command.

The next step of training involves turning right and left, taking a 180° turn, and different sporting movements used in the game. When the horse is ready to proceed to the next step, short polo games are arranged (called chukkers).

Each game takes between 2-3 minutes at a time, and during these periods, the horse gets used to carrying a rider, which is an essential step in preparing the horses for polo matches.

In any sport involving a horse, much of the performance is based on the horse’s condition, not the rider. Trainers and riders understand that the best way to get a horse to give its best performance is to invest in its nurturing and well-being.

Most polo ponies carry the best genes, and they rarely suffer injuries because of the excellent care from owners and trainers. All of them have a great passion for horses and the game and will spend tons of money on providing premium care and the best training.

Equine veterinarians are responsible for checking and maintaining every horse’s health, even in the field during a game. Special emergency rooms and ‘cooling off’ spaces are organized for every game in case of an injury, and doctors are called in immediately if there’s an incident.

As a matter of fact, during every polo game, an ambulance has to be on-site in case a horse needs additional care.

In the final analysis, polo is not a cruel sport.

Polo horses are fast and agile. They are bred for high stamina and swiftness, but a lot of the time, both the trainers and grooms focus on keeping their horses in good spirits, especially before a match.

While a horse polo game takes a lot of energy out of the horses, it’s not something that happens for extended periods. The sport is usually a small-knit community event or a family affair, in which the trainers are known for their dressage, trail riding, training hacks, and so on.

Horses are better off running around in the field than being tied up in a tiny stall for all of their lives. They need to run and challenge each other to be in perfect health.

FAQ

1. Is Polo An Expensive Sport?

Horse polo is most certainly one of the most expensive sports to play, mainly because of the costs involved in purchasing and taking care of each horse. The gear used on the horse and riders is costly as well.

2. Is Polo A Dangerous Sport?

Polo is safe for the horse and rider provided the game follows standard regulations. Jumping can strain a horse’s back and front legs, but this is rare in a polo game.
Safety pads are used to prevent injury to the legs, but the more immediate concern is that horses tend to bump into each other during a game, and this can cause the player to fall.

3. Do Horses Understand The Game?

Horses enjoy being out in the field and being involved in the activity. As long as the rider has fun, the horse will enjoy the game, but no, they don’t understand the game in itself.
They do get excited when a game is played, and some horses can’t be tied up where they can see the game. When the rider misses the ball, the horse seems to understand the disappointment, and some polo horses anticipate backshots pretty well.      

4. What Is A Polo Pony?

Polo pony is a term for a horse used for the game of polo. Two main types of polo horses are used in the game: Thoroughbred and the other Argentina Criolla.     

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Sources:

  1. Featured image by Mar Navarro from Pixabay.
  2. Polo Pony, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polo, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  3. Polo, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polo, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  4. Polo Ponies, Equestrian Life, http://www.equestrianlife.com.au/articles/Polo-Ponies, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  5. Polo Terms, Tutorialspoint, https://www.tutorialspoint.com/polo/polo_terms.htm, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  6. The Polo Horse Training, Spirit of Polo Press, https://www.spiritofpolo-press.com/the-polo-horse-training/, Accessed 25/02/2021.