A polo pony is a term used to refer to the horses used in the sport of polo. The name may be deceiving, but a polo pony is not actually a pony at all. By definition, a pony is any equine under 14.2 hands (4.73 feet or 1.44 meters) in height. The average height for a polo pony is 15.1 hands (5.03 feet or 1.53 meters); it is not unusual, however, to see some above 16 hands (5.33 feet or 1.62 meters) tall. Polo ponies are bred for their speed, agility, courage, and athletic abilities.
Most polo ponies are mixed breed horses. Polo ponies are often crosses between thoroughbreds and horses native to the region of the polo team. In the United States, thoroughbreds are often crossed with Quarter Horses, producing fast moving and agile horses that can maneuver around the field efficiently. Criollo horses native to Argentina have become a popular choice to cross with thoroughbreds in recent years while other areas of the world utilize a vast variety of other breeds.
Regardless of the lineage of the ponies, there are aspects of their appearance that typically look the same. In polo, the ponies’ manes are hogged, or cut very short. The tail dock, the part of the tail with the bone, is often trimmed close or shaved, and the length of the tail is typically braided and taped up. The reason for this method of grooming is that long flowing manes and tails are likely to get tangled with the swinging mallets, presenting a safety risk for rider and horse alike. In prior years, the tail sometimes was cut at the base of the dock, but as horses naturally use their tails to swat flies, cutting the length prevented them from defending against bites. The current method of grooming allows the horses use of their tail when not playing the game.
In addition to grooming, polo ponies typically undergo extensive training to ensure they are fit for the game. An even temperament is an essential trait, as excitable horses can be difficult to control. The average polo pony is five to six years of age at the onset of his career, and without injury, they can remain competitive well into their teens. Polo ponies are typically ridden with one hand on the reins and are taught to respond to their rider’s leg and weight cues for quick maneuvering in the game.
The game of polo consists of two teams, each with four riders and their mounts. Each team attempts to score by passing a wooden or plastic ball through the goal posts at either end of the field. Long mallets are used to drive the balls across the 300-yard (274-meter) lawn. The targeted side of the field changes after each goal to compensate for elemental conditions that may impact the game. The average game of polo has four to six chukkas, or periods, and each chukka lasts seven minutes. Because of the heavy impact this high-speed match has on a polo pony, each rider is assigned more than one mount. Swapping out horses every three to four minutes allows the horses to remain fresh and at the top of their game.