Polo training tips

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Polo demands a lot from your horse. To ensure that you’re giving him the best opportunity to manage the challenge, try these training tips from polo players Johan du Plooy and Janna Strehlau.

Firstly, remember that a pony with well-balanced conformation and a good temperament will always do better. When choosing your pony, keep that in mind! Because polo is about speed, quick turn on the hindquarter and fast stops, it’s essential that your horse is well balanced, fit, flexible and strong. To get there, you will need to develop a good seat and balance so that you can offer the best support for your horse. Thereafter, it’s all about building the work up slowly, and patience and empathy for your equine partner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStarting off

School in a simple snaffle (or whatever bit your horse does not avoid the pressure of). Change to your competition bit closer to the game. This keeps the horse’s mouth sensitive and active.

While polo is ridden with all reins in one hand, it is often better to school with the reins in both hands.

Step 1: Warm up
As with any training, be sure to warm your horse up properly beforehand. It takes at least 10 minutes of forward moving (but not rushed) walking to get the muscles warm, the tendons supple and the joints lubricated.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 2: Responsiveness
Start off in a light, active trot, encouraging your horse to activate his hindquarters. Slow, active trotting is best for this. Start in a big circle and slow the pony with your seat and reins for a couple of strides and then push him forward again for about 30m. You will be able to see if your pony respects your legs and moves away from leg pressure. It’s a good exercise for teaching responsiveness to the leg aids.

Step 3: Balance, rhythm and flexibility
Slowly make your circle smaller and smaller while keeping your horse in an active, controlled trot. This encourages him to stay balanced, in rhythm and not to rush. The horse should also start bending through the body and not just at the neck. You can begin to ask for contact through the reins at this point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 4: The importance of a good canter
After warming up, it’s important to work in a canter as the horse will usually only canter or gallop in a polo game. Ask for a controlled canter in a 15m circle for three rounds and then speed up in a straight line for 20m or more. Slow down, but stay in canter, and circle again, ensuring that the horse is stepping under nicely with his hindquarters and bending through the body, then push forward into a faster straight line again. Make sure you try this on both legs!

Step 5: Sharp turns
Using objects like tyres to canter around can be helpful, especially for a young or green horse. Put the items 20 to 30m apart and canter big circles around one item, then speed up straight to the tyre. After a few minutes, make the circles smaller and smaller around the item, ensuring that the pony is bending well. Lean back in your seat.

For advanced training the goal is to speed up, straight line, then stop dead and turn on the hindquarter and speed up again. Remember to always do the exercises on both sides. Another option is to stop and take a few steps backwards and then turn around again. These exercises will strengthen the hindquarters to encourage quicker turns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 6: Flying changes
Learning the flying change is very useful for polo. Start with a 20m circle and slowly make it smaller. Ride in a figure of eight, encouraging a flying change at the cross point.

Step 7: Hillwork
Find a slight slope and canter slowly downhill, stop at the bottom and walk backwards for three steps and then turn as quickly as possible.

First try a small circle and progress to turning on both hind legs. Canter uphill again. This strengthens the hindquarters tremendously, but always ensure the horse is properly warmed up and fit enough to handle the exercise.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStep 8: Flexibility
Stand on one side of the horse and hold his withers with one hand, and muzzle or halter with the other. Bend his neck gently around. Hold for five seconds then release. Repeat four times on each side. If you do this twice a day, you will notice a huge improvement.
You can also do this while riding. With your reins, gently ask the horse to swing his nose around to your foot. Be gentle and don’t expect the horse to touch the first time. Work up to it slowly.

Step 9: Cool down
Don’t forget to always cool down your pony with a few minutes of walking on a long loose rein. Hose down all 4 legs with cold water and, if it’s very hot, hose the pony down completely.

Text: Peta Daniels

For the full article, get the November 2014 issue (93) of HQ Magazine. Visit Coolmags for great subscription offers.