Polo is considered to be the fastest game in the world, with the exception of ice hockey, and can reach speeds of up to 30 mph. In addition, the sudden changes in direction needed to follow the ball can lead to a serious danger of collision, so rules must be used to ensure the safety of both horse and rider. The game is divided into "chukkas", each lasting seven and a half minutes. Riders should have a different pony for each chukka, due to the stresses put on the pony galloping flat out from beginning to end. A game of polo will have between four and six chukkas depending on the level of polo being played.
Although the horses used for polo will measure 14.3-15.3hh, they are referred to as ponies and conformation is very important to help cope with the nature of the game.
- A wide chest and hindquarters will help the pony when being bumped by others.
- A generous shoulder with plenty of depth is needed to allow for the stresses of "riding off"; where a player will position his pony alongside another to push him out of the way to gain possession of the ball.
- A short-backed pony with well-sprung ribs can usually turn and stop more quickly.
- Depth through the heart, chest and lungs indicate stamina and staying power.
- There should be plenty of space between the stifle and point of hip, coupled with a well let down hock to allow maximum impulsion from behind.
- The pasterns are generally straighter than is acceptable for other disciplines as long sloping pasterns will put too much strain on the tendons, which are subjected to great wear and tear in polo.
- Lastly, good withers are needed to keep the saddle in the correct position, because of the amount of movement that the rider must make in the saddle.
Polo is a demanding exercise both physically and mentally, but if the pony is not conformationally correct, then from a chiropractic point of view, more stresses will be put into the joints and back.
The ponies will generally nave a weak topline and work with a high head carriage, subsequently they develop muscles on the underside of the neck. This in turn, encourages the pony to work with a hollow back which produces weak back muscles and tension developing behind the saddle. The bridle will usually include a martingale to keep the head carriage lower and to make stopping and turning easier for the rider. A gag bit or short shanked pelham are often used, which have a top rein giving a mild snaffle-type action, and a bottom rein which produces a more severe effect and, is used to give more control and quicker stopping ability. The saddle is usually rower at the cantle than at the front, causing the rider's weight to be thrown to the back of the saddle and so onto the horse's back, thereby causing tension developing behind the saddle area.
Unlike dressage, the quality of movement in the polo pony is unimportant. It doesn't matter if the pony throws its head, swings its hindquarters or loses its rhythm - the training for polo is not artistic but purely practical. Training involves learning to neck rein (not used in other disciplines) and teaching the pony to stop very quickly and straight with pressure from one hand only. The pony must be agile and able to adjust its feet quickly during only slight changes of direction.
From a chiropractic point of view, it is quite apparent that the speed and physical nature of the game will make the polo pony a good candidate for regular chiropractic treatment throughout the playing season to ensure his peak performance. These ponies will develop shoulder problems related to riding off against another pony, and pelvic problems due to the quick stops and tight cornering; they may even suffer fractures of the pelvis by being barged from behind.
As Julian Hipwood quotes, as a 10 goal player, "A good polo player needs a sharp eye for the ball, ruthless determination to get to the ball, and the strength to manoeuvre the horse and ward of opponents. Horsemanship plays an important part in the training of a polo pony, but very little in the game itself".