“Polo Mouth”—Is It Time to Reconsider Riding Technique in the Sport of Princes and Kings?

The disturbing image I accidentally caught while photographing a recent polo match.

It had been almost 20 years since I’d seen the game played when I recently ventured near a polo field. A childhood friend had handled a string of ponies for a local player, and I distinctly remember the challenge of exercising them (rein, seat, and leg aids were a whole new, well, “ballgame”). To be honest, I really hadn’t thought much about the sport since those days, but being a horse lover who generally enjoys any excuse to sit in the sun and gaze at glossy four-leggeds, I eagerly accepted an invitation to attend a match a couple of months ago.

While admittedly the horses were finely bred and in excellent physical shape, I found myself decidedly uncomfortable as the afternoon wore on. I couldn’t help but think of the developments in other horse sports over the past decade, and how we have become far more cognizant of the fact that horses suffer, often needlessly, due to rough or careless riding and ill-fitting or harsh tack and equipment.

I am prepared to state that I am very conscious of the fact that many polo players are excellent riders with a secure seat, and no doubt they spend a lot of money to keep their string in good health and peak condition. However, the need for control of the ponies’ movements in such a fast-played, stop-and-go game, and the use of what appear to be fairly severe bits and strong hands, made it very apparent to me that many of the horses were hurting.

I was spinning through my photos from the day when I got home, and sure enough, I was gutted by one particular image I had captured, quite by accident, that in my mind was equal in horror to many of the images we have seen publicized during the Rollkur/LDR debate. My eyes were truly opened, just as this horse’s eyes were rolled back in his head, the whites showing, as he obviously reacted to extreme pain in his mouth. Now, I can’t help but notice, everywhere I see a photo from a polo match, there is undoubtedly one or two ponies exhibiting similar expressions. It saddens me greatly to know that so many of the activities we pursue with these wonderful animals cause them pain and distress.

Public outcry has helped to change training methods and decrease the use of training devices in many of our horse sports. Perhaps it is time to reconsider what has traditionally been acceptable in the sport of princes and kings?

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  1. christine peniaranda · July 27, 2011

    after crying my eyes out over recent anti-bit videos i made a windchime out of my bit collection. my horses have never been happier and seem to show their appreciation by allowing full control with my flimsy little rope halter and bareback pad. i urge everyone out there to go bitless. being a member of the vet community i believe the medical research done that proves with scientific facts the horrible damages sustained by our horses, even with “light hands”. my horses will never know another bit or the many health consequences associated with their use. thank you for helping to educate others who insist on this barbaric and cruel torture apparatus-the bit.

  2. christine peniaranda · July 27, 2011

    i have heard that Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth banned fox hunting and rodeos in her land. i would love to ask her to consider the suffering and unseen damages caused to our horses with the use of bits. i would not want her Royal Highness to actually see the photographic evidence and scientific medical evidence as it is so awful i would feel ashamed at having her see such atrocities. but i know if she knew about it she would put a quick end to the use of bits “straightaway”.

  3. Walter · October 31, 2012

    Ok you try throwing your head up and see how much of the whites of your eyes are seen?

    Whereas there are good and poor horsemen in all sports generalizing the riding methods in polo as harsh is just not valid.

    On the whole Polo ponies are ridden on a loose rein and the emphasis is around 15% hands and the rest seat and legs. The most common polo bit is the gag running rein combination. Both these work on a pulley action, so pulling one inch back on the mouth requires two inches of the hand. A polo player is needing to twist his body to take shots make ride off and hook the opponents stick. All this movement while controlling the pace and direction of the pony.

    So what is the effect of the running rein and gag? It’s a shock absorber! It’s logical that if you riding with a loose rein you can’t pull further back than your chest – it’s impossible to exert huge pressure.

    It’s just logic anyway, a player would get tired and the horse too far too quickly if there was harshness and pulling.

    No the reality is that the ponies are mostly balanced, and extremely responsive the rider rides with whatever contact he has with a shock absorber rein, when he gives the pressure on the mouth – it is done with light contact on the curb or the gag, this translates into a definite aid. The horse throws itself around because its moving at speed.

    I often watch people hacking or jumping with a thick snaffle the rider tugging at the mouth and think how those s horses would appreciate the lightness of polo tackle used like the average polo player does.

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