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All About Polo:
Polo - The Game
The Polo Club
Field, Ponies And Equipment
Rules For Polo - Part 1
Rules For Polo - Part 2
Horsemanship - Part 1
Horsemanship - Part 2

Polo Horsemanship - Part 1

( Originally Published Late 1920 )

The management of the horse is a most important element in polo. A good horseman does not necessarily make a good player, but a man who is not a good horseman is very seriously handicapped in his effort to become a good polo player, very much as is a lame man in the matter of running races. The first thing to get is a seat. When I was a boy I made a point of coming in from my ride every day with my muscles tired to the point of aching, and I recommend this practice to every horseman. It gives one am unconscious seat. When T began riding, I was told by my preceptor that a man should always turn his toes in so as never to give the appearance of riding with his toes pointed diagonally away from the horse. I gradually came to acquire this way of riding, and it was not to be accomplished by bending the ankles in such way as to make the toes point forward, but it lay in the position of flue muscles of the thigh. When a man takes a seat in the saddle he should move himself just a little forward so as to throw the fleshy muscles of the thigh outward and backward and place in direct contact with the saddle the inside of the leg from the knee bones up. Having placed himself thus, he will find that automatically his feet now hang so as to throw them directly forward, and that in order to get them out of this position it is necessary to turn the ankles in an awkward position outward or to let the upper part of his leg assume a different position in connection with the saddle and ride gripping with the back of the leg rather than the inside of it.

Having set himself in his seat, the player should next look to his stirrups, which, in my judgment, should he of medium length, short enough so that he can stand up entirely clear of the saddle and turn around, so that in making the nigh-side forward stroke his right shoulder may be about over the ball on the left-hand side of his horse.

He should endeavor to acquire a position sitting quietly, well back in the saddle, with the feet well forward, and letting the horse do the speeding. He should not habitually stand up or lean forward, but by sitting right down in the saddle eliminate the greatest number of possible variations in the distance from the hand to the ground when hitting.

My cousin, Allan Forbes, is of the opinion that men should hit leaning forward, as he considers that in this way they get better direction and more distance to the stroke. There is no question but that when it is desired to hit the ball across in front of the pony it is necessary to lean forward; but I am a firm believer in having the seat pushed well back toward the after end of the saddle, and not varying the distance to the ground, as is done by leaning forward or standing up in the stirrups in making a stroke, excepting always for the nigh-side work, when it is necessary.

Avoid, as much as possible, hitting under the pony's belly, as the stick or the ball is too likely to hit the pony's legs, and either of them may damage the pony.

The following remarks apply only to horses which have been thoroughly trained to the saddle and are well bitted. I do not undertake to give directions for the earlier instruction of a horse that has never learned the use of the bit. I have found. that some men who understand the training of horses have differed with my theories on the ground that beginning a horse with a sharp bit makes him afraid of it and that the best authorities recommend a light bit at first. To these I answer that I begin where they leave off; that my work is training a pony for polo, and that I assume that he is already bridle-wise.

In training ponies, the most important thing is to get them interested in the game first and afterwards develop their speed. In training a pony I never let him get to speed until I have got him so much the master of the game that the desire for racing will not exclude the interest in the play. The most important thing in handling a horse is the use of the reins. Many riders indulge in the practice, so pernicious in its results as to be almost wicked, of holding themselves in the seat with the reins. They seem to think that reins were given to them by a Divine Providence to steady themselves on the horse. When one considers that the mouth is one of the most tender parts of the horse's anatomy, and with well-trained horses the least touch can produce the desired result, it is nothing short of brutal to blunt this fine sense of the horse by misuse. New players should get horses to learn on that have extremely tender mouths and so little desire to run that they can be played with an absolntely loose rein. If they can not get such a horse I should recommend putting on an extremely sharp bit, at least sharp enough so that the horse will not press against it and will stop instantly if the pressure is put on too sharply.

Having thus got a horse which can be ridden with a loose rein or by a series of the lightest kind of touches, they should then acquire their seat without ever holding on or assisting themselves in the seat by pressure on the reins. It is my positive belief that more good horses and more good polo ponies are ruined by this fearful habit of pulling than by all the rest of the causes put together. It takes two to pull, the rider and the horse. If the man won't hull, the horse can't. I have known superb saddle horses that were almost unmanageable by men and which were mild as kittens with women. The reason was that they could not endure the hard hand of a man on the bit. Had they had a rider with sufficient skill to indicate to them by light touches, such as a woman must give owing to the lack of physical. strength necessary to hurt the mouth, they would have been as docile as they were with women.

I have sometimes thought that an excellent way to learn how to press lightly on the rein would be to have the snaffle rein cut and tied together on each side by bits of string, which would break as soon as the pressure exceeded a certain reasonable amount, like a lightning arrester which fuses as soon as the current gets too strong. This would automatically prevent a man from falling into the crazy habit of wrecking his horse's month, and yet this is what at least one-half of tile players do when beginning, and a good many of them do through life. I have known players with whom good polo ponies became pullers, and at the end of each year they found it necessary to buy new ones in order to keep) themselves mounted. I attributed this tendency, in many instances, to the player's poor seat.

I have sometimes wondered whv a little machine has not been invented for registering the pressure on the month of the horse by different men. It surely would not be a difficult device to have the two parts of the rein entering a machine, connected by means of a spring to a dial which would register the exact maximum pressure exerted by the rider. If the cold, hard fact that such-and-such a horseman managed his horse with a pressure indicated by the number 3 was presented to another horseman who habitually came in with a registration of 7 or 9, he would begin to study the causes for this phenomenon and perhaps correct the worst fault which a horseman can have. To polo men especially would I recommend the study of this very vital part of horsemanship. I have never heard of any such device as this having been attempted, so that it is merely a suggestion and might prove in practice to have none of the value that I imagine it would.

The function of a rein is not physically to stop a horse, but to telegraph to him the desire of the rider. Horses should be trained so that the least touch will indicate to them what is wanted and to obey this least indication as soon as they receive it. That the rein is a physical. means of stopping the horse is about as much of a fallacy as that the bootstraps are an excellent way of raising oneself from the ground. One might as well adopt the equal and opposite fallacy that the stirrups were an advantageous means for pushing the horse ahead, as all force used in pulling on the reins is derived from pressure on the legs and feet in the saddle and stirrups, so that by completing the vicious circle you are exerting your force to push the horse ahead in order to stop him. The fact is, of course, that the horse wants an indication of the desire of the rider, and as the inertia of going is something which he does not like to change, particularly if there is another horse going pretty fast right alongside of him, the signal to stop must sometimes be fairly forceful to make the horse obey it.

I hold mv reins with the snaffle on either side of the little finger and the curb on either side of the middle finger, thus having one rein outside of the little finger and one rein in between each of the four fingers. As the hand is held thumb down; it results that the two upper reins are the snaffle and the two lower reins the curb. In order to hold them at the same tension I can place my thumb over the reins and by pressing and gripping the reins with the hands I get a good grip. With this arrangement one can very easily adjust the reins by gripping the four reins with the right hand, and by slipping the whole left hand forward one gets a closer grip near the neck. By catching the upper part of the reins the snaffle is shortened, by catching the lower as it hangs the curb is shortened. The snaffle should always have a buckle and the curb never, so that in reaching for the snaffle if you feel for the buckle or look down and pick it out and slip one finger of the right hand through that you can be sure of shortening the snaffle. If you look for the sewed end and slip a finger through that or catch it with the hand to pull on, you can be sure you are shortening the curb.

I have adopted the following general methods of signaling my horse which have served my purpose:

For ordinary play the hand is held low and about over the pommel of the saddle. The pony understands that riding with the hand low indicates slight changes of direction rather than a sharp turn or turn about. When I want speed I throw my hand forward, giving loose rein and touching the pony on the neck low down. The whip, which is always carried in the left hand, as I have explained elsewhere, is about four feet long and limber. I use it on the shoulder for starting the pony and on the quarters for extending him. I use the spur for steadying him as he approaches the ball and for making him press over to ride against another pony and for getting him away from the pony when he is pressed up against him. I also use it to start a pony, quickly. I never use the spur for speed. To stop the pony, instead of taking hold of the curb rein, I find it infinitely more effective to raise the hand. This changes the angle of pull. A pull on the snaffle, which should always be a light one, is merely to steady the horse at the speed at which he is going and to hold him on the ball.

The advantage of lifting the hand is that the pony can instantly see and he instantly knows that it is desired to change the play and stop. Before putting any pressure on the curb the voice should always be used, but its effect should not be spoiled by an agonized "Hoh ! IIoh ! Hoh !" such as you often hear players galloping down the field addressing their ponies, who are not paying the slightest attention to it. Give one good sharp "Whoa!" and then a sharp lift on the curb, the body being thrown well back on the back part of the saddle, so as to put the weight on the quarters, not on the forelegs, and then loosen the rein up instantly in order to let the pony get his head free and stop if he will. If he fails to stop, a second sharp pull on the curl), loosening the rein immediately, should bring him to hand. The moment he has stopped the reins should be thrown immediately loose and the hand lowered.

There is nothing more wicked and pernicious in polo than turning in circles at speed, and yet how many players will do it! Ponies should he turned always by stopping them in their tracks and then starting them again on the new course. There are occasions in polo when the exigencies of the game require turning at speed, as, in following the ball around, but these are so few, compared to the cases when ponies should stop and turn, and are more apt to occur in playing against poor players than against good, that all players should first train their ponies to stop and turn and afterwards use them for whatever turning in circles may be necessary, because the ability to stop and turn does not preclude the other, whereas a habit of turning around at speed will prevent a horse from being of any use for really good polo.

In -turning the pony, when it is my desire that he turn very rapidly and fast, I always lay the rein on the upper part of the neck, so as to get it in an unaccustomed place. The rein is pressed against the lower part of the neck more or less continually, so that there is nothing particularly new to the horse in the feel of the rein at that point. It almost never touches the upper part of the neck, near the ears, and I have found that a pony will jump around, when lie feels the rein up there, infinitely faster than he will when the rein is pressed at the base of the neck; in fact, it makes the signal for quick turning a distinct one, as opposed to a shifting of direction. I am able to turn my best polo ponies almost on a loose rein, touching the mouth very, very lightly, and by shifting the rein on the neck they know instantly whether I am attempting to shift the direction slightly so as to get nearer the play or whether I want to bring them around to place them in position to go in an opposite direction.

A most important thing in polo is the care and saving of the horse. I have spoken elsewhere of using the mallet to protect the horse from getting hit by opponents. I should only, under the most important circumstances, hit the ball through under the pony's belly when going fast, for fear of hitting the horse's legs either with the stick or the ball.

A horse may be greatly saved by resting him in play. A great many players, particularly beginners, feel that they have to gallop all the time, that they are not playing if they are not galloping, and when the opportunity comes for a moment's rest, when the horse can stand still or be galloping slowly, they are still galloping madly about and getting themselves out of position. To save a horse properly, it is necessary to know exactly how to play to an opponent. If you place your pony in such relation to that of your corresponding opponent that he can not get at the ball without passing you, and you are vigilant about watching him, you can very often save your pony and hold him with very little exertion on the part of man and horse so as absolutely to cover your opponent. Thus if a ball comes back you may be able to meet it or if it passes you will be ready to turn and, by crooking or bard riding, prevent your corresponding opponent from getting the ball, and thus entirely cover your position. The polo player should make a rule never to gallop one unnecessary foot.

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