By Kerstie Allen
We’ve all loved that one special horse. Whether it was a naughty first pony or a seasoned show horse, equines hold a special place in our heart. We may love that horse or pony so much we give them the title of being the “best.”
In the game of polo, one horse in each tournament is named the best playing pony (BPP). It’s decided in the finals of the tournament, usually by a neutral party and by a player that’s not competing in that tournament. Most commonly it’s a higher-rated player who can watch from the sidelines and gets to pick and choose from the dozens of ponies that appear throughout the game.
Although we refer to them as polo ponies, polo horses can be any size.
We all like different things in a horse and each of the four positions on the field requires a slightly different ability. It takes a keen eye and hundreds of hours of game time to be able to accurately judge which of all these incredible athletes will be selected as BPP.
The number 1 position is usually the Patron (in the polo world it’s pronounced puh-trone) or owner of the team. This requires a steady, smooth-riding and honest horse, usually more stocky than the others, that may not be the fastest or quickest turner but will probably be the most seasoned. This horse will stay cool-minded and balanced for his more novice rider.
The 2 position is usually a bolder, stronger and more aggressive horse that plays the attack. Playing offense is a lot of pressure. The horse needs to be competitive, run and want to win like a racehorse, pushing and riding off other horses to get to the finish line — in our case between the goal posts — with as much desire as their rider.
Number 3 is ridden by the best player of the field and therefore must be the most skillful. He must also be able to play offense and defense at the turn of a hand. He must stay light and supple and be able to stop and go with bursting speed like a cutting Quarter Horse. At the same time, the number 3 horse must stay calm in order to maneuver through hectic situations, and then when asked, run like the wind or make a rollback and go full-on defense — combining the qualities of a race horse, sprinter and a working cow horse.
The number 4 is the back — the defense. This horse doesn’t have to be as fast but needs to stand his ground. He must also be handy and steady, as his rider is usually the hardest hitter. This position stays in the back of the field so this mount should be content with being passed by several horses at high speed without the urge to join in. If you’ve ever been on a trail or group ride and tried to hold your horse back from taking off as everyone else runs for home, you know what I mean. It takes a special horse to have the mindset and self-control to be the number 4.
All polo ponies neck rein, as we can only use one hand — our left — to control them. In polo, we all hold the mallet with our right hand as a safety precaution; there are no lefties. To coincide with us trying to hit the ball on our right side, the off side, we tend to always choose the right canter lead to counter balance our weight and aid their action. This way we travel as smoothly as a vaulting horse making acrobatic maneuvers while hitting the elusive white ball.
Some of the best qualities I personally like in a polo pony, no matter what position I play, is the will and heart to play. Some of my best-playing ponies don’t have the same ability as some of my others, but they want to play and actually know the game. They love what they do and can almost play it by themselves. In polo, horses are 80 percent or more of the game. If we can’t get to the ball, we can’t hit it. The best horses know where the goal is and that’s where they’re taking me, if I can only keep up and keep hitting the ball in the right direction. I may even get a little help from them kicking it too — whatever it takes to get the ball between the goals! In polo, if my horse or another kicks the ball through the goal, it’s still a goal, so I suppose horses can almost play without us.
It’s the heart of the player, or pony, at the end of the day that determines who wins — the one who really wanted it. The teams are all rated the same and their ability should be the same. All of the horses have four legs and a tail, but who made it all come together? This is one of the reasons I love polo so much. No matter if we win or lose, I love knowing my horses did their best. Maybe one did her best rollback ever, stopped faster or pushed a bigger horse that extra stride for the advantage. Each horse did something or excelled for a moment that lets me know the hours of repetitious training were worth the time. Even though one of my ponies may not have been chosen BPP, for me each one deserved it for some reason or another. Being a polo pony is one of the most demanding roles to ask of a horse. All ages, sizes and breeds can play. They just have to love it as much as we do.
“A winner is just a loser that tried one more time…”