Last summer I was lucky enough to take a break from uni for a few months and get a job at a polo yard. In theory it was an awesome idea because I could spend the better part of the year on horseback and get a wicked tan. In reality it involved more than just riding horses and I have typically English skin which freckles instead of going brown. Because of this, I opted to enrol for summer school this year and knock a month or so off my degree in the long run.
I did want to document the whole thing last year for anyone who was interested in what is involved in the “day in the life of a” polo groom, but I ended up being far too busy to even think of stopping to take photos – or even update my blog for that matter!
This summer my old boss asked me to bring the girls in prior to him flying home from America for the season, and it prompted me to whip up a little post about what it’s like to groom for a polo player.
A TYPICAL DAY AT THE YARD
The majority of the week is obviously spent at the yard, keeping the ponies fit and conditioned for polo. Most players will have a bunch of ponies in work (this season I brought eleven back in from turnout) and conditioning sets take roughly an hour – it therefore makes sense to work as many ponies at once as you can.
I only ever had four ponies at one time in a set, though it’s not unusual to have five if there are a large group needing work. Polo ponies’ legs have a pretty hard time as you can imagine, and so working them without a rider on board helps their legs out a bit too. Conditioning sets only ever involved walking around a hilly paddock and then trotting on the flat. All the cantering and galloping is saved for practises and tournaments.
In my case, yard days were always shorter than practise/tournament days. We’d start off nice and early at around 8am, and do conditioning sets until lunch. The girls get pretty warm and sweaty, and so they’d stay in the shed over lunch and dry. The afternoon was spent grooming before putting rugs on and turning out, rolling bandages and cleaning gear if need be. This is optional – but the afternoon can be the perfect time to smooch and just love on all the ponies because you’re going to get incredibly attached to at least half of them.
Note: Polo players have a shit tonne of leather. Learn to love cleaning tack.
Farrier/dentist/clipping days obviously take a little longer, but as a general rule I’d get away from the yard at around 3 on most days.
Best thing about work on a ‘yard day’ – you get to practise your bandaging skills. When you leave, you’re going to be able to wrap a horse’s leg like no-one’s business!
A DAY GOING TO PRACTISE
Practise days are long, looong days. They’re basically just days where the club to which your boss belongs organise a few chukkas for everyone to practise. Obviously super useful since polo is a team sport (if you love team sports and horses, polo is for you!).
The pace is slower than a tournament – you have a bit more time to get ponies ready between chukkas and often will be able to watch from the truck. Tournaments are ran at a waaaay faster pace and you barely have any time to watch the game, so practises are a good opportunity to take a minute or two to watch and get your head around the sport.
Following the organised chukkas, players may take young ponies to the grounds to not only get them used to the atmosphere and being tied to the truck (polo ponies are often OTTB’s and it is a completely different atmosphere at polo than at race days) but to ‘stick-and-ball’ them. This basically just involves cantering around very slow pace, maybe passing a ball between a couple of players. It should come as no surprise that ponies need to slowly get used to polo sticks and balls flying around them, if only for the sake of safety!
Depending on your boss, you’ll probably be required to put a bit more effort in presentation than you would at home. My boss liked his mares really presentable, which is definitely a good thing, and they’d be groomed thoroughly beforehand with hooves polished and tails brushed out properly before being tied up. We also had boots over bandages for extra protection, and a good tip is to stick boots together with their velcro to avoid mad scrambling when you need them.
Once practise is finished, you may be required to do a conditioning set or two when you get home. Some ponies don’t go to every practise but they obviously still need to be worked. These days are the longest of all, but less riding means you’re legs/knees/bum will thank you.
You get the odd scrape here and there so it pays to really check the ponies over whilst you’re hosing them following a chukka. Practises are probably the first time you’ll use all of the gear on a pony, so they’re a useful time to figure out where all of the straps go.
A TOURNAMENT DAY
Tournament ‘days’ are usually weekends, so you need to be prepared to travel.
Unfortunately you don’t really get much time to watch ‘your’ ponies play as the seven minutes between chukkas involve hosing and walking the previous pony and getting the next pony in line ready. It’s a bit of a mad rush, more so if your boss wants to do a pony-swap mid chukka. Quite a few games my boss would play six ponies between four chukkas, which obviously increased the workload but is definitely better for the ponies.
Tournament days are brilliant because between all the slow paced stuff you forget that the ponies you ride everyday are incredibly talented. You get to see all the ‘boring’ conditioning type stuff pay off in the form of gleaming, galloping beasts running up and down a field. It’s pretty epic.
The three nuisances above cause all kinds of chaos during sets, but do an amazing job out on the field.
Polo tournaments are excellent horse events – even though I’m not grooming this season, I’m super keen to go and watch a few games. The ground literally shakes and it makes you appreciate the work that goes into these ponies when you see one pull up from a gallop to do a complete 180 turn and speed off in the space of about a second.
Last season one of our ponies won pony of the match, and that’s pretty neat because you get to present that pony in front of heaps of people who admire her. I got incredibly attached to every pony at the yard, and so I imagine it was a bit like watching your child nail his/her role in the school play. So proud.
Tournaments were my favourite part of being a polo groom, mainly because you can see what all the work you’re putting in eventuates to. The only downside is that when you get home you can bet that you’re going to have a craaaazy amount of gear to clean.
I think most riders at some point will work with horses, and polo would be a good option if you want to be a bit more hands on in all areas. You get a really good mix of riding/grooming duties whereas some jobs are more focused on ground duties and others you’re paid just to ride (track work). The kind of work doesn’t really ‘ruin’ your riding, it’s often said that track riding gives you hard hands and influences a bad position, whereas you can ride however you like during conditioning.
Obviously you’d probably want to work in a discipline that you’re interested in, but if you’re looking for ‘something different’ then I would recommend polo to anyone!