Polo: the game of kings.
We’ve all seen it depicted on TV at some point—gorgeous horses galloping madly after a tiny white ball, players swinging cane mallets, while spectators clad in beautiful suits and elegant dresses sip champagne on the sidelines.
What the movies don’t show is the polo groom, scrambling behind the scenes to have horses ready for the game. Covered in filth, sweat, horse hair, and probably blood, the polo groom has to be able to get a new horse ready—tacked, legs wrapped, and tail braided—every three minutes of each game.
Is it madness? Absolutely.
Here’s what I discovered during a season as a polo groom:
1. The first thing you’ll learn is how to ride sets.
Polo grooms typically exercise horses in “sets” of three to five horses at a time. You have to learn how to ride one horse while leading up to four others—at a walk, trot, and canter.
Yes, this is as terrifying as it sounds.
Especially when the horse you’re riding is having a mare day and wants to kick everyone in sight while the horse on your left is trying to charge forward because they’re an ex-racehorse, and one on your far right is trying to dislocate your shoulder by slamming on the brakes because she’s a lazy little you-know-what and doesn’t much feel like running today, thanks.
2. Eventually, riding sets will become the most boring part of your day.
Once the terror fades, the monotony will set in. Polo horses are typically exercised on a track, so you’ll spend two to three hours of each day riding in really big circles. You can always tell the experienced grooms because they’ll be riding while listening to music. Or, if they’re particularly capable, they’ll be riding sets while watching Netflix on their phones.
3. You will become a better rider.
Handling multiple horses at speed will do wonders for your biceps. Dragging horses around the track will likewise give you a really, really grounded seat.
4. You will become a worse rider.
All that pulling can also put serious strain on your body. You’ll have to work hard not to end up riding hunched over, or with shoulders pointing in two different directions.
5. Polo involves a whole new set of vocabulary.
Each game has four periods, known as “chukkas.” All polo players are ranked from -2 to 10, and the playing level of the team comes from the four players’ cumulative rankings. Games are then referred to by that sum: an 8-goal match, 20-goal, and so on.
Sound confusing? It is. Ask lots of questions and eventually, it may even make sense.
6. On your first competition day, you will feel like a beheaded chicken.
A player will use four to eight horses in each game, and you’ll only have two or three sets of tack. Which means that every three to seven minutes, you have to untack one horse, bathe them, and put their tack on the next horse.
Oh, and they also all need their legs wrapped, their tails braided and folded up, you can’t find a rolled bandage to save your life, the horse that’s just come off the game has untied themselves and is making a beeline back to the barn, and in the last thirty seconds, you’ve managed to lose an entire bridle that you need right now.
7. Everything will be okay.
I’m not even sure how, but everything ends up in the right place at the right time. And just as you’re on the verge of hyperventilating, your rider will run over, hop on the horse you’ve just got ready in what felt like ten panic-filled seconds, and say, “Great job, thanks!” before galloping off.
8. It will be a lot of work for a short playing time.
You will spend months carefully training and conditioning so that a horse can play a couple minutes of a game. It’s a crazy amount of effort for such a short pay off… But then again, that’s most horse sports.
9. They’re not all snobs.
Contrary to what we see on the screen, polo people aren’t all completely stuck-up. Most are kind, and they genuinely love both the sport and the horses they ride. You will meet a couple of jerks. But hey, that’s life.
10. It’s all about the horses.
Polo players love their horses, and the polo ponies are subsequently some of the most pampered horses you’ll ever meet. They are also exceptionally well trained, athletic, and completely beautiful creatures. In the end, just working with the horses will make the job worth it.
Plus, they can go really, really fast… and as a friend of mine says, life is too short to ride slow horses.
Caelan Beard is a travel writer and horse enthusiast based out of Toronto, Ontario. She recently completed her third summer working as a trail guide in Jasper National Park, Alberta, where she spent her days leading people on horse rides through the Rocky Mountains. Check out her blog, The Wandering Years.