Even though called a polo “pony,” most horses used in the game of polo are full-sized horses with no breed or height restrictions. They may be of any breed or a combination of breeds, though most have a significant amount of thoroughbred blood that enables them to have the stamina, speed, endurance, and build needed to cover the required long distances in polo.
High-end ponies are bred from successful playing stock specifically for polo because of their level of strength, physical ability, ability to be willing and obedient, and having a certain ‘heart’ that they seem to inherit. It will take perhaps as long as five or six years to truly discover whether the horse will make a top-quality polo pony.
A large percentage of polo ponies that are considered to be among the world’s best quality come from Argentina’s large breeding and training operations. Those horses are often thoroughbreds that are crossed with an Argentine working horse. Ex-racehorses, too, make excellent polo ponies and can be taught the particular talents to successfully play polo.
Polo ponies have to be specifically trained and conditioned not to be shy when the ball or mallets swing near their heads and not be afraid to bump into other horses. They need to be agile and have quick acceleration to be able to turn rapidly and follow the ball.
The ponies also need to be in excellent physical condition because strong legs are needed to carry riders at full speed as well as be able to stop and turn “on a dime.” There are four to six chukkas in each match, and each chukka lasts seven and a half minutes. Since a horse has to be constantly on the move, a player may require numerous horses to be available for each match. The real athletes on the polo field are the ponies themselves. Mentally, the horse must have a love for the game plus an intelligence that is capable of following everything that is happening on the field.
By riding different horses before a person makes a decision, he or she starts to develop a feel for the size that feels better, the type of pony that has the right compatible personality to be a teammate, and one that reacts in the manner that the rider prefers. There is no one pony that is right for a rider and the rider’s style because it could be for a man over six feet tall who prefers a 14-hand thoroughbred or for a woman around five feet tall who feels best on a 16-hand giant. Rapport with its rider is 80 to 90 percent of the success of the game.