By Dan Harvey Pedrick
Shoeing for Polo
The last thirty years have seen a major revival of the game of polo in the United States and Canada. One characteristic of this revival has been the shedding of the stereotype image associated with the game as one of wealthy people, expensive cars, and snobbish exclusivity. Nowadays we are seeing polo played at a variety different levels, from the rarified atmosphere of high-goal events such as the U.S. Open, to medium-goal amateur tournament play, to recreational riders learning the game for the first time in small, local riding clubs. Whatever the level of play, few equestrian sports demand as much from the horse as the game of polo. Even the longest of races, Britain's spectacular Grand National steeplechase for example, are over in five minutes or so, well under the seven minute period required for even a laid back chukker of a game meant to be played at the gallop. The fast turning, stopping, and flying lead changes in polo mean that these horses need to be well shod for dependable traction. It follows, therefore, that the demands on a polo pony's shoes are considerable.
As polo continues to grow in popularity, the need for farriers familiar with the requirements of the game are in increasing demand. In sizing up the task at hand, the farrier should consider the nature of the game itself and the stresses it can cause on a horse's legs, feet, and shoes.
Some Facts About Play:
Polo has often been compared to hockey, on horseback. A playing field is 300 yards by 160 yards, and each goal is eight yards wide. Each team has four players, two offensive and two defensive. There are two mounted umpires and one referee. The basic concept of the game is to strike the ball while mounted,usually at speed, in such a manner as to pass it to a teammate or to make a scoring shot between thegoalposts. A polo match consists of four to six chukkers(periods) of seven minutes each. Time is continuous and is only stopped in the event of an injury or a penalty. To be an effective player, one must possess athletic ability, a keen understanding of strategy, and be a skilled rider mounted on a sound, well-trained, and well-shod horse. Polo is a contact sport. A very important tactic of the game is to "ride off" another player, whereby the player rides alongside an opponent, closes with him until their mounts make shoulder-to-shoulder contact, and then moves the opponent and his mount off the line of the ball and away from the play. As long as the ride-off is executed within the guidelines regarding the use of unnecessary force and the angle of impact, it is a reasonably safe tactic and one critical to the game.
For high-goal polo, Thoroughbreds are definitely the breed of choice, as no other has the speed and stamina that the game requires. For novices and players of low goal polo, almost any healthy and sound horse can learn to play the game. Many games horses, barrel racers, roping horses, and even family pets have accomplished the switch to polo, some continuing to play well into their twenties.
Shoeing for Polo:
With polo horses, any inaccuracy intrimming and fitting will soon cause problems. Medial and lateral balance is essential. Toes should be kept short with hoof angles tending towards the steep side. Heels should not be lowered too much, as bowed tendons could be the result. Front shoe heels should be rasped if necessary to insure a close, tight fit. Heel extension on hind shoes should also be kept to a minimum.
Polo horses should be shod every four to five weeks. The United States Polo Association is the official governing body of the sport in the U.S. and Canada. The USPA publishes its official Blue Book of rules annually and is brief and specific about what is and is not permitted regarding the shoeing of polo mounts. As with most of the other USPA rules governing the conduct of the game, safety is the primary consideration. According to USPA rule #6, paragraph "a.", "Shoes with an outer rim, toe grab, screws or frost nails are not allowed. Dull heel calks of the standard type are allowed on the heels of hind shoes." What the rule means to forbid is a "sharp" outer rim, of course, such as that often used by barrel racers. These and the other traction enhancing devices mentioned in rule #6 are clearly capable of causing severe injury to horses on the field given the close contact of polo. Such modifications as trailers are impractical for the same reason and any horse requiring one should not be considered for polo.
The problem facing the shoer of polo ponies, then, is how to provide sufficient traction while avoiding these customary horseshoe modifications that are unsuitable for polo.
A type of horseshoe specifically designed for the front feet of polo horses is very similar in size and weight to training plates for racehorses. "Polo plates" are made of light steel barstock swaged with with a sharp, tapered rim higher on one side than the other. The shoe is then formed so that the higher rim is located on the inner side of the web. The lower rim is situated well back from the outer edge due to the taper, thus apparently meeting the USPA ban on outer rims. This type of shoe allows for easy lateral rotation in turf and breakover from all directions while still maintaining good traction. One disadvantage with polo plates is that, being so light, they tend to wearout rather quickly, especially if used on horses frequently ridden on surfaces harder than polo fields. The answer may be the "polo plate" design now being manufactured by several companies in a more standard weight (i.e., St Croix "Lite" rims). A light, creased saddle horse shoe may be satisfactory for low goal polo, especially on the smaller foot. Light or regular weight full-swaged shoes are also used to good effect, and are well suited to the larger feet of heavier-boned horses. Hind shoes should have heel caulks as these will do much to prevent slipping when turning on the hindquarter, as polo horses must often do. These may be either turned or diamond caulks. The caulks on heeled keg shoes are certainly dull enough to satisfy the USPA rule requirements, but some farriers like to build one or both of these up for better traction. Do not use borium or other hard-surfacing materials for this, as the USPA considers these to be sharp caulks. Rather, simply upset the caulked heel against the end of the anvil, making it shorter but higher. In any case, remember to avoid leaving sharp edges, especially on the outside.
As for nailing, the lightest nail that will do the job is usually the best. For the often thin-walled hooves of Thoroughbred type horses, race nails may be indicated, especially when using polo plates. Back punching the nail holes with a pritchel will permit higher nailing. In every case, clinches should be placed high and finished close and smooth, as the likelihood of their being stepped on is increased in polo.
It is not often necessary to draw clips on shoes for polo ponies but occasionally a single toe clip is required, usually on a hind shoe. Avoid using two side clips on hind shoes, as one would on a hunter-jumper. Once again, turning on the hindquarter is a frequent maneuver in polo and it is better that a shoe can shear off when subjected to a maximum of torque rather than put a severe strain on a horse's leg. I should mention here that the ideal surface upon which polo is played is turf, but the quality of fields may vary according to prevalent conditions. With sandy fields and especially indoor arenas, polo plates on all four feet maybe the best option.
The requirements of good equine candidates for the game of polo are straight legs and good feet before anything else. It has been my experience that corrective shoeing is not often called for with these horses, other than to treat occasional injuries. If wedge or flat pads are used, however, great care should be taken to insure a close, tight fit, especially at the heels.
The risk of injury to horses from shod hooves is further reduced by the careful bandaging and/or use of boots on all four legs. Scalper boots worn on all feet will give good protection to the coronary band and to the bulbs of the heels. New and improved products to provide this protection have been introduced recently and farriers should recommend their use to their polo-playing clients.
Polo ponies are horses possessing outstanding traits, abilities, and conformation. Any polo pony worthy of the name has doubtless received a considerable amount of expert training and handling. Most are well behaved for shoeing. I enjoy shoeing them almost as much as playing them.
(This piece was originally published in The American Farrier's Journal by Dan Pedrick of Victoria, B.C. Dan has been a practicing farrier for over thirty years. [God, I'm getting old!])
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