Chartered Physiotherapist and Veterinary Physiotherapist
Everyone accepts that polo players are athletes due to the high physical demands of the game. At the top level they have fitness programs, physiotherapy, warm-ups and nutrition advice. But what about the most important part of polo, the ponies? They are also athletes and have their own physiotherapists and exercise plans to try and make sure they are performing at their best. I’m lucky that I get to work with both players and their ponies. I qualified as a human physiotherapist over 10 years ago and have spent most of my career working with professional footballers and rugby players in the UK and Sweden. It was only after an impromptu vacation to Argentina some years ago to learn to play polo that I began to appreciate just how physically tough the game is! Learning to play at Palo Alto Polo (www.paloaltopolo.com) was brilliant but I soon realised that I seriously needed to improve my riding and fitness! My instructor Leo Rossilini had me doing bareback cantering and polo every day to improve my balance and awareness – not fun at the time but it has set me in good stead in the long term. I try to return to Palo Alto in Argentina every year for a great holiday and to keep learning, but the more you know the more you know you don’t know!
When I first started polo I loved learning about the swing technique and although not very good at it myself I found I was analysing others swings and giving them advice to help. Now as a beginner player struggling to hit the ball a few eyebrows were raised at my advice. But, as a physiotherapist, I was looking at the physical aspects of the technique, breaking it down into which joints moved, which muscles were activated and people’s normal movement patterns. From years of doing this in different sports with patients, especially golf and tennis, I was able to see where the swing was going wrong and give treatment and exercises to try and help. Using video analysis enabled me to compare swings and provide additional information for players. I became more interested in analyzing other equine disciplines and began treating more riders ranging from happy hackers to eventers, and teenagers to the older rider.
It was really interesting assessing riders both on and off the horse and I saw a strong correlation between the asymmetries and movement patterns seen. How they moved off the horse significantly affected how they moved on the horse and therefore how they rode. Many patients reported being told the same thing by their riding instructor in; to keep their heels down or shoulders back, to relax their grip on their reins or stop collapsing through one hip. Or they reported problems when on one rein or with certain movements such as jumping or lateral work. Polo players would report offside forehands not achieving loft or poor direction, difficulty with nearside shots or pain in wrists and elbows after playing.
A favourite saying of mine is that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Coaching alone isn’t always enough to correct these problems if there is a physical problem. This is why I created my business, Pegasus Physiotherapy, to be able to offer riders and players the same services that professional athletes have; injury prevention and improving performance. General fitness plans and those specific for riding or polo, including strength, balance and mobility, are a great place to start and I love Martin Perez and his Fitness for Polo exercises. But they often assume that you have no wonkiness and moving correctly. Experience has taught me that this doesn’t happen very often and having a physiotherapist assess imbalances, use manual therapy to help correct the imbalances and then rehabilitation exercises to help is important.
Having moved back to the UK I started to have great polo lessons with James Fielding at his J F Polo Academy in Cheshire (www.jpoloacademy .com). I was lucky to buy my own pony but then sadly she went lame after a few months. I began to research her injury and realised how similar yet different the equine body is compared to the human body. I undertook a Masters degree in Veterinary Physiotherapy so I was able to treat the horses too. Physiotherapy for ponies is similar to their human counterparts, it is assessing for altered movement mechanics, muscle tightness and tenderness, mobility and core stability. As we can’t ask horses to move their legs or touch their toes the physiotherapy assessment involves using reflexes or baited stretches to assess spinal control and mobility.
As a member of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (www.acpat.org) we use all our human physiotherapy skills, clinical reasoning and evidence based practice, built up over years of experience, to make sure our equine patients have the best possible care.
Seeing the difference physiotherapy makes to ponies after physiotherapy can be amazing. Previous ‘cold backed’ horses no longer show problems, ponies dipping away from the ball begin to keep a steady and even pace and stops are more effective and efficient. Homework for the owners also happens with stretches and rehabilitation exercises so that long term and not just short term improvement occurs.
A recent study showed that female polo players are half as likely to fall as male polo players but I have been unlucky to have two bad falls in 2 years which resulted in 5 fractured vertebrae in my upper back. So I have had really had to try and take my own advice but it has really showed me how my physical impairments affected my game and it has been annoying to have slow progress. I still have limited rotation in my upper back which makes nearside shots even harder than normal.
There is still a have a long way to go for me in polo but am lucky to have Ann Whaley, a 0 goal polo player, in chukkas to help. She is really encouraging and organised the recent ladies tournament, the Mu Kershaw Memorial Cup, at Cheshire Polo Club (www.cheshirepolo.co.uk). I was very happy to be in the winning team, Malasomma Polo, for my first tournament. Although thanks really have to go to my team mates Maxine Farnworth, Gemma Malasomma, and Elisa Colton for helping me get through it and for giving me a leg up after another fall,luckily this time I landed on my feet (www.sarahclegg.com). I look forward to more tournaments at this friendly Northern Polo club and hope others may travel next season for our Ladies tournaments.
Polo Lady as asked me to do regular articles about physiotherapy for players and their ponies. I will discuss common polo injuries including their treatment and frequent technique problems with exercises that can help. I will also talk about techniques that you can do with your ponies to help them gain more flexibility and strength. There will also be a chance to email me any questions you have or any topics you would like covering.
Chartered Physiotherapist and Veterinary Physiotherapist