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 other 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 am qualified as a human physiotherapist for over 10 years 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 was brilliant, but I soon realized 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 don’t know!
When I first started in polo, I loved learning about the swing technique. Although I’m not very good at it myself, I found myself analyzing 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, teenagers to the older riders.
It was really interesting assessing riders both on and off the horse, and I saw a strong correlation between the asymmetries and movement patterns. 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—to keep their heels down or shoulders back, to relax their grip on their reins or stop collapsing through one hip. 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 in poor direction, difficulty with nearside shots or pain in wrists and elbows after playing.
A favorite 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. But they often assume that you have no wonkiness and are 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 rehabilitation exercises are 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. 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 realized 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’s about assessing 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, 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 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 two years which resulted in five fractured vertebrae in my upper back. It has really shown me how my physical impairments affected my game and it has been annoying to have slow progress. I still have a limited rotation in my upper back which makes nearside shots even harder than normal.
There is still a long way to go for me in Polo but I am lucky to have Ann Whaley, a 0-goal polo player, in chukkas to help. She has organized the recent ladies tournament, the Mu Kershaw Memorial Cup, at Cheshire Polo Club. I was very happy to be in the winning team Malasomma Polo for my first tournament. Although thanks really have to go to my teammates 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. I look forward to more tournaments at this friendly Northern Polo Club and hope others may travel next season for our ladies’ tournaments.