Various methods are used to start training young horses destined to play Polo throughout the world, producing overall better results. Natural horsemanship techniques are becoming increasingly popular, especially now in Argentina. Let’s recount the changes made by one Argentine domador Maximo ‘Monte’ Blanco.
These techniques are gradually infiltrating the Polo world. The methods work with the Equus language, where the horse feels safe, remains calm, and wants to please the trainer as a leader, enabling the horse to learn to work in partnership with people rather than being dominated. The horse must respect the trainer but not fear the trainer; this requires skill and horsemanship.
There are a few individuals who have the knowledge to truly communicate with horses and understand how to get the best out of each one whatever their temperament. Initial training requires skill, split-second timing, and lots of patience. Ultimately, advocates of natural horsemanship have proved that training is quicker and the horse has a greater chance of fully understanding what is expected of it. Most importantly, it is keen to do it well. A willing horse, just like a child keen to please, will achieve the goals set for them far easier and often with much better results.
Traditional training methods, where the horse is dominated, often obtain faster but less predictable results as the horse is not truly listening. This leads to mistakes learned by rushed training, which consequently take far longer to correct than a little patience to begin with.
Bridleless riding is an extreme example of the spectacular results, which can be achieved by natural horsemanship training. ‘Parelli’ or similar techniques enable a skilled trainer to stop from a gallop, spin at speed, and change pace and direction, all with the slightest of leg signals without any tack at all—a feat a large majority of Polo ponies struggle to achieve to a high standard with a saddle and bridle, let alone without either.
Stacy Westfall was the first western trainer to sensationalize the bridleless riding to prove that a horse is willing to work with the rider to an unimaginable level when asked, not forced to achieve incredible results. These methods are becoming increasingly popular to train Polo ponies, especially with the sensitive minds of some Thoroughbreds, whose highly-strung personalities cannot cope with the traditional techniques.
Maximo ‘Monte’ Blanco, a 32-year-old Argentine Polo pony trainer, discovered these alternative methods and are consequently changing the way he trains young horses. His motivation to discover alternative methods began when he started getting more requests to break in Thoroughbreds with difficult temperaments.
From an early age, Monte learned a great deal from his grandfather who worked with the native Argentine Criollo ponies. For many years, Blanco used the traditional methods as they were the only way he knew, had witnessed, and understood. Today, he has considerably changed his techniques.
Working for Hilario and Salvador Ulloa, he saw their father, Polito Ulloa, a famous Argentine Polo pony trainer, use natural horsemanship techniques similar to renowned American horse trainer Monty Roberts.
Polito has trained many successful young horses, including Adolfo Cambiaso’s Dolfina Cuartetera, which is one of his most famous mares.
Monte now starts all young horses with some groundwork such as lunging. He uses a head collar as a guide under a snaffle bit bridle, rather than a coscojero pelham, no whip at all to begin with and only his legs to guide the horse. He allows the horse more time to think and figure out what is being asked of it, rewarding good behavior with a pause or release of pressure on the reins or legs.
The methods he uses work by operant conditioning, rewarding or correcting the horse’s behavior. Pressure and release are the core concepts.
The basic technique is to apply a pressure of some kind to the horse as a cue for an action, then release it as soon as the horse responds, either by doing what was asked for or by doing something that could be understood as a step towards the requested action. Timing is everything, as the horse learns not from the pressure itself, but rather from the release of that pressure. These techniques are based on the principle of reinforcement, rather than physical force, which is quite different from traditional domination methods and the essential key to natural horsemanship. Overall, he allows six to seven months for one horse to be working correctly. A simple example is teaching the horse to stop. The initial technique is to start at a walk, and as soon as the horse has stopped when pressure is applied to the reins they are quickly—this is key—released as a reward with a pause before the next command.
Whips and spurs are still useful training aids and guides when they are used correctly and not in excess. However, Monte has gone to the extreme in this regard, from originally using the Argentine ‘revenque,’ a short rawhide whip, to nothing at all while using the new techniques.
Also, building a round pen was an invaluable tool for groundwork training, the first stages of starting a young horse. Initial ground helps the horse understand simple cues from the voice and reins, allows the horse to trust the trainer, and get used to being saddled before a rider is introduced—all while learning how to listen to commands and focus. These simple things make the first ridden experience for the horse easier to understand and safer for the trainer.
The very act of taming and training horses is not natural. But with understanding their natural instincts, how they process thoughts, using their language, and engaging with them, they will continue to improve the success rates of producing great horses for Polo.
Since starting training ponies this way, Monte has produced several ponies that have gone on to play the Argentine Open.