How Your Polo Pony Wants You to Ride

programs9Had a post from a reader who was wondering about whether you
should grip with your thighs when riding polo ponies. S/he also wondered about
half-seat and posting and building strength for these activities.

You don’t ride polo ponies any differently than you do any
other horse! They’re still horses, and they walk, trot, canter, turn, stop, and
need to trust their riders, just like everyone else.

That being said, gripping with the thighs is something
people do when they are not centered laterally. It’s as simple as that. If you
slide off to one side of the saddle so that your center is not over the
horse’s, you will have to make some sort of adjustment in order to stay on.
Your instinctive adjustment is to grab with your legs, as you would if you were
sitting on the branch of a tree. However, because that a) lifts you up, b)
makes you bounce and c) makes your horse tense, it really doesn’t work very

What you have to do is to adjust your center, which is just
in front of your spine, and somewhere around your belly button.

You do this by growing, to make space between your ribs and pelvis, and then
using your abdominal muscles to move your center around, without tensing your
buttock and thigh muscles. (Once you tense them, it’s hard to get centered.)

First, read up on lateral centering on p 138 of How Your
Horse. I also would recommend, since polo involves a lot of speed turning, that
you get a copy of More How Your Horse Wants You to Ride, which covers some
other aspects of lateral centering (center of movement, center of force) that
you need to know about.

The best way to practice lateral centering is to
put yourself and your horse in a situation where you don’t have to control him.
Either with someone leading him, or in a small quiet area such as a round pen.
Then you take the ‘knees-up’ position (so that you *have* to sit on your seat
bones, and *can’t* grip with your thighs.) Then you walk around, thinking about
the pressure on your seat bones, and, by moving your center, keeping it
the same on both sides as your horse turns one way and the other. You also need
to keep your spine vertical–that is, don’t allow yourself to lean to one side
or the other, as that pushes your center the other way.

When you have that down pretty well, then you can let your
legs hang down loosely, and see how the *weight* of your legs (gravity!) helps
you to stay centered. Try the exercise (while holding the pommel) of sliding
well off to the side, then grabbing with the opposite thigh to see what
happens. What happens is that the grippy leg slides up and you start to come
off. Then try the same exercise, but instead of gripping to try to recover,
push *down* on the opposite leg, while giving a little jump-wiggle in your hips
to get them back in the center.

When you have *that* down pat, then add the stirrups, first
sitting down. Now your solution will be, as you start to slide off to the side,
to *push* on *that* stirrup and straighten that leg to push yourself back,
at the same time as you *reach* down with the other leg to get the weight back
onto that stirrup, so that you have even pressure on both stirrups. (You can
try this standing on the ground, to help yourself figure it out.)

Finally, go into half-seat and try it standing up. When you
have that, then you have taught your body how to center, and with practice it
will do so automatically, just as it does when you ride a bicyle.

When you start swinging your mallet, then you’re going to
have to teach your body to stay centered during that activity. You might
practice standing on a bench or a stone wall and thinking about the pressure on
your feet before subjecting the horse to your efforts. You need also to
remember that the movements of your center affect your horse (Communicating
Considerately in How Your Horse)

Which brings up another point. If you move in front of a horse his instinct is to stop. So if you are reaching forward to hit the ball, and your center gets in front of the horse’s, his instinct would be to slow down or stop. You, could, of course, punish him to keep him going, but you would end up with a smarter, more effective pony if you spent a little time with positive reinforcement and baby step training (see clicker training for horses) teaching him to move his center forward under yours when you reached forward. The same would apply to reaching to the side.

BTW, if you are having trouble staying up in half-seat, it
may mean that your stirrups are hung too far forward on the saddle, so that you
can’t get your center over them without getting ahead of the horse’s center.
This is on page 83 of More How.

Finally, strength of any sort beyond that needed to stand up
is never a factor in riding. The only thing that might get you playing polo is
the same muscles that would get tired if you skied down a long slope without
rest. That is, the muscles that tire when you are following movement with your
knees bent.

Posting does not use strength, the horse throws you up, and
you have to learn to keep your balance against the forward and back thrusts of
the gait. Read the book

How Your Polo Pony Wants You to Ride

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