Story and photos courtesy of Matt Kenna at Fitness For Polo.

It is Saturday morning. The trailer is loaded. You have just pulled into the grounds, unloaded your string and tacked them up. After grabbing a quick energy drink, you stick and ball for a few minutes. The line up is called, the ball is thrown in and off you go! Sound familiar? Did you and your horses warm-up and stretch? Have you been doing your sets this week? I did not use to.

Only recently, in a vying quest for success, have teams shown up with trainers to warm players up with specific programs created to improve the muscular control of their body in hopes of hitting the ball further and improving riding and style, as well as helping players control their weight.

Players should not be waiting to reach the steeped heights of 10-goals to improve their overall fitness, as it should be a concept that runs through every facet of the sport. It is no coincidence that top teams like La Indiana and El Remanso are leaps and bounds ahead in their performances. It is, in part, due to the countless hours they spend with elite trainers, like Martin Perez of Fitness for Polo, who oversee their diet and training. It is said that polo is 10 percent the rider and 90 percent the horse. Why isn’t this discipline and attention to detail filtering through to the lower levels to help aid the real heroes of the game, the horses?

A recent study has shown that rider weight can have “a substantial temporary effect upon the gait and behavior of a horse when taking into consideration the rider’s weight as a proportion to the horse’s weight” (Dyson, 2018). Put simply, the heavier the rider, the more likely the summative effects on horse performance. The same study has also confirmed that excessive rider weight can cause temporary lameness and discomfort. This supports the notion that “not all back problems in the equine spine are secondary to lameness, but can be causing them” (Denoix). Excessive rider weight has been shown to:

  • Decrease stride length
  • Massively affect the gait cycle of the horse
  • Cause temporary changes in the curvature of the equine spine
  • Affect proper movement of the limbs
  • Cause short term increases to heart rate, breathing frequency and affect recovery from high lactic acid levels
Applying pressure to horse's back.

In a world where we are facing an obesity epidemic, it is becoming increasingly evident that something needs to be done to address the weight issue of riders in all equine disciplines, including polo.

In my work as a sports and equine chiropractor in all levels of polo, I see the effects of excessive rider weight daily, not only on the horses but the riders, too. Think of all of your polo playing friends. You will be lucky to not have at least one playing with or recovering from an injury. If you are an unhealthy, unfit rider at a heavier weight, you are putting yourself at an increased risk of injury and poor performance when on the field.

Excessive rider weight can massively affect the proper biomechanics of both the horse and the rider by changing their normal way of moving. A horse’s spine is integral to their locomotion. Therefore, improper or excessive loading can affect how the horse moves, affecting the performance and wellbeing of the animal.

The equine spine is very similar to ours; most of their rotation and lateral flexion comes from their thoracic spine (upper and mid-back), which is where the saddle is placed. Adding excessive weight to that area has been proven to cause lateral stiffness. Next time your horse won’t turn as quickly, maybe do not blame the bit or poor training. Decreasing your weight and increasing your fitness and the movement in your thoracic spine and hips will also make your riding and swing exponentially better, making you less prone to non-traumatic injuries.

The total rider and tack weight should be equivalent to 20 percent of the total weight of the horse. The figure of 20 percent is banded around a lot in equine sports, but there is varying evidence around that figure. A 2008 Ohio State University study found that horses ridden for 45 minutes carrying 15-20 percent of their body weight showed minimal signs of stress. However, signs of increased or excessive physical exertion, including muscle soreness and tightness, heart rate, respiration and temperature, were significantly higher when carrying 25-30 percent. Increasing rider weight also increases blood lactate, which studies have shown, does not return to normal levels, even after 30 minutes rest. Would you want to run a 5K with a heavy backpack, then run again after a short break? I certainly would not.

Man applying pressure to horse's back.

The one exception to the rule is riding ability, style and overall fitness levels. Weight does not always equate to health or fitness. Muscle weighs more than fat, and someone with increased muscle mass is more likely to train, having better muscle strength, proprioception and coordination, than an untrained individual.

One thing that is very clear to me, as I continue to look after players and their strings of amazing horses, is that rider weight does have a huge impact on the overall health and condition of the animal and the rider.

For the longevity of both the horse and the player’s careers, a healthier self will make the rider and horse bond stronger, with the animal performing to the best of its ability, keeping it on the field for longer with less musculoskeletal issues arising along the way.

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