High temperatures force polo players to adjust approaches

BIG HORN — At times Saturday afternoon, you could see, hear and feel the effects.

The sweat shining on the players’ faces. The heavy breathing of the horses after making a long run. The sun beating down.

On a 97-degree day in Big Horn, the heat played a role in the Flying H Polo Club’s three games.

“I was sitting there at the 1 p.m. game, thinking ‘Oh, buddy,’” said Will Johnston, Flying H’s club manager and a player in the morning game. “It was very still, very quiet. There was no wind. It was just stagnant … I played in the 11 a.m. game, and I was very happy. 1 o’clock was rough.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s been hot in Sheridan County, Wyoming, this summer. The area has set new heat records, including multiple days when the temperature hit 107 degrees.

That type of weather forces polo players to adjust their approaches. 

“You start feeling heavier, and it’s harder to move quickly,” five-goal player Alfonso Pieres said. “That’s also what happens to the horses. Their reactions are slower. They start to feel a bit heavier. That’s when you know they’re getting tired.”

Pieres trains all year and said it’s important to stay fit to remain steady and able to perform in sweltering temperatures. But on the morning of games, he takes it easy. And when the contests arrive, he pounds water. Sometimes, he just dumps it on his head to cool down.

Polo players wear short-sleeved jerseys and long pants. Pieres said the uniform isn’t too hot, but the shirt does get heavy when soaked with sweat.

He makes sure to monitor his energy level, watching his body’s warning signs. He and the other players do the same for their horses. 

“You feel a breeze (when riding), but the horse is just inhaling hot air,” Johnston said. “It’s hard on them. You have to be in tune with your horse … When horses get injured, it’s when they’re tired.”

Players use a different pony for each of the six chukkers. They often keep a spare ready during chukkers, too, especially on hot days.

“If you have fresh horses that are 100% ready to go, that’s the key,” Pieres said. “Horses are like 70-80% of the game. If you have them fresh, you will have a big advantage.”

Typically, if needing to switch horses during a chukker, polo players have to do it on their own time. They might have to give up during a play to retreat to the sidelines and hop on a new horse. 

But Johnston said Flying H was nice. For the first half of this season, as the animals were upping their fitness levels and adapting to the playing schedule, the club allowed occasional breaks during chukkers for all players to change ponies at the umpires’ discretion.

The club dropped the practice a couple weeks ago, at the halfway point of the season, because the horses reached a great fitness level. Johnston said the horses respond best after about five weeks.

“It’s amazing the difference I feel the last two weeks,” Johnston said. “Like today, this weekend and the weekend prior, there’s just another gear and a quickness, and they recover quicker. When you finish the chukker, they feel different. They don’t feel so heavy. They feel light.”

Johnston and Toby Wayman, Flying H’s live announcer and a former player, both said nothing helps a horse’s fitness level better than in-game action. Practice — no matter the intensity — doesn’t seem to work as well. 

“When you get a horse really fit, when they’re running down the field, they’re resting themselves in a flat-out run,” Wayman said. “They’re resting their lungs. It’s when they stop and turn and bump that takes the most out of them.”

Johnston said players simply need to be smart when it comes to their health and safety and the health and safety of their horses in the heat. 

Despite the high temperatures, Flying H hasn’t had to cancel games or move start times this summer, although Johnston didn’t rule out having those discussions in the future if it was necessary. The club also keeps an ambulance on hand at each game in case of a player emergency.

“It’s a constant cycle of preparedness on all these little things,” Johnston said. “Our first priority is the safety of the players and the animals.”

*Coca-Cola’s Steve Krueger speeds past Manderleigh’s defenders for a shot on goal during the Red Grade Cup Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. Coca-Cola beat Manderleigh 11-9.

Matthew Gaston | The Sheridan Press

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