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When I got involved in polo, in the mid 1980’s, lots of horses looked like a rack of bones.  I seem to remember hearing the wisdom that, like racehorses, they just couldn’t run fast if they were carrying extra weight.

Me sitting on a typically skinny polo pony in 1985. How did I do that bareback? Ouch.

Fortunately for the horses, that bit of belief has been phased out, along with similarly incorrect rules like not letting a hot horse drink. (Hot horses can drink their fill, just not of freezing cold water.  Hot horses are not harmed one bit by drinking lukewarm water right after they play and are much more likely to be harmed by the dehydration that results from withholding water.)  These days, today’s high goal horses are typically round and shiny.

Looking good, excellent weight and fitness!

This is a good thing, because honestly, the rest of the horse world thought we were jerks in the 1980’s for having all of those scrawny horses. However, during any trip to today’s polo fields, especially during low goal games, you will see a horse or two that looks like they just trotted in from Ethiopia.  Their owners often have excuses like:

  • He’s just a hard keeper
  • That horse is always like that
  • We feed him a lot!
  • It’s his conformation

Let’s review this whole concept.  What is a hard keeper?  Well, for the ladies reading this, it is that woman we all know and hate who eats the same as the rest of us but is still shaped like Gisele Bundchen!  While this is a good thing if you’re trying to fit into Prada, it’s not such a good thing for a hardworking, athletic equine.  For one thing, sometimes being “naturally” skinny is actually the sign that there is an undiagnosed physical problem that is also causing pain and affecting how well the animal plays.  Some physical reasons a horse who is being fed well might still be skinny:

  • Sharp teeth, oral ulcers, misaligned teeth or so old there is no grinding surface left and no ability to chew efficiently
  • Cancer.  Particularly common in aging gray horses (check under the tail for tumors that may be plainly visible) but can affect any horse.
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Thyroid or other metabolic issues
  • Full of worms.  I don’t know what idiot started the old wives’ tale -I’ve only heard it in polo – that you can deworm only twice a year, but it’s flat out wrong.  You need to be doing rotational wormers every 2-3 months or you need to be doing fecals and finding out which worms your horses have and deworming according to the results.
  • Full of sand.  If your horse sits in the desert half the year and you’re not feeding a psyllium supplement on a monthly basis, his gut is very likely full of sand and not only does it interfere with his digestion but he’s on his way to a sand colic that can kill him.  Psyllium supplements are cheap – use them.
  • Something more rare like liver or kidney disease.

By the way, when I say “fed well,” I mean a horse who is getting four good sized flakes of quality alfalfa a day and is still thin.  Don’t assume that your barn or groom is feeding this much. ASK.  Many boarding barns in Los Angeles, for example, have decided two flakes a day is sufficient. Sure, for a 13 hand mustang that goes on a walking trail ride 2 days a week, it may be.  It isn’t going to work for your hardworking polo pony.  You also need to look at the hay.  Yellow, stalky hay doesn’t keep weight on much.  Most Thoroughbreds require finer quality hay – greener color, leafy – to keep their weight up.  It doesn’t need to be so rich that you feel like you ought to give it a try yourself with some ranch dressing on the side, and there is such a thing as too rich, but if you can’t tell the hay from the straw at your barn, that may be why your horses are skinny.  Another test is if your horses are picking through the hay and not finishing it or leaving all the stalks on the ground- they’re sending you a message that they think the hay is crap.   I personally hate cubes because it’s hard to tell what the heck is in them or how good it is, and I also think they cause impactions just from personal experience — if you are stuck feeding them, have your groom soak them in water very well before feeding, so they break down.

Yum. Even a picky eater will chow down fine stemmed, leafy alfalfa.

If your horses are out on grass, there is a simple test to see if it’s good enough grass to maintain them. Throw some hay out. If they eat the hay, they’re hungry. If they ignore the hay, you have awesome pasture and don’t need to supplement. Horses do eat fields down pretty fast so you need to stay on top of that, too.  Just because they had enough grass June 1st doesn’t mean they have enough grass a month later.

What about grain?  It all depends on how hard your horses work whether they even need it.  I like to give everybody who is actively playing a scoop of equine senior once a day, with any supplements they may be receiving, but we are talking about low goal ponies that we are not trying to “rev up.”  In general, grain adds energy and particular types of grain add a lot of energy.  If your level of polo is using up that energy, awesome – if you try to play slow, sticky polo, that energy may manifest itself in a ride that makes you feel like you accidentally tacked up a kangaroo.  People will argue all day about which grains make their horses too hot – oats and corn are often blamed for equine airs above the ground.   Like people, horses are all different so there is no one particular feed that will or won’t make your horses too hot.  There’s nothing wrong with feeding senior feed to non-seniors, especially horses who are involved in high impact sports, particularly if the senior feed in question contains glucosamine to help the joints.   Another safe choice is the aptly named Safe Choice feed, which I’ve never seen make anything hot, but serves to add calories.

Many people have a string of horses that look great, so they know they are doing things right for the most part, but there is just one skinny horse.  If that’s you, here are some things you can do immediately that won’t break the bank:

1)  Replace the skinny horse’s hay with alfalfa pellets that have been well soaked to be the consistency of oatmeal.  If you have a typical 2 pound plastic feed scoop, one scoop is approximately one flake.  If you can feed this way at least 3x a day and ideally more – just let them eat their fill.  You may have to sprinkle a bit of senior feed or oats in there to keep them interested in it – it’s about as exciting as oatmeal to them.  But it will pack weight on any horse that does not have an undiagnosed health issue going on and it’s great if you can’t get someone out to float the teeth ASAP.  This method works 99.99999% of the time on horses who have only become skinny with age, because it’s nearly always teeth and if they can just slurp up mush, problem solved.  The horse below was rehabbed using that method and you can see the speed of the results.

Late 20’s gelding…dates are accurate. Nothing special done, just hay pellet mush and plenty of it, psyllium and deworming.

2) Doing a blood panel and a fecal should not cost you more than $300 at most, and will answer a LOT of questions. If both are normal, you’ve pretty much narrowed things down to “needs more food.”   EXCEPT…

3) Ulcers will often cause a horse not to gain weight no matter what you are doing. The vet can scope the horse for a definite diagnosis, or you can just start the horse on Ranitidine which is available cheap at Costco, and see if it helps. The dosage on the Costco pills is approximately 20 pills twice a day (grind to powder & put in applesauce or a molasses-y grain), and then start to wean them off it by decreasing this dosages after 1-2 weeks but (disclaimer) ask your vet! I am providing the dosage so that you can estimate the cost of giving this a try. As an added benefit, many people observe amazing behavioral improvement on Ranitidine. The “gold standard” treatment for ulcers is Gastroguard so if cost is not an issue, by all means call the vet and do the Gastroguard.

Also, pay attention to how the horses get fed if yours live on turnout.  A slow eater may just be getting chased off his fair share of the hay by the fast eaters, who have already scarfed theirs down.  You’ll need to have him separated to eat every time.

Not sure what makes for a skinny or fat horse?  Look at the topline, not the belly.  A very thin horse can have a big belly thanks to worms, but a healthy horse has a well fleshed topline – the spine doesn’t stick up and the withers have padding on both sides of them.  Look at the horse from behind – hip bones shouldn’t stick out, tail head shouldn’t bulge up from the rest of the butt.  Yes, polo ponies are athletes and we don’t want extra weight on them, but a fit, muscular horse does not appear bony.

One final note:  Sometimes a horse won’t put on weight due to chronic pain, and bear in mind that frequent use of bute has been known to cause stomach ulcers in some horses.  So if you have a combination of chronic lameness and low weight, the answer is probably that it’s time to retire the horse.

Questions?  You can always e-mail us – we’re happy to help!

 

 

People who are not involved in polo ask me this question, and I’ve never been able to give a more specific answer than “it depends on the horse.”  But I’ve been seeing some people in polo lately who are not all that clear on where to draw the line,  so I want to talk about some signs that a horse is ready for an easier life.  Maybe this will help anyone who isn’t sure if their older horse should play this one last summer season or not.

Consistent Unsoundness After Playing

It should go without saying that if the horse is unsound just when your groom takes him out to exercise, he should not be playing and should not be ridden at all.  However, a lot of horses look fine the rest of the time but will come off the field a little gimpy or will be super stiff in the morning after polo.  If you’ve already tried Adequan injections, glucosamine or MSM supplements, and shoes with pads, and you are still seeing this — it’s time.

My personal mare Lucia was still playing one chukker in 2011, at age 23, in 0 goal polo with a friend who weighs 100 pounds soaking wet.  But halfway through the season, she came off the field lame.  She was sound to ride all week and the next weekend, lame again after playing.  A vet exam showed she had ringbone in a hind ankle.  She never played again but is perfectly sound for my 12 year old stepdaughter to enjoy – so that is what she is doing.

The right job for a 25 year old pony!

The right job for a 25 year old pony!

Sometimes I hear from people that their old horse “really wants to play.”  Of course they do!  Haven’t you ever heard those stories about Thoroughbreds finishing the race on three legs?  They are all heart, and it’s why we love them.  But they’re horses and they’re not smart enough to make good decisions.  That’s our job as their owners.

Swayback or Other Back Problems

If your pony’s back looks more like a hammock these days or if he is displaying signs of a sore back like being cinchy, flinching when being mounted or being touchy about having his back and loins groomed when he never used to be that way, it may be time to consider retirement.  Chiropractic and massage can help get a bit more riding time out of him, but it just may be that he’s past the point of carrying an adult and doing hard work.  He may not be sore at all with a child on board.

Swayback often leads to a sore back

Swayback often leads to a sore back

Bear in mind that as the back shape changes, the same saddle that used to fit him may not fit anymore, and that may be the cause of the soreness.   You can’t check saddle fit when you’re on the ground.  Get ON the horse.  Go trot.  Now put your fingers between the pommel and the horse.  If your fingers get smushed, your saddle is sitting too low and causing your horse constant pain.  You need to either buy a good riser pad (I’ll plug the Roma Protek here because it fits great and doesn’t cause a polo saddle to move side to side – it’s about $25 online) or find a saddle that fits better.  Generally, the riser pad is cheaper.

Stumbling

Last year, a player died on the field on the West coast and I heard it was merely that the horse stumbled.  While even a young horse can stumble (and I don’t know anything about the horse in that case), as horses get older, stumbling can become more frequent.  Horses stumble for many reasons.  Sometimes it is soundness related, sometimes it is poor farrier work or farrier work that is not being done enough (long toes), sometimes it is lack of fitness leading to exhaustion.  Sometimes the rider contributes by being unbalanced and too forward, particularly a taller/heavier rider.   My point is that stumbling can get you killed just as fast, if not faster, than bucking like a bronc at the rodeo.  A pony that stumbles regularly is a hazard to both himself and his rider and should not be played.   By all means, have him examined by a vet and see if it is being caused by something you can fix easily, by switching farriers or not double-chukkering the horse anymore, but bear in mind that stumbling can definitely be a sign that the horse’s days of hard work have come to an end.

While I’m saying that –  ALL polo is hard work compared to light pleasure or trail riding.  Yes, even arena polo, even college polo, even beginner arena polo with three -1’s out there.  So please, don’t donate Gimpy McTripNSplat to your neighborhood college polo program.  They don’t have any more use for him than you do.  Send him to retirement boarding or put him to sleep.

Bad Heart

As your ponies age, having a vet listen to their hearts once a year is a very wise idea!  I’ve seen heart attacks on the field and none of us wants to lose a pony that way – not to mention that it looks bad to the spectators even though we, as horsepeople, know that heart attacks happen to horses just like they do to people.  It is not that uncommon for horses to develop a heart murmur as they age, and a heart murmur can be a sign that the heart is losing function.  Heart murmurs are scored by vets on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the worst.  A very mild murmur may not be a cause for alarm, but if your vet hears a significant problem, ask yourself if you want to take the risk of the heart giving out at polo speeds?  Again, this isn’t just about your horse – it’s about your neck, too.   A heart problem is an example of a condition where the horse may look and play great but still should be retired.  (Yes, I know.  It always happens to the good horse, too.  Never the stubborn cheating one that you won’t even MISS playing!)

Blindness

It is an actual rule  that a mount blind in one eye may not be played (5b), but you still see people doing it.  Come on folks, let’s use a little common sense – polo ponies need to have two working eyes.  Sometimes blindness is obvious and sometimes it is not.  When you’re having the vet check the hearts, check the eyes, too.  If your old pony is losing vision, it’s time to retire him to an easier life that doesn’t include horses bumping him on a side where he can’t see them coming.

So, in answer to the original question, it’s time to retire when any of these conditions are seen, or when it is obvious a horse just can’t keep up anymore – “out of gas” halfway through one chukker despite being regularly exercised by a competent groom.   It is not a specific age.  I have seen a 30 year old playing low goal arena polo, sound as a dollar and doing fine.   I have also seen plenty of 15 year olds who, thanks to being overridden or poorly cared for, were 100% done and not even going to be usable for pleasure riding.   If you suspect they are about done, they probably are – and as the saying goes, it is better to quit while you are ahead!

Finally got to ride our new girl today!  First of all, let me say that it is so nice to get a horse in that is up to date on everything and sound.  There simply isn’t anything to fix on this one.  She is due for a tooth float, so we’ll do that but everything else is perfect.  So a huge thank you to Laura for maintaining the ponies she cares for so well!

Simply put, this mare is AWESOME. Francesca Finato of South Bay Polo, who has a pretty good idea what I like, told me I was going to love her. She was right. This is my kind of horse.

 

Calm and cool.  Stood for mounting, too!

Calm and cool. Stood for mounting, too!

I can’t say anything but positive things about this mare except to note that she is not for someone who doesn’t enjoy how polo ponies ride.  You are not going to convince this mare at age 18 to lower her head or to bend, so you should know that if you’re considering her.  I’ve found that many pleasure riders get nervous about a high head – they think it’s a sign that the horse is about to do something naughty. That may be a true with a horse whose natural headset is low, but it’s not at all true with this horse.  She just likes to keep her head up and look at things. She never tensed up or thought about spooking, or any other misbehavior. She was a gem!

Nice trot, enough to get you posting but not a trot that rocket launches you like Aston (love him but ... really...bouncy...trot!)

Nice trot, enough to get you posting but not a trot that rocket launches you like Aston (love him but … really…bouncy…trot!)

And OMG the canter is to die for. Super comfy! But I can see her being unsettling for someone who hasn’t ridden polo horses or something similar because she doesn’t bend, and she does drop her shoulder particularly on the right lead.  However, she picks up both leads perfectly.   She never tried to speed up and actually needed a little leg support around the corners as we were riding in a narrow arena.  It was good to see that she does not overreact to leg.  She is fine with your lower leg having contact.  Some polo ponies go into warp overdrive when you try to ride them with leg contact.  🙂  She didn’t mind a bit.  I’m sure she’ll never need spurs though – she is nice and responsive to a gentle squeeze.

 

I could sit this all day. Comfy!

I could sit this all day. Comfy!

This mare has a great history.  She was part of Stanford University’s polo team and the girls took her everywhere. She has been on trail rides. She has been to the beach and is fine with it!  China was not a great fit as a club pony, however, as she was just a little too much horse for beginner polo players to enjoy.  She is not at all difficult to ride at home, so it’s just that she’s strong in a polo situation.  At 18, we agree that it is time for her to have an easier life anyway.  Since she has such a great non-spooky demeanor, we would love to see her in a home where she’d get those trail rides and beach rides that she enjoys, not just arena work.  If you are interested in adopting China, please fill out our Adoption Application and, once approved, we’ll set up a time to meet her.  The application doesn’t obligate you to adopt, and there is no fee – it just gets the ball rolling.

We won’t mind if China stays a while though – we already love her.  The ground manners are exceptionally nice, too.  She is super polite!   Just a pleasure to deal with in every single way.

Today was also cool for another reason!  We got our very first Paypal donation from our web site.  So, thank you, Terri Vint, for your generous donation and for breaking in that Paypal button.  It quickly found its way into the cash register at the feed store.  🙂