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The more you know about horses, the less expensive they are.

When I got into polo in the 80’s, no one ever did a colic surgery.  We gave them Banamine, we oiled them, we gave IV fluids, and we stayed up all night walking them even in the worst weather.  The vast majority of them survived and were back playing in two weeks.  Once in a while, someone’s horse would have a twist, or an impaction that just would not budge, and would need to be put to sleep – but this did not happen often.  Today, vets are eager to have the horse into the clinic and on the table.  Things have changed because most competitive sport horse people have major medical insurance on their horses, and these procedures are covered.  Polo people rarely have medical insurance on their horses, so that $5000-$10000 operation can be prohibitive, and there is no guarantee the horse will survive.   The typical amateur owner goes along with the surgery because they do not have enough knowledge about alternate ways to treat the condition.  Ask your vet about alternatives before you sign off on a surgery, or get a second opinion.

The amateur owner may also not recognize how easy it is to avoid most colics in the first place, by ensuring horses drink enough (offering water at the trailer at polo and on long trailer rides is a must), by providing plenty of turnout to keep the horse’s digestive system moving and reduce his stress level (stress creates ulcers, ulcers predispose a horse to colic), by deworming regularly, by feeding a psyllium supplement if you are in a sandy part of the country, and by floating teeth annually to ensure that the horse can properly chew his food and doesn’t swallow big chunks that can create an impaction.  Avoid automatic waterers in your horses’ stalls as you will have no idea if your horse is actually drinking, and when they malfunction, it is often not discovered until the horse has gone without water for a long period of time.   Hang 2 five gallon buckets or use a half barrel instead.

The same is true of lameness.   You can prevent a lot of lameness by ensuring your horses get lots of long walks or turnout, by using liniment and standing wraps after a game, icing or poulticing horses that you know have problem tendons, and by obtaining the services of an expert farrier.   The “cheap” farrier is not so cheap when you take into account his ability to cripple a horse you just paid $15,000 for.  Talk to long time grooms and learn from them – you will spend a lot less money keeping your horses healthy and miss a lot fewer chukkers.

The right groom will save you thousands of dollars.

Speaking of grooms, this is another area where you will need to do your research. You are trusting that person with $50k or more of your assets.  Check their references and ask other people at the clubs they’ve been at about their reputation.  Hire the person who is known as extremely conscientious, caring and great at keeping their horses fit and sound – not the person who always seems to lose a horse every season, whose horses are always having “accidents,” or who is known for cutting corners on care.  If you see that your horses are losing weight, seem to have a lot of injuries, or are acting spookier than usual, speak up.  If you are given excuses or told that everything is fine, it may be time to look for a new groom.

If you’re lucky and have a great groom, please listen when they tell you that a horse needs time off – they are only trying to save your neck as well as your horse’s.   You wouldn’t go speeding down the freeway knowing you had a flat tire, so don’t go out on the field on a horse with a puffy tendon or one that has been stumbling.   Resting them when an injury is first noticed often means that the injury resolves with little to no money spent, whereas insisting upon playing them is a good way to end up paying for an expensive tendon surgery, your own medical bills after a fall, or even losing a horse completely.   Lameness is not the sole test of whether or not a horse should play – heat or swelling can definitely mean it’s wisest to leave that horse back at the barn.   The same goes for nasal discharge and a temperature – call the vet, and don’t ride or play the horse or turn it out with others until you are certain it isn’t suffering from a contagious disease.

Avoid buying the wrong horses.

That high-priced, high goal Argentine mare looks fantastic with the pro riding her, and it is hard not to fantasize about heading to goal on something that beautiful while family and friends cheer.  Stop and think before you write a check.  A horse who is used to fast polo may get frustrated fast both by the speed of low goal games and by the fact that you probably don’t ride quite as skillfully as the pro who trained her.  Don’t spend three times what you need for a horse you won’t even have any fun on.  Instead, consider horses in their teens, who may not have flawless legs, but who you can verify have been playing regularly.  If possible, play them a few times before deciding.  And have at least a basic vet check (a “pre-purchase exam”) done – even if the seller is completely honest, they themselves may not know about an invisible issue such as a heart murmur, failing vision or the onset of heaves, conditions that can end a horse’s polo career prematurely.  Buying the wrong horse, or a horse with a serious problem, is probably one of the most frustrating and expensive mistakes a player can make.

Resist the urge to buy a green horse until you are an experienced player.  Even if you come into the game as an expert rider, having that mallet in your hand and all the variables of the polo field will affect your ability to deal with a green horse’s antics.  If you know you’re great with difficult horses, you may still be ahead purchasing a problem made horse as opposed to a total greenie.  For example, if you only play in the arena, you may be able to get a deal on a horse who gets too strong on the grass – just bear in mind he may substitute a different bad behavior in the arena!  If your budget is in the gotta-be-a-bargain range, ask yourself honestly if you can deal with retraining, or if you’re better off buying a horse who needs some maintenance to stay sound, but who is easier to ride.

Did you buy too much horse and now his behavior is getting worse and worse?  Put him in training with a pro – I know it’s more money up front, but it’s the only way you will sell him without losing most of what you paid.  This is particularly true with a horse who has developed a serious vice like rearing, running away, kicking other horses on the field or running back to the trailer.  Paying for training will get the unsuitable horse sold and off of your payroll as quickly as possible, opening up that stall for a quieter horse that you will enjoy.

Always have a backup plan for your horse expenses.

The economy of the past five years has been a nightmare for many of us.  No matter your business, it’s likely you’ve seen some drop in cash flow.  While there are ways to economize if you really hit a rough patch, you will still need to come up with board, hoof trimming, and miscellaneous expenses like deworming and vet.  It’s smart to have some backup source of cash that could at least support the horses until they are sold off if necessary, like an emergency account or some other asset that can be easily converted into cash.   If you realize you probably cannot keep your ponies, bear in mind that it is easy to sell fit, playing ponies for good prices.   It is hard to sell skinny ponies with long feet that are sitting in a field in the middle of nowhere because that’s all you can still afford.  You will recoup your investment if you sell at the first sign of serious financial woes, not at the last possible minute.

Another option that may be ideal is to lease out your ponies for a season while you get your affairs back in order.  Well trained, well maintained ponies are easily leased out – just do your research and ensure the player has a reputation for providing quality care.  Don’t be too greedy.  A “care lease,” in which the person merely pays all of the horse’s expenses, can keep the horse’s value stable while you are deciding whether or not to sell.   Make sure you have a solid contract to ensure the person will cover all expenses and return the horses in the condition they were leased out in (you break it, you bought it).

Finally, remember that you do not want to create an impression of yourself as a deadbeat who doesn’t pay his bills.  Polo is a small world, so making the horse expenses a priority will ensure that you are still welcome everywhere when your situation improves and you can play again.

Quality equipment does not mean new equipment.

Polo is an expensive sport and people don’t always stick with it, so used tack is often available at tack shops, from private parties and on eBay.  When you need saddles or bridles, ask around!  Used tack is more comfortable to ride in and a fraction of the cost of buying new.  Look for tack that has been well maintained and is soft and supple, not cracking or stiff.  Name brands like Barnsby, Merlos and Aynie tend to last forever with good care.  You can take a saddle to someone like Andy Smith in Santa Barbara and he’ll fix everything and make it good as new for a fraction of the price.  The first things to wear out on a saddle are the billet straps, so consider replacing them if they look worn or thin – you want to keep your saddle on your horse!

You’ll also save thousands if you avoid impulse buys of everyday horse equipment like blankets, halters, stable supplies, and grooming tools at upscale polo equipment retailers – instead, hit the Internet at sites like horse.com, Chick’s Saddlery and tackloverz.com.  Knee guards and helmets can often be found used on eBay for 1/3 or less their retail price.  Pair clean, used tack with new saddle pads, wraps and boots and you’ll look great on the field without spending a fortune.

Owning or leasing?

If you are playing at an area with an active polo community, leasing ponies may be an option.   Leasing can look expensive by the chukker, but you may be shocked at how much more expensive it would be to own.   You pay for leased ponies only while you are playing them.  Their feed and feet and vet bills are not your problem.  If they have an injury, you will often be supplied with a different horse to play instead of having to sit down.   If you are learning to play, remember that you don’t even know what kind of horse you will like yet – you aren’t ready to shop.   You’ll make better choices a year down the road.

You may also be able to share a string of ponies, and their expenses, with a similarly rated player who also does not expect to play every time there is polo.  As with everything, a good contract on paper setting out the terms will prevent a great deal of drama and confusion later.

The same goes for a truck and trailer.  Heavy duty hauling trucks tend to have $5000 problems, not $500 problems.  Trailers need regular maintenance to stay safe.  If you are paying someone else to haul, those problems are not your concern.   When you are starting out, I know it’s tempting to think you can haul two ponies behind your SUV, but this is truly not safe for the horses and it’s exhausting for you.  If a ride to the field with another group of ponies is available, even if it seems expensive, it will likely save you money in the long run.  Another option is to purchase a longer trailer and split all expenses with another player whose ponies make the same trip yours do to the field.

What to do with retiree polo ponies.

It’s hard to give up the good ones, even when you realize they’re down to playing a half chukker once a week.  But a horse that plays a half-chukker still costs as much to care for as a horse that can double, and if you only have 3 or 4 ponies, that can be a problem.  If you don’t have your own farm, consider sending your retiree to a reputable retirement farm where you will pay much less to keep him, allowing an instructor you’re familiar with to use him for lessons, or leasing him out to someone who is playing at such a low level that your oldie can still hack it or who is just a pleasure rider.  Donating a horse to a school, therapeutic program or vet school has always been appealing because of the tax benefits, but bear in mind that these organizations are under no obligation to keep donated horses, and many dispose of the horses that don’t work out at auction.   Ask a lot of questions, and ensure the contract includes a requirement that the horse be returned to you if he isn’t suitable for their program.

The best way to ensure that your horses are safe is to keep them in your own ownership and have a written contract with anyone who would like to use them.  Horse owners are often unaware of these scams, but unscrupulous dealers will come to look at a free horse with their kids in tow and pretend the horse is for the children when, really, it’s heading straight for a slaughterhouse in Mexico.  Contracts do a lot toward weeding out people whose intentions are not honorable, as does communication and follow up. And, please, use common sense – you know that your minimum wage stall cleaner can’t afford to feed and care for a horse properly, so please don’t offer one to him.

Always look at the big picture.

There are a lot of ways to save money and enjoy polo, but never cut a corner where your horses’ welfare is at stake. That pasture boarding place with barbed wire fence is not safe, even if none of your friend’s horses have been hurt there yet.  That trailer that looks like a death trap probably is.  The hay that seems priced too good to be true may be moldy or have noxious weeds inside.

Then there is the pro you can’t really afford except that you really, really, really want to win that tournament.  Remember that having the best pro is no guarantee you’ll be in that win shot, and you don’t want to wake up with that “morning in Vegas” feeling of having overspent.  Similarly, even if you have an opportunity to play a higher goal tournament, you may have a lot more fun – and a better shot at winning – at the lower, but still challenging, level that may be more appropriate for your horses’ abilities and speed.

Set a budget for your polo season and stick to it and you will set yourself up to have a long, successful and incredibly enjoyable polo career!

(Crossposts are welcome…no permission request is needed, just a link back here please!)

One response to “Polo on a Budget: How to Save Money and Have a Great Season!”

  1. Carol

    Great article! I have been playing polo for eight years andleasing spent a small fortune. I bought my own polo pony mare 3 years ago. She was high goal sold to a college where I bought her at auction end of April I Played her the first year but had to move her home first if Augustbecause where I boarded her with other polo ponies she got kicked and bitten. I brought her back the folllowing year and she was very difficult to stop. I was working part time and didnt play her but twice. Last year I broke my hand and couldnt play last year. This year hoping to play but she has developed ? back injury most recently. She was cast in stall and her leg was caught between the boards that leg is fine but her fetlock on opposite was injured better now but I think her stifle is affected. I take really good care of her She is shod every month. She is out for a little time every day I find the Vets are not able to give diagnosis with out expensive X rays and ultra sounds which I had done when she casted . She had injury to lateral collateral ligamnet 2 on at scale of 5. I cold hosed walked and gave her rest. Now I feel that her hindleg keeps slipping out to the side and her head goes up. I think it may be stifle I had vet out She wanted to give her injections. . I have had a chiropracter and acupunture done once. I do not know what is wrong yet? She is 13. I love her. I would like to fiqure it out. Board is 750.00 plus 50.00 misc, shoes 140.00. I havent played her, Although I have stick and balled in the indoor arena. I joined the club again this year and I do not have a horse to play on. I really cant afford to lease. Just wanted to talk to someone Any ideas or advise would be greatly appreciated Thank you

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