Schooling in the Arena

February 10, 2013 | By
Time spent on your horse + arena work and schooling = success on the field.

Time spent on your horse + arena work and schooling = success on the field.

Some of my most memorable polo moments have been while schooling horses in the arena. I was lucky enough to play some of my earlier polo in Santa Barbara, California. Every morning great horsemen such as Tommy Wayman (10 goals), Memo Gracida (10 goals), Joe Barry (9 goals), Corky Linfoot (8 goals), Mike Conant (8 goals), Graeme Bray (7 goals) and many more over the years would ride out, share their expertise and wonderful jokes and anecdotes.

And of course breakfast at the Nugget or Stackies after working out. And also later in life being able to school with my son Drew and his best friend Hannah has been outstanding I must say, discussing horses, riding, etc what could be better …?

In Santa Barbara conversation always came back to Polo,  the last game/ the last horse who gave its all, ran like the wind and out-turned the opposition leading to a memorable goal, or rode off dominantly and then effortlessly went back to the ball to allow the player to hit an exceptional pass. These were and are wonderful horseman who got to be the best they could be by sitting on their horses and knowing them intimately – so that they and their horses could expect to perform magic feats the next time they played.

I cannot stress enough how nowadays we are busier than ever before but need to take that time to sit on our own horses and ride them so that we can be the best we can on the polo field. The three main reasons we school our ponies is to:

  1. Teach them what we want from them and learn ourselves how to best ask for that, and I do mean ask not tell (Do be that benevolent dictator) or as my father was  fond of saying “If you want your horse to think you are just, never say you must”.
  2. To build up the horses’ and our fitness to perform those radical/fast/ fluid moves so that they become safe, easy and achievable. And by putting your horse in the arena you create an environment where you and he can learn and improve.
  3. Finally, to sharpen up before tournament play, and let ourselves and the horse know that we are happy with where we have gotten ourselves to and are ready to perform. Remember a great horseman and trainer does not cause a horse to perform he causes a horse to want to perform.


Below are videos of Piha, Angelica and Cocktail all having their turns at schooling early in the polo season. See what you think and pick out where they are at in their preparation and abilities. Don’t be too harsh on the riders, they are also in the early stages of their preparation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and observations.


Rachel and Piha:


Of course if you have any questions just e-mail or phone me … better still, come for a visit and a refresher course – we would love to have you!


The schooling pattern

Always warm yourself and your horse up. You can achieve a lot by cantering around the track first and then also around the arena for a short time – until you can feel your horse starting to respond to your body. Hands/seat/legs/voice and reins, all can be used subtly and quietly as you warm yourself up, too.

Concentrate on keeping your horse on an easy and direct path while rotating your shoulders and looking all around you. Pick where you are going to circle and stop in the future; also where you will do your lead changes and spins. Notice where everyone else is in and outside the arena, all the while knowing where your reins are: Are they even? Are they the right length? If not, adjust … always adjust … quickly and smoothly, so that you have the right tension for that particular horse.

Quickly also gauge your seat and upper body – am I centred/balanced and in rhythm with the horse? If not, shift your focus to your legs. Is my weight evenly placed through the soles of my feet and into the stirrups? If not, move yourself to centre by pushing against the stirrup on your strong side until you are perfectly centred again. Toes should be slightly out from the horse and heels down, this will give you that strong base that will keep you solid in the saddle so you can move your upper body independently when you are playing, eg, leaning out to hit a shot and the like.

In a very short time you and your horse will be ready to do some serious work. Make sure you stop your pony a few times and alternate your direction and lead, right for travelling right and left for left. Also gauge how the horse is travelling and the bend the horse has; ie, nose to the inside of the circle, shoulder in or out, ribs and the horse’s centreline moving evenly under you, and following the nose and shoulders –  like your childhood train and carriages did.

Let’s move on to the next stage.

Polo ponies are “into pressure” animals. They react and move away from the pressure of our reins or legs and take our cues as a means of trying to please us with their body movements. We as the rider have to be very specific with our cues so that we make it as uncomplicated as possible for them to run, stop and turn at the exact speed or circumference we ask and put them into a correct shape so they can do it.

A simple way to achieve this is to work at making ever decreasing circles and then to gently let the circle out. Stop, rein back and turn the opposite way.

Well, enough from me for now; have a read, let me know what you think and have a look at my latest video of “Cocktail” schooling (below) and I will continue on with more thoughts on schooling your pony and riding with poise and grace next week.


Have a great weekend



(ps: you can view more videos here.)


About the Author ()

I have played professional polo all over the world, and represented New Zealand at international level. I sometimes cannot believe that this great game has taken me so many places, and allowed me to play with - and against - so many fantastic people.

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