Training polo horses in Argentina
Up to age three, polo horses are left to run free to allow time to develop their bones and muscles on Don Pepe Polo Farm. These horses that have never been ridden are called Potro (male) or Potranca (female) in Argentina. At age three, they begin Doma which is when they will first be introduced to the saddle and guatana (halter). This process takes between 6-8 months, and this is the work of the Gaucho. During this time the horse learns the relationship to the people. It is very slow at first, and a good analogy would be the first time a human from the city has the opportunity to touch an elephant in a zoo. They are nervous and unsure. The same is true of the horse. There are many picardia (tactics) of the Gaucho to accomplish this task. If the horse has been touched and given sugar cubes when it is quite young, then it will have developed a disposition called insoportable (playful and fawning) and be easier for the Gaucho to train.
One of the tools of the Gaucho is the palenquear. This is a pole which the halter of the horse is secured to. The Gaucho then begins to touch the horse on the neck, flanks, rump, and then the legs until the horse does not flinch or startle throughout this process. Sometimes, the Gaucho will also hit the horse, or crumple a bag, or even yell. The objective is to condition the horse to touch and humans, so that the horse will become more relaxed and graceful. "Always you win" is a philosophy that can be helpful in describing this process, because the horse must learn to trust and work with the human. This is the foundation for the advanced training of the polo horse.
After the work of the Gaucho, the horse is ridden for 7-15 days. The horse does not know much at this point, except to stop, and the riding is to relax and condition the horse. Following this, the horse is put out to the grass for 2-3 months, then it is brought back and training begins. The training at this point is focused on teaching the horse to change legs and to stop. The horse is ridden every day, sometimes twice a day, during this period for 4-5 months. Then the horse is put out to the grass again for a couple of months. After this, the horse is introduced to stick and ball. The usual procedure is to ride in the morning and to stick and ball in the afternoon, when the horse is a little tired.
After this introduction process is complete, the horse is put out to the grass for a couple of months, then when it comes back, the horse is introduced to the game of polo. These slow chukkas are sometimes quite amusing, because all of the horses will be new and are not yet adjusted to the game. The horse will play in chukkas for one year. During this time, the rider will "jugar para el caballo" (play for the horse), so that the horse can learn about the game.
If the horse has been touched when it is young, if the Gaucho has done a good Doma, after time riding, after time doing stick and ball, after time playing for the horse, if all of this has gone well, then the horse is ready to play for you (for anybody). When the horse plays for you, you can forget about the horse, and this is when the good horse is ready to sell.