Cruelty to Polo Ponies


Maneka Gandhi

Maneka GandhiGod despises money. Look at the people he gives it to.” It's amazing how vulgar people become as they get rich. The crassness first shows up in their home and clothes which both become laughable. Next in their food which unfortunately is not laughable. Bangalore’s wildlife department recently raided restaurants and found monitor lizards, partridges, deer, black buck, peacocks and hares-- all endangered Indian species on offer to wealthy diners.  The illegal trade in vanishing species flourishes as demand for exotic meats rises.  The nouveau riche pay silly sums to impress. You read about spoilt kids of self made men bragging about visiting Singapore and Kenya to devour monkeys and zebras.
Their games are equally loutish. Polo,a killer for horses, has become fashionable with the new rich and the useless who have fallen for its sly marketing as a sport for kings. Polo teams are snapped up by socially insecure  wannabes. Polo matches are sponsored by arms dealers and  attended by fading royalty desperate for their pictures in the papers,  hired starlets, retired generals thirsting for free drinks, shady businesswallahs hoping to cadge contacts over alcohol and, alas, the press. The same sorry lot go round and round.  A jeweller who recently paid Rs 40 lakh for a polo event serving strawberries and champagne, refused a request to fund an orphanage.  He told me his son wanted to be a polo player and needed to meet horse and team owners.
Polo is a team sport played on horseback.The objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Riders score by driving a white wooden or plastic ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. Each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts. Play occurs in seven-minute periods, called  chukkers. The full game is played over eight chukkas. More than one pony is needed by each player to play polo in order to allow tired mounts to be changed between or even during chukkers. The group of ponies ranging between 2-6 for one player is referred to as a "string 
Polo has been declared one of the world’s most dangerous sports, both for the player and his mount. But while the rider elects to play, the horse has no choice.  With so many players and horses on a field hurtling at 30 miles per hour, needing to stop on a dime and turn quickly, anything can happen.The rider wears a protective helmet with a face guard,  knee high riding boots, gloves, wristbands, knee pads and spurs. The stirrup irons are heavier than normal and their leathers  wider and thicker to aid players standing in the stirrups. The only protective gear for the horse is polo wraps from the knee to the ankle. It’s not unusual to see a horse and rider tumble and roll together as they hit the ground. Collisions are common. Mallets often hit and hurt both riders and mounts as well as trip the speeding horses. Falling and breaking ankles is common. But while injured riders are rushed to hospital, the best an injured horse can expect is a bullet in the brain.
Although full-sized adults, polo mounts are called ponies. The demands on a polo pony are severe. He needs speed, stamina, agility and maneuverability to be able to  stop, turn and spring forward all of which is far harder than simply running which is natural to the animal.  Training the horse to cope under extreme pressure generally begins at age three and lasts from about six months to two years. It starts with ‘breaking in’ or taming the horse to submit to his handler.  Tamers use techniques including blows and bucking, gagging, pulling at the mouth and whipping. Sometimes training is hurried. If a mare is good, she is usually highstrung and training in a hurry can trigger collapse. The animal is then deemed unfit for use and killed.  
Cruelty continues on the field.  In order to compel greater obedience, riders attach a small spiked wheel at the end of the spur called a rowel which digs into the animal’s undersides causing excruciating pain and bloody gashes from being rowelled too hard.
Another so called performance enhancing practice is  blood doping. This entails giving the horse a blood transfusion in the mistaken belief that this increases energy.  The blood is taken earlier from the horse and stored. During the match, the horse is stripped after each chukker, cooled down and injected with its own blood before returning to the game.
Sometimes the heart of the horse ruptures or literally "bursts" with extreme exertion. Last month in Delhi, a polo horse died of a heart attack during a game. Spectators witnessed his death throes after which he was slung over a beam and thrown off the field. He is the second horse this year to thus collapse.
Frequently players tire out their mounts by pulling them up too suddenly or frighten them in very rough ride offs.  A fearful horse will stop short and, no matter how vicious the whip, hesitate to continue. Yanking the mouth to turn can often  break it, while gag bits routinely cut it.  Everytime the reins are jerked, the pain intensifies provoking the animal to act up. Should the rider get angry with the horse, the problem escalates. In one case, a polo pony had her tongue ripped off by the bit.
The pony's mane is roached - completely shaven - and tail braided so that it will not snag the rider's mallet. Considered an obstruction, long tails are often docked with their ends  being cut off to make them V shaped. The operation is  painful as the tail vertebrae are connected with the brain and spinal column. In fact , the SPCA sued a polo club that had cut 4-10 joints of a horse. The court decided against conviction only because too many people were guilty of the same crime, and also the horse wasn’t yet dead! 
 Horses play during only one season of the year when they are carted all across the country . Overstabling the rest of the year can lead to polo ponies becoming bored, lonely and aggressive. The expense of maintenance leads to corners being cut.  For instance, regular shoeing is overlooked during the non playing season. Shoes left too long put a strain on the tendons, increasing fragility of the legs. Since saddles are expensive, they are not made for each horse.  Instead owners  make do with one size for all resulting in ill fitting tacks with sharp bits causing injury to the animal. 
 What happens to a polo pony past his prime? He is either shot or sold to riding clubs and schools who underfeed and overwork him.  A horse just dropped dead at Delhi’s Amity Riding school, one of the many that misuse horses.
Culture implies refinement and living with respect for all.  The caveman ate and played howsoever he could. The nouveau riche of this country resemble him in their primitive intellect and desires. Alas, their pieces of silver are dragging  all of India down with them, destroying an old and gentle civilization.

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Dear Ms Gandhi,

I came across and read your article (<>) on cruelty to polo ponies in India. I am extremely saddened and makes my eyes water. However, at the same time, I would humbly request you to refrain from carte blanche every polo player and the game as such.

I play at the Cambridge University Polo Club, and I started riding because I love animals. In fact, I used to spend hours cuddling and grooming calves in my grandpa's farm when I was young. I don't eat meat, not just because I was brought up as such, but because I cannot feel good about animals being killed.

Moreover, I can guarantee you that though the term "breaking" is used nobody breaks a horse! Please refer to this wikipedia article – <>. Of course, there will be some "idiots" who still do literally "break" a horse. I don't think British law or RSPCA would allow that in this age and time.

If there is a problem in India, I entirely support you and your arguments. Those filthy people should be punished by law. However, my request is not tarnish a sport because of "some" Indians.

In fact, by polo regulations no pony can be used for more than one chukker in a game. Each chukker lasts only 7 min, after which the horses go to rest. The players get a new pony for each chukker. There is mandated long period of rest between two chukkers when the same horse is used. Neither of the dodgy practices that you mention happen nor are allowed.

If polo ponies are not literally "broken", but trust is earned and they are willingly trained, then carefully and affectionately taken care of and played on, as described above, I don't see polo as a sport being awful on the horses or anything. In fact, every time we get out to the polo fields the horses love to start cantering! I do not know how much experience you have had spending hours with such horses and how they feel...

I hope I have not got you the wrong message here. I sympathise with your core cause of preventing cruelty to animals. However, you seem to subtly suggest against all forms of domestication and use of animals in human life. Animals enrich human life and vice versa; it would be a poor world and culture without animals in our lives.

Cambridge, England.


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