It had been almost 20 years since I’d seen the game played when I recently ventured near a polo field. A childhood friend had handled a string of ponies for a local player, and I distinctly remember the challenge of exercising them (rein, seat, and leg aids were a whole new, well, “ballgame”). To be honest, I really hadn’t thought much about the sport since those days, but being a horse lover who generally enjoys any excuse to sit in the sun and gaze at glossy four-leggeds, I eagerly accepted an invitation to attend a match a couple of months ago.

While admittedly the horses were finely bred and in excellent physical shape, I found myself decidedly uncomfortable as the afternoon wore on. I couldn’t help but think of the developments in other horse sports over the past decade, and how we have become far more cognizant of the fact that horses suffer, often needlessly, due to rough or careless riding and ill-fitting or harsh tack and equipment.

I am prepared to state that I am very conscious of the fact that many polo players are excellent riders with a secure seat, and no doubt they spend a lot of money to keep their string in good health and peak condition. However, the need for control of the ponies’ movements in such a fast-played, stop-and-go game, and the use of what appear to be fairly severe bits and strong hands, made it very apparent to me that many of the horses were hurting.

I was spinning through my photos from the day when I got home, and sure enough, I was gutted by one particular image I had captured, quite by accident, that in my mind was equal in horror to many of the images we have seen publicized during the Rollkur/LDR debate. My eyes were truly opened, just as this horse’s eyes were rolled back in his head, the whites showing, as he obviously reacted to extreme pain in his mouth. Now, I can’t help but notice, everywhere I see a photo from a polo match, there is undoubtedly one or two ponies exhibiting similar expressions. It saddens me greatly to know that so many of the activities we pursue with these wonderful animals cause them pain and distress.

Public outcry has helped to change training methods and decrease the use of training devices in many of our horse sports. Perhaps it is time to reconsider what has traditionally been acceptable in the sport of princes and kings?