In July 2015, I played a tournament in Ascona (CH) with Ross Ainsley, Australian polo professional in every sense of the word. Two years earlier, Ross and I played together in the first ever polo tournament in Denmark and I knew that Ross, aside from being a gifted polo player, is also a world-renowned maker of polo horses. While chatting, he revealed to me that he had also designed his own range of polo saddles and tack.
Jack "Ruki" Baillieu (6) demonstrating the importance of the half seat and a strong upper leg grip
At the time, I had frankly not put much thought into polo saddles, believing they would all be pretty much the same. Initially, I thought Ross would tell me that his saddles would be of better quality (they are), or fit the horses better (no saddle will fit all horses, but the Ainsley Polo saddles do fit most playing polo ponies), but our chat opened my eyes to a key insight about polo, which changed my focus and eventually led to the creation of Performance Polo.
It is often said that horses make up 80% of polo. Considering this truism (and the significant investment in horses, stabling, vets, etc),, then I think it is fair to say that all polo players are keen to make sure that our horses play as well as possible. Of course, I knew that riding is important, but the key insight that I took away from the conversation with Ross was that riding determines how well our horses will play!
Riding of course gets us to where we need to be to perform our role on the field, but good riding goes much further:
- supporting the horse, for example by aligning the rider's center of gravity with that of the horse to produce precise maneuvers and fast responses
- affording the player stability and mobility in all situations
Expressed in economic terms, good riding maximises our return on investment. Since that conversation with Ross, I have become much more focussed on improving my riding skills.
I have been fortunate enough to learn from a number of people, for example Rege Ludwig, whose thoughts on riding for polo are legendary, and I have come across excellent books by Stefane Macaire, Sunny Hale and Major Hugh Dawney, books that I consult on a regular basis. I'm not a 10-goaler and never will be, but I am going to continue to try to become the best possible partner for my horses, because this is how I get the most from the 80%.
Horses carry two thirds of their weight on the front legs, a key reason, why we need to spend a lot of time (up to somewhere around 70%) over the shoulders of our horses in the half seat gripping firmly with our thighs. One of the key things I have had to work on is the half seat and with the half seat, the grip of my upper legs.
Rege Ludwig, who has been one of my instructors, has developed his own school of thought on polo riding, with a strong focus on giving the rider a firm grip and a stable platform (I can only recommend studying his books or taking lessons with him), which is more of a scientific approach, exploiting the mechanics of the human body to give you a firm grip much more effectively than simply squeezing with your knees, although I suspect that powerful thighs will do the job equally well.
Regardless of how you do it, the grip produced by your upper thighs is essential to good riding, and we need it for most of the time in each chukka, which brings me back to the reason why Ross designed his own polo saddles. In addition to concerns over saddles that would barely last three seasons, what motivated Ross, was that most polo saddles were built to give less than ideal grip and stability in the half seat.
There are many comfortable saddles out there, but few polo saddles enable good and effective polo riding to the extent that the Ainsley Polo saddles do. The reason for this is that the the saddle trees designed by Ross for his saddles are shaped such that they:
1) enable maximum grip from knee to groin, by providing "more leather" against your thighs
2) shorten the arch your body needs to travel from seated to half seat
3) allowing the player to pivot into the half seat quicker
I know I have been plugging the Ainsley Polo saddles in this post, but my key message - my key insight - is only tangentially about the saddles, but really about how good riding skills and good riding habits allow players to make the most of their horses and ultimately perform better - or just have more fun - on the polo field.
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