What makes a happy horse? Some horses are easily contented. They grow fond of their surroundings, their riders, their grooms. Some are even more basic. If they have food and water, they are content. Others are content as long as they are doing something – even if it’s simply carrying children around in slow circles. Other horses are more difficult. I think Kalin is one of those. It’s not that he’s more intelligent than other horses – but he is definitely more sensitive. He seems to feel things like happiness or sadness more keenly. When we first got him, and for the first six months, he was depressed. I think he was very attached to his first owner. She’d bought him as a two year old, and had had him ever since. For nine years she’d been his constant companion. Then he’d been injured, she’d married and had a child, and when he came back from his first injury, he’d had to get used to a different rider. And although Arthur was brilliant, he and Kalin didn’t exactly hit it off.
One day, when we’d pretty much finished de-stressing Kalin, Arthur came into the riding ring.
“Look!” Julia cried. She leaned down from the saddle and picked up a plastic chair, then rode around the ring, crossed in front of Arthur on his horse, and put the chair back down. “Tada!”
Arthur was stunned. “If I tried that, Kalin would have plastered me against that far wall,” he said, pointing.
He was even more awed when Julia started riding Kalin around the pony club bareback, with just a halter. But what amazed everyone was when we taught him to play polo.
“You will never get a polo stick near that horse,” joked Arthur’s father, who owned the club.
I shrugged. “It’s not hard, you just have to show him it won’t hurt him.” It really was as simple as that. I would have prefered my husband to break Kalin in to the polo stick, but he was busy, so I decided I’d do it. First we had to teach Kalin to neck rein, so we could hold the reins in one hand, and the stick in the other. For that, we developed the game of hay tag. Kalin, as I said before, loved hay. I took a handful, and he would follow me. With Julia on his back, we taught him to follow me as I ran in front of him with the hay – and Julia started getting him used to feeling the neck rein. Then she dropped the reins – but Kalin had gotten the knack of following me, so I would twist and turn in tight circles, and he’d trot after me, with Julia nudging him now with her legs, polo style, to get him to turn.
He was so into the game that he didn’t even realize when I handed Julia the polo stick I’d been walking around him with. For two days, I’d carried a polo stick around him. At first he’d looked at it, but then, as he got used to it, he stopped noticing it. I rubbed his neck with it, itched his back and belly with it, and then scratched his forehead and nose with it. He just snorted. I instructed Julia to let the stick hang straight down, just touching the ground next to him. He moved off, noticed the stick, but didn’t mind it. We walked, trotted, and cantered, with the stick dragging on the ground. Then I mounting him, and picked the stick up. The first time I swung it past his head, he jumped. But I just ignored him, and swung it again, asking him to walk on. Soon, I was swinging it on both sides of him, and he was happy to ignore it. The next step was swinging it under his neck, touching him with it, getting him used to having it next to his eyes and under his chin. Since I didn’t have a fixed martingale, I had to hope he wouldn’t throw his head back – but he trusted me, so he didn’t even blink.
Hitting the ball was the tricky part. I got an inflated leather polo ball and went to the indoor ring. He’d gotten used to the soccer ball – it had been part of his de-stress exercises, so the polo ball was no big thing. He shied a bit when I first hit it, but soon he’d cottoned on to the fact that we were chasing the ball, and within twenty minutes, I was cantering around the ring, hitting the ball off both sides of the horse – and he loved it!
Julia wanted to try, so the next day, I let her ride Kalin and hit the ball, and a week later, we were in the ourdoor ring, galloping and hitting the polo ball, with Kalin leaping and snorting with delight. He wasn’t the perfect polo pony – too often he would ignore the neck rein and you’d have to get him stopped and turned around to find the ball – but you could tell he was having a good time learning something new.
Of course, the riding instructors had to try, and we found a couple other ponies who were willing to play polo. Soon there were four of us in the ring, hitting the ball to each other, our horses prancing, with a crowd of spectators, all of whom couldn’t believe Kalin was actually playing polo!
Kalin and Julia playing polo