Pacers & Polo, the third and final jewel in Aiken’s Triple Crown, will provide sports fans the opportunity to see some of the “greatest athletes on earth,” according to Dan McCarthy.
He should know what he’s talking about. For around 30 years, McCarthy has been training Thoroughbred racehorses to become polo ponies.
“Polo is a tough game,” said the Aiken County resident. “A horse needs to be able to stop, turn, go here and go there at a moment’s notice at speed.”
When seeking prospects at the track, McCarthy looks for reasonably-priced horses that seem to be intelligent and are on the small side.
Before introducing them to polo, McCarthy gives his new recruits a break at his 150-acre farm, Farmer Road Polo, near Kitchings Mill.
“They’re used to being in stalls and being fed grain,” he said. “I keep them outside and feed them hay. I leave them alone for 30 or 60 or even 90 days before I start working with them.”
When McCarthy begins riding the horses daily, he said he uses body language and other techniques to encourage them to be “supple, loose and relaxed.” Later he introduces them to the polo mallet and the ball.
To learn what it feels like to be bumped and jostled, the horses participate in “keep away” games while being ridden in a group, McCarthy said.
Later, the horses start playing several chukkers (periods of polo) at a time at a slow gallop. It takes one-and-a-half to two years of training before the animals are ready to participate in a low-goal polo tournament, McCarthy said.
Owen Reinhart, another Aiken County resident, breeds polo ponies. He and his wife, Georgina, own a 1,220-acre farm, Isinya, near McCarthy’s operation.
A member of the Polo Hall of Fame, Reinhart has five Thoroughbred stallions at Isinya and owns a band of six Thoroughbred mares.
Various breeds of horses can be used as polo ponies, but Reinhart prefers Thoroughbreds, which have both speed and stamina. He also said females, in general, make better polo ponies than males.
“A polo pony needs to be able to do everything you ask, and they (mares) are more sensitive,” he said. “The geldings tend to be a little bit duller and the stallions are more difficult.”
Pacers & Polo is scheduled for Saturday at the Powderhouse Polo Field on Powderhouse Road. The gates will open at 10:30 a.m.