What It Takes to Be a Professional Polo Player with Jared Sheldon
By Riesa Lakin
September 24, 2020
From the outside world, watching equestrian sports at the highest level can look so seamless, dare I say effortless. What many people don’t realize is how difficult or dangerous it can be, or the hard work, training, and dedication that goes into being a professional equestrian. Polo is a popular spectator sport, but I think that many people outside of the sport underestimate the amount of skill and hand-eye coordination that is involved—not to mention the fact that you’re moving a ball down the field on horseback with opponents also on horseback trying to stop you.
Even as an equestrian myself, with experience riding in the hunter and jumper disciplines, I was curious to learn more about what it really takes to compete at the highest of levels in such a high-endurance, action-packed sport. How different (or similar) is the relationship between horse and rider? How do the team dynamics work and what type of strategy goes into each game?
To help both non-polo playing equestrians and non-equestrians alike better understand what it takes to be a professional polo player, I spoke with Jared Sheldon, a 4-goal handicap professional polo player who competes in California, Texas, and New York and one of the experts for Corro’s Top Rated program, to learn more about what it takes to be successful at the top level – both from a rider and horse perspective.
Jared Sheldon riding Etch-a-Sketch. Photo by Kerri Kerley Photography.
Can you tell me a little bit about what it takes to play at the highest level and what it takes to develop a top string of polo ponies?
It’s about knowing the horses—what condition they're in, how they're doing, and then how to implement them into the games you're going to play. It starts with spending time with them in the barn, and then these horses go out twice a day, and they work twice a day, whether we’re riding them or taking them in sets, or whatever it is.
Polo is a high-endurance game. How do you train your horses to get them fit for competition?
Basically, the grooms will get to the barn usually around 5:30 am. They’ll throw some grain and clean the stalls while the horses have a chance to eat. Then, they'll catch everybody, clean them up, and get them all looking good. After that, we'll take them out for a set, which is where we'll ride one horse and pony four other—two on each side. That will normally consist of 25 minutes of walking, 15-20 minutes of loping on the horse you’re on with the other ones usually trotting, and then another 20 minutes of walking.
Sheldon's horses are out for a set to get them ready for an upcoming match. Photo courtesy of Jared Sheldon's Facebook page.
Is that every day?
It all depends on your playing schedule, how the horses are doing, stuff like that. Later in the season, you might take a few more sets and ride the horses a little less because they're more fit. They’re more prepared for what we're doing. Whereas in the beginning of the season, we may ride more. So, if we take a set in the morning, I'll come in the afternoon and figure out which ones I want to ride, and which ones can go over and set. Usually, I like to ride half of them on one day, and then ride the other half the next day, or if we have a practice or a game that day, I’ll ride everybody.
Everyday I’m on a horse except for Monday. Mondays are both the horses’ and grooms’ day to rest. On Tuesdays, the horses will go for an hour and a half walk in the morning to just see how they’re feeling and make sure no one is sore from the game or anything like that—and then that’s their day. Wednesday is normally a practice, so you’re either going to ride everything on Tuesday or if you're more into the season maybe ride some horses and not others. It's all what the horse needs sure. So, there are times where I can go out there and kind of work on stuff for me. If I have a horse that needs a little more attention because they’re not doing things exactly the way I want, then I'll go out and ride for the horse. Maybe I don't go hit the ball, but I’ll just work in the arena or work somewhere that I can work on the basics.
How many ponies do you have and how many do you use per game?
I own 18. When I get hired to play, I’ll normally bring at least 10-12 horses when I’m playing at the high level. In each game, I’ll probably play nine. It’s kind of like hockey where they have line changes. For polo, what we do is while I'm playing on one horse, I may have someone holding one or two other horses on each side of the field, because if I have to go run someone down and the horse I’m on has to run the length of the field two times, instead of bringing that horse back and getting it more tired, I'll jump onto the spare horse that I have sitting on the sideline and keep going. I’ll play each horse for two to three minutes at a time, rather than doing it six or seven minutes at a time, because the longer time played will make them more prone to injuries—just like with people.
Wow, is it hard to keep track of 18 ponies?
Yeah (said laughing). My wife keeps a list. I’ll be making a horse list for a game, and I’ll be sitting there, and I’ll just be like, “What’s the horse I’m missing?” We'll go through the list and she’ll say, “Oh, this horse!” And I’ll be like, “Oh man I forgot about Happy,” or “I forgot about Moochie.” So, yeah that definitely happens.
With 18 ponies, who are top athletes, in your care, can you talk a little about the overall care that goes into keeping them in top shape?
Yeah, I mean, they eat better than I do (said jokingly). It’s just constant attention. Being at the barn all the time, knowing that every horse is not the same. I don’t give every horse the same diet because one horse might need this, while another horse might need that. I’m sponsored by Equine Omega Complete, and I give that to all of my horses which is great. I love how much it helps my horses on the inside and out.
It’s just everything – they get brushed and bathed twice a day, they get their manes clipped, and the tack gets cleaned every time it touches a horse. They get acupuncture, chiropractic work, and massages. With each horse, you have luck with some, and you have no luck with other stuff. I've noticed that my gray mare, Bittersweet, loves to get chiropractic work. You can literally see while the chiropractor's working on her how much it’s helping, and you can feel the difference when you ride her. With other horses, the same chiropractor works with them and it doesn’t seem like it did anything. So, for each horse, you need to tailor something to them to help them to get what they need to feel their best.
Sheldon's Etch-a-Sketch getting ready for his polo match. Image courtesy of Jared Sheldon's Instagram.
Do you have a favorite horse or is it hard to pick one?
No, it’s not hard to pick one (Sheldon says with a laugh). These horses are like your friends. They have such personalities and there are different ones that at the heat of the moment and there’s a minute left in the game, you’re both tired, but you have to go and catch somebody to save the goal or something like that, and some horses just give you everything—you just barely have to ask and they’re gone. Yeah, I have a couple favorites that definitely get preferential treatment.
The first horse I bought, Cheeky, is still one of the best I've ever owned. He's retired now and lives at my mom's ranch. He's about 15 years old now.
Who would you say is your number one horse right now?
My number one horse right now would be Chiquita.
How long is the average polo horse’s career?
It depends on the horse, how hard are they playing, what are they doing, and stuff like that. They can start playing real hard tournament polo at six or seven years old, and they should be able to do that until 12 or 13 years old. Then, they can move down to lower levels.
Some can go until 17 or 18 years old. I've seen some horses go until their 20 years old. It's all about how you take care of them. It’s noticing when you have to retire them. For Cheeky, my first and best horse, I needed to retire him at 13 years old because he had problems with his knees. I had special shoes made for him and everything, but at some point, I had to say it wasn’t worth it anymore. He’s been so good to me, so he gets to chill now. We call him a pasture ornament. My wife calls them horse earners or horse burners, so he’s a hay burner now.
Sheldon's 6 year old, Hakuna Matata. Image courtesy of Jared Sheldon's Instagram.
When it comes to developing a top string, are most of your horses young to help with their stamina or are most of your horses seasoned pros?
No, when you’re being paid to play, you want to show up with made horses. Here in Midland [Texas], I may use an older horse or two who can’t play the fast stuff anymore. I’ll bring them here and play during the spring and fall. That's why I have so many horses too—I can take the best ones in the winter and summer, and then during the spring and fall I have what I call “the B string.”
It’s all about keeping the horses fresh. Back when I was first starting, trying to get myself organized, I had to go play eight months out of the year and that just wasn't fair to the horses.
Are you training a lot of them? Do you bring them up and develop them yourself, or do you pretty much buy them when they're ready to go?
Because I get paid to play to basically win games, I try not to get horses that are totally fresh. Most of mine come off of the racetrack, actually. I probably have at least ten of them that are off the racetrack. But, I have an old polo pro, who once he stopped playing professionally, he started training horses. He’s had horses that were Polo Horse of The Year and stuff. I usually get my horses from him. He knows what I like, and he knows my thing, so he'll take them and put a foundation on them. Once they're ready to start playing, he'll give them to me. They may need a little bit of finishing, but at least they’re good to go. They may need a year and a half or so to get to their potential, but it saves me a lot of money than having to go and buy them while they’re at their peak.
Sheldon playing in a match in Midland, TX. Image courtesy of Jared Sheldon's Instagram.
Do you do a lot of groundwork with the ponies or is it more working in the saddle? I know you mentioned putting them in sets, but how much work are you doing outside of the saddle, if any?
To be honest, not a lot. For the young horses, maybe we’ll flag them, do some lunging to get them going, stuff like that. But with these horses, you want them to have good manners and they're all used to being next to each other, so you normally don't worry too much about that. For us, it's conditioning and keeping them tuned up the way we need them. So, for that, ground work, at least for me, doesn't benefit what I can do—it doesn’t benefit me to get the best out the horse. There are other things that I personally like to do instead.
What are some of those things that you prefer to do to get the best out of your horses?
It's riding. It's being on their backs, knowing how they feel. After a tough game, some people take their horses in sets to go easy on them. What I’ll do sometimes, if I have a game in a day or two, I’ll get on each one of them and just loop around super slow. You can feel how they feel, and you know how they feel. Then, for the next day, I’ll be like, “Okay, Chiquita can go tomorrow. I got to be easy on Etch-a-Sketch. I got to do this for Happy,” and just go through the thing.
For riding, I personally love what I call “getting in the box,” and getting in a smaller area and working the horse in that smaller area so that you can really tighten everything up, get them moving off the back end, and work on the things that will help them perform better on the field.
I apologize in advance because my knowledge doesn’t go far beyond the hunter/jumper world, but do you spend a lot of time on flat work, like using lateral work and things like that to get them loose for a game? Is that relevant to what you do?
No. For us, when you’re looking at a polo horse, rating is probably the biggest thing we need to do; being able to go from third gear to fourth gear down to first gear to third gear, you know what I mean? It’s about having to change those speeds rather than just run flat out. So, there’s much more to it than that. That’s what’s special about a polo horse. I honestly think they could just about do any discipline because they have to kind of combine every single discipline together to do the things that we ask them to do.
I’ve taken my horses fox hunting. I've jumped a couple horses, and I’ve worked cattle with them. Now Cheeky, he did not like cows. I had to get off and walk him. (Sheldon says laughing). Like I said, it’s a big trust thing. And they didn’t all go over the jumps either. Trust me, I ran into a jump before—it didn’t always go over perfect. But once you have that trust with the horses, and like you said, you have your favorites and certain ones that don’t question whatever you’re asking.
In the middle of a game, when we’re thinking about strategy and we’re thinking about helping our teammates and stuff like that, when you don’t have to think about the horse every second, it makes everything easier.
Image courtesy of Jared Sheldon's Facebook page.
Speaking of teammates, what is the teamwork like between you and the horse, as well as between you and your other teammates? What is that like in like trying to get both elements to mesh?
Whenever I play, we get our games videoed, so we can go back and watch every performance—everything. We’re always noting each horse and what’s going on. Before each game, we’ll get together and make our horse list and say, “Okay. I'm going to ride this horse when you ride that horse, and I'm going to ride this one when you ride that one.” That way all four players are never in a situation where we’re all maybe on our fastest horse, because maybe those fastest horses don't stop great, and so all of the sudden we don't have control. So, you kind of try to imagine, “Hey, this one's going to be a little slow today. You should be on your fast one. I'll be quicker to stop, turn, and do that, so I'll send you the ball.” So, you try to format it so that everybody on your team is…it’s just a science of figuring it out like a puzzle and putting it together the best way possible.
How hard or easy is that to do? You ride for a few different teams, right? That must require a ton of planning and organizing.
Yeah, so you kind of go by seasons in polo. I go to California in the winter, I’m in Midland (Texas) in the spring and the fall, and usually I’m either in New York or Canada in the summer.
Your horses have quite the regimen! Do you have your own routine for staying in shape when you’re not on the horse?
I like to do a lot of running and cardio. When I’m riding all of these horses and am in the saddle all the time, I typically stay pretty fit. So, I don’t normally work out with a personal trainer, but since I’ve had my second surgery in the last two years on my wrist, I’ve been working with a personal trainer to get going again and do whatever it takes. He works with me on stuff special to polo, so a lot of flexibility and work on my core is huge. I truly only get into riding shape from riding—it’s that time in the saddle. That's why I always say to people who are starting out that it’s the time in the saddle; it’s incomparable to replicate that.
Would you say that is the norm for polo players? Or is that more just your routine?
The trend over the last 6-8 years really transformed into recognizing ourselves as professional athletes who need to treat ourselves the way we treat our horses. It has definitely become prevalent with the top riders—they have their personal trainers and are training for everything.
Sheldon riding Sportcenter during a match in California. Photo by Kerri Kerley Photography.
With all the strategy and fitness involved, is there also a mental aspect to polo? We’ve seen a lot of equestrian athletes now working with mental coaches. Do you see that with polo players as well?
I don’t think it [mental coaching] has caught on quite yet. But for me, it’s extremely mental. I have my program that I go through on every game day. I have a wife and two kids. If I have a finals, she'll wake up and take the kids out of the house so that I can wake up, go to the barn, and do whatever I need to do at the barn. On game days, I don't like to ride the morning before, unless I have one horse that needs it. I just like to talk to the grooms, make sure the horses are doing good, and that everyone's ready. Then, I'll go home and about two and a half hours before the game or so, I'll go for a 2-mile run. After that, I’ll come in, shower, and shave. Then, I'll normally go to the field, put on some music and put on my headphones. I get my foot mallet and I kind of walk around the field. I don't like to talk to other people, so I try to just focus on playing and going through everything before everyone shows up. My horses and everything will be waiting on the field for me. Once my teammates show up, we start talking about our strategy and getting prepared. But I think polo is extremely mental. Everyone thinks it's hit the ball as far as you can and run as fast as you can, but it's all like I told you, setting up your horses up correctly. I mean, it's a chess match more than anything else. It’s about putting the other team in tough situations. We have so many variables in this sport. So, I just try to put myself in the most advantageous situations.
With all the strategy and mentality that goes into playing, is it challenging when you have someone as your teammate one day and then you’re playing against them another day? Does that happen often for you?
Yeah, that happens all the time. I’m playing against some of my best friends all of the time. I like playing against people I don’t know (Sheldon says laughing). You can just go and be you. You don’t have to think about other stuff. But yes, playing against people you have played with before does makes it harder.
When I was younger and just starting out, at one point I would have Sundays where I would have games at 10:00 am, 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm with three different teams. I would have two rigs, three strings of horses—no horse ever went and did another game. I would buy a footlong Subway sandwich and eat six inches after the first game on my way to the second game, and another six inches after the second game on my way to the third game. And then after that game ended, I’d just lay on the ground. I look back on it now and am like, “How the heck did I do that?”
Wow! Is that the norm to play that many games in a day? I can’t imagine how hard that must be!
No, it’s normal to have two games in a day. I did this for three weeks in March because that's when the biggest tournaments were in California, and there's a lot of money on the line. That was when I’d go to make the most money—I would tell sponsors that wanted me to play for them and the first one that paid me was probably one where I was already on their contracts for the season, so they’d get the top horses. Then, the next person who comes in [to sponsor me] gets the second string, and the last person gets whatever the heck I can find to play.
For those interested in watching a polo match, what are some things they should know about the game?
If you don’t know polo, you hear the whistle blow and you have no idea why. All the rules of polo are to keep the horse safe first, and then the players safe, because obviously it's an extremely dangerous sport. Polo is focused around “the line of the ball,” which is an imaginary line created each time the ball is moved. This tells players where the right of way exists—much like driving down the freeway.
I’d also say that one of the biggest differences between polo and other equestrian sports is that we cram all of our horses into a trailer to travel. Our trailers look so different than that of a jumper trailer. They [the horses] are used to being next to each other and on top of each other as a herd, so they’re comfortable with the closeness. Obviously, we put the right horses next to each other.
Image courtesy of Jared Sheldon.
What would you say to people who are interested in playing polo? Do you have any advice for getting started? How accessible is polo as a sport to pick up or to even go and watch as a spectator?
My advice is to give me a call—if you’re in Texas, California or New York (Sheldon says jokingly). No, but it’s all about seeing what’s in your area. If you’re in Wellington, Florida, you can go and find a lot of places, but you’re probably going to pay a lot of money for it. If you come to where I’m at in Texas, in Midland, it’s more accessible, but in Houston it may be more expensive. You can find a club pretty much all over [the country].
As far as watching polo goes, it’s the perfect tailgating sport. You’re pretty much just go out there, park your car, bring a cooler and maybe $10 to get in, or whatever and you get to watch.
A lot of equestrian sports get a lot of flack for being hard to enter because of how expensive it can be. Would you say polo is hard to get into without having a big budget?
You can play arena polo, which is on dirt with walls and a bigger ball. That’s definitely a more affordable way of doing things. I don’t come from a rich family. I started as a groom and worked my way up the ladder. Every horse, every trailer, everything I have, I bought on my own. So, yes, you can do it, but anytime you’ve got something you’re doing with horses and you need 10 of them, it’s going to be expensive.
It’s all about how you want to do it, what level you want to go to, and all that. You can make it affordable, but you're not going to be out there looking like the movie, Pretty Woman.
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