Victoria’s City to Surf Polo Club has become the new home for a number of retired racehorses.
Amber Gibbs is only too happy to be surrounded by slow horses.
In fact, those racehorses classified as ‘too slow’ by trainers are just what Gibbs, who runs Victoria’s City to Surf Polo Club, are looking for.
The husband and wife team of Corin and Amber Gibbs have been re-training off the track thoroughbreds for careers within the professional polo industry for the past 20 years, with a number of their graduates having gone on to compete Internationally at the highest level.
Gibbs takes great pleasure in the re-training of off the track thoroughbreds who, for whatever reason, have had their racing careers cut short.
“If a horse makes it in polo, it’s a lifelong career for them basically,” she said.
“You see a lot of off-the-track thoroughbreds out there in their mid-teens, and there are a lot of avenues for all different ages of horses within the polo industry. I even see 20-year-old horses trotting around for beginners.
“We’ve got one horse that’s 18 and she’s still going strong. She’s been a good horse for a professional player we know and has played some fast, hard polo and she’s still going. These days she’s a rental horse so life’s a little bit quieter for her.”
The Gibbs’ are a formidable force in the polo world, offering everything from lessons to agistment and stallion services at their 200-acre farm ‘Coramba Downs’ in Winchelsea on Victoria’s Surf Coast. It’s here that Corin and Amber ply their trade, having devised a three-year training program to help transition their off the track thoroughbreds towards their lives as polo ‘ponies’.
Year One of ‘polo pony school’ is all about ‘baby steps’, with the first month or two dedicated to working on circles, learning to accept the bit, moving off the leg and neck reigning, one of the most challenging aspects of their re-education.
“Neck reining is where you hold the reins with one hand rather than two and you use the neck to move the horse across, a bit like a joy stick,” Gibbs explained.
“If you want to go forward you release the reins and if you want to go to the left, you move your hand to the left and the right hand rein pushes against the horse’s neck which moves the horse across.”
“Obviously you’ve got the stick in the other hand so you need to ride with just the one hand.”
The stick and ball are introduced towards the end of their first year’s training, with their whirlwind year’s education culminating in very slow practice games.
Upon completion of their first year at pony school, Gibbs’ horses are ready to enter low level competitions where they are taught the basics of polo before they return for a third year and final year where the ‘final touches’ are added to their educations.
Gibbs works almost exclusively with off the track thoroughbreds in her pursuit to find the fastest, hardiest and most supple equine athlete. She is not alone in her thinking either, with thoroughbreds now making up almost 90% of the equine polo-playing population, overtaking even the purpose-bred polo pony in popularity.
“Thoroughbreds are perfect for polo, because you need a horse with that flat-out straight line speed, as well as that stayer’s endurance,” Gibbs said.
“A polo field is 300 yards long, so if you’re doing that run down the field and it turns in to a horse race, which it often does, you need that sprinting speed, but you also need endurance. Each horse plays a chukka, which is a quarter of a game and is seven-and-a-half minutes long. That’s seven-and-a-half minutes of galloping, stopping flat-out and then going again which is pretty tiring.
“It’s a tough ask, so you need a horse that has the stamina and brain for that. We don’t want to push horses in to something that they’re not going to enjoy.”
On this point the racing and polo worlds meet. Melbourne Cups king Bart Cummings is often quoted as saying, ‘A happy horse is a good horse’, and ideal shared by Gibbs.
“The horses love the game which is something that is really important to me,” she said. “They’re actually quite competitive.
“You can tell in racing, they always want to get their heads in front and it’s the same in polo. They really try 120% for you, so we obviously want to do the best by them. All the people who work for us love the horses and they get spoilt rotten.
“To be honest we’re astounded at the horses we can get off the track. For us, they’re obviously our livelihoods but they turn in to our pets. Our 18-year-old mare that we have; Corin re-trained her 14 years ago and she’ll stay with us for the rest of her life because we absolutely love her, just like we love all of the horses who come through our yard, you just can’t help but love them.”
Click here for more information about off the track thoroughbreds, and here to find out more about the City to Surf Polo Club.
By Daniel Miles – @DanielMiles90