TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Carlos Gonzalez is passionate about the things in his life: his wife, his children, his horses and his sport, which happens to be polo. He grew up playing polo in his native Argentina, moved to South Florida 30 years ago and stayed here playing polo for 11 years. He then moved to Kentucky and South Carolina to play polo, returning to South Florida every season to… well, you get the picture.
Finally, four years ago, he settled in permanently off of F Road in Loxahatchee Groves, where he plays, trains and breeds polo ponies. Formerly a five-goal player, he’s now a three-goaler; four-goal in the arena.
Polo players are rated each year and assigned a handicap, similar to golfers, with one big difference. In golf, the lower your number, the better you are. In polo, it’s the reverse. Handicaps run from minus two to 10. Ten-goal players are the best in the world.
“Currently, there are only eight 10-goal players in the world,” Carlos noted.
Interestingly, polo players are assigned their ratings by their peers. It has nothing to do with how many goals they score and everything to do with their value to the team. Only about a third of all polo players are rated three goals or higher, and a rating of two goals or more indicates a professional. Players are judged on their knowledge of the rules, horsemanship, offensive and defensive playing skills, position knowledge, teamwork, strategy and ponies, whose ability should match or exceed that of the rider’s.
By the way, polo ponies aren’t technically ponies. A pony is a horse that, when fully grown, measures 14.2 hands or less. A hand equals 4 inches, the “.2” being 2 inches. A pony measuring 14.2 hands stands 58 inches, or four times 14 plus 2 inches. The height is measured from the ground to the top of the withers, the point where the neck meets the back. Anything over 14.2, and you’ve got a horse.
According to Carlos, the perfect height for a polo pony is 15.2 to 15.3 hands. “A good polo pony is confident, agile and fast,” he said. “They have to be handy, able to turn and stop instantly, and have a good mind — one that’s quiet and focused. Their body should be short and stocky, with wide shoulders and butt, neck well forward, legs right underneath with a solid, square build. They have to enjoy the game and have a good attitude.”
In other words, you can’t make a great polo pony out of a horse that’s high-strung or klutzy. Virtually all polo ponies are Thoroughbreds. Many polo players prefer to ride mares, but Gonzalez is different.
“Some consider him the black sheep of the Argentines,” said his wife, Thais. “Three of his ponies are stallions, and this is extremely rare. But his horses are very special, with the best minds and the best personalities. Thesehorses have played up to 26-goal games with some of the best players in the U.S.”
Like the players, the matches are rated as well, by adding the handicaps of the four team players. So if a team’s four members were each rated four goals, they could play in tournaments rated 16 goals or less. The highest rating in U.S. tournaments is 26.
“The reason so many polo players choose mares is because you can get more out of a mare,” Thais explained. “They try harder. Plus, if the mare is very good, you can always breed her.”
Indeed, while I was visiting, one of their stallions, Ciggy, was paying court to one of the mares. Despite his somewhat advanced age of 20, Ciggy seemed to be having no problems in the romance department. And yet, when Carlos walked over and haltered him, he walked away docilely, standing quietly when Carlos hopped up onto his back and rode him into the field where other horses grazed, wearing only the halter and lead rope.
“We train some horses for riders if they’re green horses to polo,” Thais explained. “We won’t take a horse who has been trained by someone else. Some of these horses have been ruined. There’s no coming back from that, not for polo. They might be fine for some other discipline, but Carlos’ specialty is training horses for high-goal players.”
According to Carlos, a green polo pony should be 2 to 5 years old.
“The training takes three to five years, and gets more involved as they mature,” he said. “The perfect age is 7 to 8, and the good ones can play for 10 years, if they’re cared for and kept fit.”
One of the big mistakes some trainers make is pushing a young horse too hard too soon, he said.
“If they get scared, if they get bumped too hard by another horse or whacked in the leg with a mallet, they may never trust the rider again,” Carlos said. “Horses are easily frightened, and they don’t forget.”
Carlos owns 34 horses, ranging in age from one month to 20 years. In addition to breeding and training horses and playing polo, Carlos teaches the game.
“If you want to learn to play polo or improve your skills, come here,” Thais said. “We have everything you need. Just bring your boots and helmet, and we‘ll supply the rest.”
Private lessons run from $120 to $150. There are also group lessons, easy practice games and green horse chukkers. You can bring your own horses or ride one of from the farm. It’s all about having fun.
They named their farm Deal is a Deal because of the tradition of a man’s word being his bond: Men of honor didn’t have to sign contracts, only shake hands.
Carlos and Thais clearly love what they’re doing.
“We live simply,” Thais said. “Our two sons, Santiago, 7, and Lucas, 6, aren’t into horses, and that’s fine. They may decide to ride one day, or not. That’s up to them. We’re really happy. It’s not fancy, but we love what we do.”
For more information, call Carlos at (561) 914-6211, or visit www.dealisadealfarm.com.