MIND & BODY: Successful trainer has improved methods.

A true horseman, Carlos ‘Polito’ Ulloa is one of the most famous polo pony trainers in Argentina. Together with his wife Monica, he lives on a beautiful estancia, situated in Lincoln, 185 miles South West of Buenos Aires, called Lavinia. Their four children—Hilario, Salvador, Toli and Esmeralda—all play polo. Hilario is the most well known as one of the world’s few 10 goalers.

Polito’s family has been involved with polo for many years. His grandfather, Gastón Peers, a lawyer, won the Argentine Open for the San Carlos team in 1901 with three local gauchos as his teammates. Back then polo was just a hobby, very different to the huge organizations and teams that play today.

Riding is a very special
way to perceive the world, very different to seeing it
on foot.
—Polito Ulloa

Although Polito’s father played, it was his mother, a successful trainer and competitive pony carriage driver, that passed on her passion for horses. He never took up polo professionally even though he reached a 2-goal handicap. For him, his greatest love was always horse training, much to the disapproval of his family who was hoping he would follow a career in the city. Forty years ago it was unheard of to be able to make a good living as a horse tamer. Fortunately, Polito followed his heart which has led him to become an icon and a great influence in Argentina, changing views on the way young horses are started for the better.

Over the years, he has developed his own style by gathering knowledge from the greatest horsemen all over world. He is not shy to say that he is continuously learning, reading and researching new ideas with an open mind. He believes everyone has something to offer and some of his greatest influence comes from the Western reining horse trainers as they require similar movements to polo. USA-based Stacy Westfall, Martin Black and Andrea Fappani have all been an inspiration, along with the Mexican Manuel Campos. The Portuguese riding techniques have also been an influence.

In his younger years, growing up on the farm, horses were used for everything from cutting the polo field to making hay. Polito first learned to start young Criollo horses with the gauchos, training them for riding and also the tropillas (a large group of loose horses that follow the mounted trainer and an individual mare being led). That taught him useful traditional methods used many years ago when gauchos lived on the plains of Argentina with wild horses and no corrals. The Tropillas allowed a gaucho to travel with many horses in wide open spaces and the herd would stay close by at all times.

Combining fascinating knowledge from age-old traditions alongside many new techniques from abroad resulted in an eclectic mix of training methods that work really well together. Often, simple methods help the horse understand and learn without fear. For instance, Polito uses gaucho shears to clip the manes off the young horses before electrical clippers are introduced. The results speak for themselves and now there is a huge shift in Argentina towards the way young horses in polo are trained.

Throughout his career Polito has accomplished many great achievements. The first time he entered the famous polo pony show, La Rural, in 1990 with his wife Monica competing by his side, they won both Grand Champion Macho and Hembra. They achieved this impressive feat three times and, individually, he has won this competitive show at least 19 times so far. He’s trained over 100 ponies to play the Argentine Open, many of them famous horses such as Cambiaso’s Cuartetera, Buenaventura and Lapa. He’s seen mares he has trained win Best Playing Pony awards in Palermo and the U.S. Open. Mariano Aguerre’s Califa, who won the Polo Excellence Awards 2005 Horse of the Year in the U.S., was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.

“He was not as easy,” explains Polito about Califa, “geldings are always a little slower to train.”

He’s also made horses for La Aguada, such as Neblina, Puma and Pincha, as well as many for the Pieres’ Ellerstina operation.

Chimento was one of the best and most memorable horses he’s ever ridden from Cambiaso and he says Cuartetera was a natural. Open Emotionada, a mare belonging to Pablo Mac Donough, won the Susan Townley Trophy. Polito recalls one of his most memorable moments was a game during the Open at Palermo between La Aguada and Ellerstina, and at one point, realizing all eight horses on the field had been trained by him.

For the past 10 years he hasn’t trained any more horses for the Novillos or Cambiaso as they have their own tamers, however, he still trains about 20 horses a year for Ellerstina, and Curtis Pilot’s organization sends him 15-20 to start a year. In fact, when Hilario Ulloa played against Pilot, led by Facundo and Gonzalito Pieres, in this year’s U.S. Open final, at least a dozen horses were started by Polito.

The only clone he has trained to date is from Califa for Mariano Aguerre. He said it had come from the U.S. very spoiled as a 2-year-old. It would bite and kick, however, when ridden it was very similar to and just as talented as the original.

With his own breeding he has mounted his sons on high-goal ponies around the world. Now on their farm in Lincoln, they have a successful breeding program with their own stallion, Naipe, who was played by Hilario in the Open. Polito bred Naipe who is out of Ruletta (SPC) by Ellerstina Picaro, both horses he also trained. Picaro won La Rural and went straight to breeding as there were very few good stallions at the time when the Polo Argentino breed was just starting. Also at that time, people thought it wasn’t possible to play a stallion successfully. Ruletta was a mare from Polito’s breed that Gonzalo Pieres saw when he came to visit and wanted to buy. At first Polito declined but he later agreed to let Gonzalo play her in the Argentine Open, the first Polito-trained horse to do so. Later, she had a career-ending injury in the paddock and went on to breed, producing Naipe three years later.

Even with all his achievements so far, he is always looking to improve the process rather than counting success.

When it comes to producing a top polo pony, genetics make a huge difference, as does the piloto (rider) who continues the work Polito has started, playing a young horse in its first chukkers. However, having a chance at being the best it possibly can depends on how it is started and how much time it has been given. Time is essential, as a talented horse that is not given time will not turn out well. This is the crucial part. A trainer without knowledge can easily spoil a good horse and it can be an expensive error to disregard this important stage of the horse’s education.

Horse training is a consuming passion, which Polito says was a vocation followed since he was 20 years old, literally living and breathing horses to achieve his dreams. The most important qualities he believes a horse trainer needs to be successful are hard work, patience and consistency.

He tries to start every horse that comes to him without looking at the passport or worrying about bloodlines. This prevents any preconceptions of how it should perform. Generally it will take around six to eight months to start a young horse and teach it all the moves it will need to play polo. Then he passes it back to the owners to start stick and balling and playing in young horse chukkers.

In addition to the physical training, he likes them to eat well and also learn to live in a stable for short periods of time. He gets them used to being brought in to stables at night and turned out in paddocks in the day. His stables are bedded with hay, not straw or shavings, so there is no need to muzzle the young ones. They may eat as much bedding as they wish and even outside, always have access to roughage, which is how the horse is designed to function and prevents many problems and vices. It is also more sincere to the owner if the horse is trained while eating a proper diet.

Polito explains, “You know you can trust in how it will turn out and that it is not just quiet because the horse is lacking energy or is sad. Their mind set also changes, allowing them to be stronger and more willing to want to work.”

There is a team of helpers on the farm who clean the stalls and bring in horses each day from the paddocks. There are also always two or three young domadors (trainers) who help and learn from him, however, he is still at the barn every day at 6 a.m. without fail. He tacks for himself and does most of the specific training work. Over the years, the apprentices move on after a time, but Monica is his rock. She has a wealth of knowledge and is also very talented at training young horses, as are their children.

When horses have been handled as youngsters they are more open-minded, which allows them to relax and be worked with more easily. The key is to keep them relaxed while learning. In general, the horses are worked Monday to Saturday for only 5- 10 minutes schooling per horse per day unless they go out to work cattle or on trail rides to keep the young ones interested in their work. This is so they enjoy the experience and learn.

He works roughly 12 horses in the morning and 10 in the afternoon. At any one time he’ll have around 50 horses in training, which he says is easily done with three domadors helping everyday. He has even designed his own saddle, which is a mix between an Argentine and English style with high withers and a U.S. Western seat.

He believes a lot in groundwork. He’ll start a young horse at 2 years old, slowly working on the ground to observe and assess their personality, having them walk, trot and canter in a round pen with no halter. He teaches them to reduce speed and increase speed on cues.

“Argentines are complex,” he says. “Many believe they are cowards if they do ground work and do not get straight on [their backs]. They have an amazing natural ability to ride but lack training techniques that other disciplines use, such as reining and dressage.”

It can take up to two months or longer to know if a horse will be talented, but even then, with genetics, many times some difficult ones may succeed given time. It’s also vital horses do not get overworked and sour or they will not want to perform to their best. He says, “Training horses is half teaching their body and half teaching their mind.”

Each horse is different and part of the skill as a trainer is to know when to ask more and when to let them rest. The most valuable assets of any horse trainer is experience and intuition.

Neither a whip nor rebenque (thick rawhide strip) are used in the teaching stage, as he does not want the horses to be afraid. He explains that if you use a whip to help turn, you will go faster but then you will likely have problems with the horse jumping around instead of making a smooth turn, which is what is needed in a top horse. Instead, leg aids are fundamentally important during training and he often also uses two reins. Another important factor is to teach young horses to self regulate so they can return to a calm state of mind after a fast work out or gallop.

Unlike other equine disciplines, there are not a huge number of books or YouTube videos to use as a reference for training polo youngsters. While years of experience and practice are invaluable for learning how to communicate effectively and applying your intuition, trial and error can be costly both in time and horses.

There is no magic formula to training a horse, however, increasing knowledge about the principles of training and how to apply methods experts, such as Polito, use can rapidly increase your chances of success. Each horse is individual, there is no one recipe that is the same as the next, but once you know the basic principles behind the methods, you can discover techniques that will work for each new situation.

No matter how much you already knew, there is always more to learn. It takes time and passion but the results are so rewarding it is no wonder Polito has dedicated his life to becoming such a master of training polo ponies that so many people admire. Very quiet and reserved in nature, he is far from a showman. The best opportunity to delve into his vast knowledge is to attend a young horse clinic demonstration where you can see him at work.

-- Words and Photos By Alice Gipps

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