Managing a field for equine athletes

Photos by George Schnackenbert, Agri-Turf Supplies.

The Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club spreads over 36 acres, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountain foothills and the Pacific Ocean. It’s the third oldest polo facility in the United States, earning a reputation as one of the best during its initial season in 1911, and retaining that ranking ever since.

The facility includes an en-closed polo arena, and horse boarding and exercise facilities, along with tennis courts, a swimming pool and exercise facilities. The jewel of the club is the outdoor polo program, which attracts local, regional, national and international participants. Preparing the playing surface is Field and Facility Manager Sergio Jaramillo.

Field care

The most important part of the polo field is the footing for the horses. They can weigh 1,400 pounds or more, but their legs are very thin to bear the pressure of that weight in movement and can be incredibly fragile. The field must have a consistent surface for them to move with confidence.

Mowing is time-consuming with a polo field covering an area equal to the size of 10 football fields.

The horse needs to toe down into the field, with the hoof moving through a soft surface to a solid subbase. If the surface is too hard, the force of the hoof against the ground can break the horse’s leg. If the subbase is too soft, the horse has no stability or solid base to push off from.

Jaramillo says, “The subsoil of the polo field must be laser-leveled so it is 100 percent perfect. The upper level is sand, exactly 4 inches deep, rototilled for consistency throughout, raked smooth, rolled and laser-leveled, again to 100 percent perfect. Without the base, the field would be like a desert, with tons of sand moving and slipping at every step. That 4-inch surface needs enough stability to keep the horse from slipping, but it also needs to have enough give for the horse’s hoof to move through it, and tear out a 4-inch-deep divot. A level deeper than 4 inches could allow the animal’s leg to sink in too deeply and provide too much resistance, trapping the leg and becoming a danger to the horse.”

At the same time, the horse’s rear hoof needs the freedom to turn as the horse makes sharp cuts, so the degree of turf cover becomes a factor. If the turf is too dense, the hoof becomes entangled and the leg twists, which could lead to a compound fracture. Jaramillo says, “The turf is just the opposite of what you want for soccer. Instead of a dense, full turf covering, we want a relatively thin stand of deeply rooted grass. The animal wants to touch the turf and move on. We want deep, firm rooting to help hold that 4-inch layer of sand in place for stability, but not roots so strong they won’t give with each 4-inch-deep divot the horse creates with its hoof.”

Hitching posts for the polo ponies are positioned on one of the non-turf areas near the field.
This shot looks toward the end of the field from the staging area.
The side boards help deflect the ball back into play at Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club’s polo field.

For polo play, the turf is kept very short. “Our original turf was Santa Ana hybrid bermudagrass. We’ve gradually changed over to Tifway II bermudagrass, but the two varieties perform the same. During the polo playing season we keep the fields mowed at 7/16 of an inch.

“We mow with a Jacobsen LS340 ride-on reel mower, with the seven-blade cutting reel. For this kind of bermuda, you don’t get the perfect cut that we’re after with an 11-blade reel. We follow right behind the mower with a tractor pulling an Apache sweeper. It has the impellers that move the grass with air, providing a very clean sweeping action.”

The sprinkler heads and pipes of an inground irrigation system would present a hazard for the horses, so the club has two big water cannons for each field. Jaramillo generally irrigates on Sundays. He says, “We follow the weather predictions on the computer, making adjustments accordingly. If high temperatures are likely, we’ll put down .75 of an inch of water. Otherwise, we’ll put down .5 inch. We can irrigate one field in about six hours, positioning the water cannons along the sides and shooting toward the center.”

The  polo matches are traditionally held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Field use begins in March, with the first big match tournaments running from early April to May.

This view of the polo field shows the ornamental plantings along the outer border of the property along the foothills.
The foothills of the mountains form the backdrop for this view of the field and sidelines. Irrigation is in process in the background and divot mix fills in some areas in the foreground.

“We paint the lines before each tournament so everything is ready to go for the Friday match,” says Jaramillo. “Part of our crew is on hand to hit the field at the end of each chukker [seven-minute play period]. We have three minutes to replace the worst divots, put a mixture of sand and fertilizer in the larger divot holes, and pick up manure. We get conditions as good as we can before play begins again.”

A unique part of a polo match is the involvement of the spectators in the long-standing tradition of the “Divot Stomp.” During the five-minute halftime, spectators move out of the grandstand to “wander all over the field stomping down the torn up turf.”

“Our crew is out there during the divot stomp, too, continuing the work we’ve done between each of the chukkers,” says Jaramillo. “At the end of the match, we repair the worst areas, then mow and sweep the field. We always roll the field after that, letting the roller finish the work that took place during the divot stomp.”

Jaramillo works in aeration whenever there’s enough break in the action to allow it. He’ll drag in the cores and topdress with .25 inch of sand. He wants the water to move quickly through the sand layer to keep the grass surface from becoming slippery. He varies the fertilization program according to turf needs and weather conditions, carefully balancing the potassium and calcium levels. Nitrogen (N) is closely controlled to avoid excessive top growth, with slow-release N always the choice during the hot weather months.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.

SIDEBAR 1

The Polo Match

The object of the game is for each team to score the most goals within a match. Teams are composed of four riders, each on a thoroughbred horse called a “polo pony.” Riders use a mallet with a bamboo shaft and hardwood head to hit the ball, which, for outdoor play, may be made of wood or plastic and is 3 to 3.5 inches in diameter and weighs between 3.5 and 4.5 ounces. Each match is divided into six periods, or “chukkers,” each lasting seven minutes. Play stops for penalties, a rider’s loss of helmet, the need for tack repair, the ball rolling out of bounds, or injury to a horse or rider. No substitutions are allowed. There are three-minute breaks between each chukker, with a five-minute halftime following the first three chukkers. The average match lasts about 90 minutes.

With the horses sprinting, stopping, turning and accelerating to full speed throughout the entire period, riders must change horses between chukkers. A polo pony may only be ridden for a maximum of two chukkers in each match.

Two umpires are mounted on horses, each serving as the primary official for one end of the field. A referee is stationed along the sideline at midfield and serves as the “third man” in deciding a call. There are two flagmen, one at each end of the field, who signal if a goal has been scored or if the ball has gone over the end line without passing through the goal.

Courtesy of SportPOLO, Two Friends Farms, LLC. For more detailed information, visit www.sportpolo.com.