Apr 18, 2023 6:51 PM
Written by Lucas Noel and published in April 2023 edition of POLO Magazine.
In 1992, John Gray wrote a best-selling book titled, “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.” In it, he examined the differences between men and women. Similarly, Noel looks at the sport’s equine athletes and what makes mares, geldings and stallions different:
Mares are smarter than male horses. This is undoubtedly, one of the most repeated phrases by the protagonists of the polo world. And under that premise, most players have a well- marked preference. But as true as the docility and lucidity of mares are, when a male is good, that animal makes a physical difference over the rest of the player’s horses.
In Argentina, years and generations go by, but breeding continues to be part of the family lifestyle. It does so from the study and research of genetics and from the experimentation and vision of each organization. But it also takes into account an element that no one dares to exclude: the opinion of the paisano (countryman), who may not have the most distinguished university doctorates, but does possess a very valuable power of observation as a result of the history and tradition of the Argentine countryside.
The breeding of polo ponies in the Pampas has its origin in the importation of English Thoroughbred stallions at the end of the 19th century. The crossbreeding with native mares resulted in the so-called mestizo. Breeding in total freedom and with high competition led an excellent product that efficiently accompanies the level of Argentine polo players. Later, with the foundation of the Argentine Association of Polo Horse Breeders (AACCP, its initials in Spanish), the process was professionalized, the genetic information was made official, and the Argentine polo pony acquired the status of a registered trademark.
In the last few years, Bartolomé “Lolo” Castagnola has developed a fabulous string of horses that has won the most important titles in Argentina.
“The difficult thing is to look for genetics. You try to do it with the best mother that is playing and a stallion. Then it will be a matter of taming him and combining the blood. I follow my intuition a lot. Sometimes I don’t follow what everyone else follows. Many times, it has paid me badly, but many times it has paid me well,” Castagnola explained. “If you make a safe bet you have to follow certain established rules, but if you bet on your intuition, you can get an outstanding horse ... or be left empty-handed. The best one I ever had was a male: Toro. The good male is a different kind of animal.
The mares are quicker to learn, there are many more in number, and in general, they are more intelligent. But the good male is smarter than all of them. Toro was super. I never played with a horse like that. He was a gelding and now I have him cloned for breeding. He was a horse that had everything, he could beat anyone, he had no flaws. At key moments he jumped, he had heart, mouth, agility. Athletically, I have never ridden anything like him.”
The Novillo Astrada family has been a reference in Argentine breeding for decades, and Miguel Novillo Astrada is one of the members of La Aguada, the family’s organization, with the greatest dedication to its entire structure.
“The stallion is the most complicated: you have to keep him apart because he gets distracted and always wants to be with the mares. It’s complicated in that sense. You have to catch him at a very early age because later he gets very strong, his neck is wide, he gets very muscular and it’s difficult to teach him to flex his neck and the back of the neck. On
the other hand, the gelded male is as if it were dumb at first, it takes him longer to learn than a female, but he is docile,” he explained.
“Mares are more sensitive. Already as fillies, at 2 years of age, they absorb everything you teach them very quickly. That is why there are many more females than males. The best I had were mares. La Cereza and Anónima won many prizes. Among the males, I also had very good ones like Califa and Pampero. I also played a stallion in the Palermo Open called Aguada Bridgestone, who today is a breeding stallion.
“A good male is impressive, because they are stronger and more resistant horses than the mares. The issue with stallions is that they play for a while and then they start to get very strong and become very tough and defend themselves and it is more complicated. I prefer females that last longer and are more regular when playing.”
His cousin Julio Novillo Astrada is a former high-handicap player and is currently Miguel’s pilot. For him, a good gelding can be better than a mare, but he says there are fewer.
“With a good bloodline, they are left whole and then they are gelded. They are more rustic, they endure more, but with the mare you can continue breeding and improving the maternal line, which is what you always look for in breeding and with embryo gender,” he said.
Pablo Mac Donough, another brilliant figure in Argentine polo and breeding, also expressed himself similarly.
“It is not that it is just simply easier to tame a mare than a male. It is that everything related to daily life and riding is more docile and better with mares. This does not exclude the possibility of good stallions or geldings. A good gelding is very good indeed. But I think the trend is going to continue to be more females than males thanks to embryo gender.
That widens the gap even more,” Mac Donough explained.
From the AACCP, its manager Bill Buchanan knows perfectly well how the best polo players are organized.
“In the palenque [team corner] of a player with good horses there are normally 80% mares, 20% [geldings] or less and some isolated stallions. Although mares are more sensitive, a good gelding is very stable in his performance and is very durable in his sporting life. A good male horse plays for many years,” Buchanan said. “All good players always remember a stallion that was outstanding. Stallions, as soon as they start to give service, increase the musculature of their neck and that makes them a little less flexible and more rigid, with more strength and [are] more difficult to handle. But Adolfo Cambiaso’s Aiken Cura was the best horse in the final of the Palermo Open in 2005 and 2006 and there are many cases of great stallions, such as Grappa Casino of Gonzalito Pieres; Lavinia Naipe, who was a brother of Grappa Casino and was played by Hilario Ulloa; Rengo Luisito ... The truth is that there are many cases.”
However, when it comes to analyzing the pros and cons of preparing a stallion to play, all the protagonists recognize the complexity.
“The stallions that play are few and you have to treat them individually. They cannot be put together with any horse, either male or female. Their treatment must be differentiated. They are treated personally. Although very good stallions have been played, later they get a bit heavy because of the testosterone,” explained Castagnola.
For Miguel Novillo Astrada, the situation requires more dedication, but it is feasible. “Stallions in the field should be separated as much as possible from the females because when they smell them, they get a little crazy and can even jump fences. When it plays, the horse is focused so nothing happens. There are some stallions that are very tame and easy to handle. There are others that are not and have more temperament. It can only get more difficult if you let him walk next to a mare.
He can get a little crazy and start to whinny, but if the horse is focused, he gets used to playing and then there is no problem,” Miguel Novillo Astrada said. In the same vein, Julio Novillo Astrada explained, “Stallions are more resistant, they endure more repetitions, they play longer and endure better the trips abroad. When they are good, they are very good. But you have to play them right away from a very young age because afterwards you have to soften their bodies a lot and be attentive to those that are aroused all the time.”
Advances in genetics have favored the selective process under artificial insemination, embryo transfer, cloning and various breeding techniques. Today, we have biotechnology, genetic engineering or gene editing. But there is also intuition, the clinical eye of breeders and the family knowledge of the material with which each lineage was built. It no longer matters whether it is a mare, gelding or stallion. There, science leaves room for the wisdom of the Argentine breeder.
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