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Learning polo ... can horses stick to it?

Trainer specializes in converting thoroughbreds so they excel at a new sport.

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  • | 6:15 a.m. December 9, 2015
Polo professional Nick Johnson has been training horses at the Sarasota Polo Club for the past three years.
Polo professional Nick Johnson has been training horses at the Sarasota Polo Club for the past three years.
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LAKEWOOD RANCH — Nick Johnson takes a gamble every time he enters a racetrack.

But not by betting the races. 

With his stat sheet in hand, he sizes up his equine options. Last September in Charleston, W.V., the option was 4-year-old Never So Sweet, who caught his eye. At first glance, the thoroughbred had near perfect conformation and she didn't shy away when he approached her.

After the filly passed his initial eye test, Johnson was ready to check her racing form. In eight races, Never So Sweet had finished seventh or worse every time. The fact she wasn't a champion didn't hurt her value to him.

Johnson, a Sarasota Polo Club professional who resides in River Club, bought her with the hope of finding a first-class polo horse.

It will be weeks before Johnson knows whether he made the right call with Never So Sweet, who now is called M&M. He wants to see how she reacts to her new surroundings and classmates. 

She could be too hot, or hyper, around other riders or she might develop into a shining star. 

It's a gamble, but polo fans might be seeing her this season, which opens on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. at the Sarasota Polo Grounds.

M&M is just one example of a thoroughbred that Johnson has picked from the track despite a lack of racing speed. Since she was contending for a victory, Johnson reasons that she wasn't pushed as hard as the other horses on the track. That makes her a candidate for polo.

Once back at the barn, Johnson finds out whether his new purchases can learn a new game.

"It's a whole retraining process," Johnson said. "You have to make sure they’re not scared in traffic. You don’t want them to shy away.” 

It can take up to two years to get a polo horse ready to play its first chukka, and it’s up to Johnson to make sure each of the horses in his care is prepared well before it gallops on the playing field. 

A native of England, Johnson has been training polo horses at the Sarasota Polo Club for the past three years after fellow polo professional Stuart Campbell, who liked the way Johnson rode, hired him to train his younger horses. 

“He would mount me on his younger string to play for other teams to enhance their skills within the training program,” Johnson said. 

Johnson spent the past two years training 15 of Campbell’s horses. He also trains horses for Sarasota Polo Club resident and fellow polo player Jaymie Klauber and Virginia International Polo Club player Maureen Brennan, among others, as well as three of his own, including M&M. 

When the polo season opens, Johnson will have 16 polo horses, ranging in age from 3 to 10, under his wing. Twelve of those are preparing for their first competitive polo season at the Sarasota Polo Club. 

“It’s a very nerve-wracking job,” said Johnson, who will play for Wildcat this season. “Polo is 80% horse."

Johnson is training four inexperienced horses, including his own Mary Lou, who aren't ready for polo yet.

"Mary Lou knows the game already and has no fear, but she has a problem with being too ‘hot,'" Klauber said. "She is a bit bonkers. One of the things that stands out most to me about Nick’s relationship with horses is his innate ability to read them and know what they need. He understands that each horse is unique and they all have different personalities, and he plans their training program accordingly.” 

The majority of Johnson's horses are young thoroughbreds and they are primarily former racehorses right off of the track.

In the past, polo ponies were primarily Polo Argentino, a breed from Argentina, which is roughly 80% thoroughbred and 20% common bred of Argentina. However, with the cost of a plane ticket for a Polo Argentino increasing from $3,000 to $9,000 in a 10-year span, there are less to choose from, making the demand for former racing thoroughbreds even greater. 

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and what each polo player has at his or her disposal. 

"I look for them to have great conformation, a kind, sane eye, being sound, and on the smaller side for thoroughbreds," Klauber said. "There are some off-track thoroughbreds that are simply too big for polo, and occasionally they don’t have the mind for it." 

Johnson said he looks for thoroughbreds who have a wider, and more solid-looking build. He usually sends potential polo horses to pasture for a break from their other forms of training. After some down time, he begins the basic groundwork of polo, which includes saddling the horse and lungeing it around in a circle, before eventually starting to ride. 

Eventually, the horses are ridden in a pen to learn the moves, which include learning to walk backward.

He moves to trot sets around the exercise track with five of his horses in tow. They need to be accustomed to working in close company. He also has to make it fun.

“I want the horse to enjoy the workplace because a lot of horses don’t want to leave the barn,” Johnson said.

After mastering trot sets, practice stopping and making lead and directional changes comes next. After more than a month of work, the horse is ready to have its rider hit a ball.

"Training young horses is an art-form," Klauber said. "The pros put so much heart into making these polo ponies great. It is a time-consuming process for someone with patience, and it is often dangerous, so it is not a good idea for anyone other than professional, or expert riders."

Johnson said good polo horses are well-balanced and able to hold themselves naturally at a canter without leaning on the bit. They have to be very sensitive to pressure, to instantly follow their rider's commands.

At that point a decision has to be made to either sell the horse or move forward to the match.

Johnson usually brings between eight to 10 horses to a match. One horse will be used for a warm-up while the remainder will be rotated throughout the match's six chukkas. Players must play a different horse during each chukka and can change horses at any point in the chukka. However, those same horses that have been previously played are also able to return in a later chukka. 

"I'm very lucky to have the job that I have," Johnson said. "I get paid to do my passion. My job is my hobby.” 


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