The incidence of injury to high-goal polo players is around 7.8 injuries per 1000 hours played, and most polo players are keen to play as many games as possible during the season. The challenge then, is how to keep players as fit, flexible, and strong as possible in order to allow you to play.
As a group, we work closely with a number of polo players, helping them to avoid injury throughout the polo season and keep them match-fit. The limited amount of studies into injuries sustained by polo riders show that the shoulder is the most commonly affected joint, accounting for around 35% of all injuries. The head is also vulnerable, with players at risk not only from knocks to the head, but also from concussive injuries sustained during falls. Injuries to the spine and pelvis account for between 5-11% and are often severe enough to prevent play.
Polo players are often forced into a position in the saddle which encourages the knees to flex and pushes them back onto the cantle, as demonstrated in the image below.
In this image we can clearly see the flexed knee and extended ankle which is synonymous with a polo players’ position in the saddle. The concern here is that sustaining this posture can encourage the muscles in the front of the thigh to shorten, while the hamstrings in the back of the thigh and calf lengthen, leading to postural imbalances. The rider’s centre of gravity differs in polo players, as instead of a natural gravity line extending through ear-shoulder-hip-ankle, the weight of the rider pushes down on to the horse’s mid-back and can cause disruption to their normal movement. The photo above also demonstrates this well, as we can see the pony’s weak top line and high head carriage, which will lead to overdeveloped muscles on the underside of the neck. This in turn encourages the pony to work with a hollow back, producing weak back muscles and tension developing behind the saddle- exactly where the rider’s centre of gravity is.
Polo must be played right-handed, and so the majority of polo players are significantly one-sided and tend to be tight and overdeveloped in the musculature on one side of their body. The image below highlights the interplay between the right and left side of the body during play- the overextension of the right shoulder is clearly demonstrated as the mallet is swung and the left shoulder is rotated and extended in order to balance and prepare for the swing- both of these positions leave the rider vulnerable to injury.
Eventually, these imbalances between the muscles will lead to longer term problems such as joint dysfunction, pain, and restricted movement. They may produce visual distortion of the area and also affect the overall ability of the rider to play at peak performance.
The role of chiropractors in treating polo players is to restore normal joint movement and improve function through appropriate training of target muscle groups. Many players already demonstrate established joint dysfunction and pain upon presenting for treatment and therefore there is much work to be done in “undoing” the faults that already exist. Careful training of involved muscle groups, teaching them to work in balance with each other, can help in correcting these long-standing issues as well as preventing future pain or problems from arising as a result of them. This better enables the rider to balance in the saddle and move supply and freely in response to the demands of the game.