Behind every good polo player is a great horse. Behind every great horse, you will most often find an incredibly hardworking, dedicated and passionate groom, who loves the sport as much as he or she loves the horse.
Each featured Sunday match held at the International Polo Club Palm Beach requires at least 78 horses to be prepped and ready for play, and it is no small feat to organize that many horses at once. Each horse requires care, training and love, both on and off the field.
The grooms of polo are instrumental to a team’s success, perhaps even more so than for other disciplines. To get an insider’s look into the daily life of a groom, we sat down with Elly Brien, the top groom at Mariano Aguerre’s high-goal polo operation.
A native of Ireland, Brien first started her involvement with polo 20 years ago at Peter Brant’s White Birch Farm in Greenwich, Conn. Seven years later, Brien began working for Aguerre and has been on his team ever since.
It is common in the polo industry — as well as the equestrian world in general — to see frequent movement of grooms and players alike. Why has she stayed in one place for so many years? “It just clicks for us,” Brien said. “It just works, so we stayed!”
It wasn’t always about polo for Brien. She began her barn days back in County Waterford, Ireland, with show jumpers, first competing herself and then working for professionals. She made the trip over to the United States first with jumper barns before finding her way to White Birch. “I was always more interested in polo anyway,” she said.
Even after all these years, however, she’s not quite interested in playing on the field. “I love riding them around, but I was never any good at sports, so I’d probably never hit the ball,” Brien joked. “I wouldn’t have the hand-eye coordination and be able to ride at the same time.”
Her daily routine is similar to most other grooms in the horse world: wake up, feed the ponies, muck out some stalls, do some grooming before the horses are exercised, and maybe ride a few of them herself. However, in Brien’s case, she has 12 to 15 horses to look after, not just three or four, which is typical in most other disciplines.
It’s a long day at the farm with her boyfriend sharing the general duties. The pair also does most of the fitness training, such as taking daily sets and riding singles. Then, there is the preparation, organization and trailering to weekly practices or games. They are with Aguerre and his horses 24/7 for whatever they may need.
Having that background in two disciplines offered unique insight on the biggest difference between grooming for high-goal polo and hunter, jumper or dressage barns.
“I’d imagine that the biggest difference between them is the number of horses we take care of and present to one competition,” Brien said. “A polo team would have about 40 horses for a top tournament, versus a top jumper or dressage barn would probably be concentrating on getting three to five horses ready for a top competition.”
It’s not just the sheer number of horses being prepared for competition. It’s also the quality and level of prep that a polo groom has to focus on, because each of the 10 horses a player uses must be at the same physical and mental level. Brien’s favorite part of the job is seeing all of these horses at the peak of their fitness and looking their best on game day.
What’s Brien’s “top tip” is for grooming? “I’m not sure I have just one trick,” she laughed. “I’ve just always believed in being organized and treating all your horses as individuals. I think that’s important.”
But this approach doesn’t mean that it’s easy for her to pick out just one favorite horse.
“I have a soft spot for all of my horses that we take care of, so it’s hard to have one favorite in the polo sport,” Brien said. “If I have to think of one in particular, I’d say Califa is definitely one of my all-time favorites.”
Now quietly living out a happy retirement at Aguerre’s farm, Califa had a pretty impactful life both on the sport and the science behind polo. He received multiple awards throughout his career, including the USPA Horse of the Year in 2006, and the APHA Horse of the Year in 2009. In 2016, Califa was even inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame for his achievements. Perhaps Califa’s most notable claim to fame, however, is his title as the first ever polo pony to be genetically cloned in 2010.
Brien said that the cloning of some of polo’s greatest ponies is something that people outside of the sport might not typically know but may find intriguing. “I think it’s interesting that not only are they being cloned, but currently those clones are playing at the high level of polo and doing so with great success,” she said.
As a groom to both Califa and his clones, Brien has a first-hand account of how cloning works and the outcomes seen so far. “Yes, [the clone] totally behaves and performs the same,” Brien explained. “He’s got the same likes and dislikes as our original Califa — things that we thought were learned habits from over the years, but the new clone arrived with the exact same behaviors.”
Not only has she had a front-row seat to the amazing technology, but Brien has also had the chance to watch generations grow up.
“It’s interesting being with one operation so long that we can see the generations of the horses,” she said. “We have granddaughters here now of certain mares that were just playing when I first joined the operation.”
After so many years caring for these mares and stallions, Brien and the grooms kind of know what they’re getting before the foal even comes out. As soon as the embryos are chosen, she knows what to expect from the new batch coming to the farm.
Brien remains dedicated and passionate about the game, and even more so about her horses. She works hard to keep each individual comfortable and in top form, so they are ready to play their best on the field. This season, when Aguerre rides out, she’ll be found behind the end lines, setting up her team for success from the first to final whistle.