Are champions born, or raised? That’s the question scientists in Argentina are trying to answer as they look to pinpoint the genes that make local horses the best in the world for playing polo.
In Argentina, polo is a big deal, and big business, and to that end, cloning has already been used to reproduce the finest existing mounts.
But scientists want to go one step further and map the entire genome of the Argentine polo horse in order to create the perfect specimen.
From December, a group of five universities will analyze 80,000 horses from the breed as part of a project that will try to identify the ideal genetic balance that makes up a polo horse.
The Argentine horses used to play polo have been bred specifically over decades by crossing a Criollo line descended from the original pure-blooded Andalusian and Arab mounts brought to the New World by Spanish conquistadores, and English thoroughbreds, introduced at the end of the 19th century when British immigrants also imported polo.
For veterinarian Guillermo Buchanan, the Argentine polos “are unique” because of their speed and durability, and because of their mix of explosiveness and docility.
During a polo match these horses, also known as polo ponies due to their agility, “change direction at speed, slow down, turn, accelerate while turning,” says admiring horse-breeder Pablo Trigo, who is also co-managing the project.
The Argentine polos distinguish themselves in their rate of learning and sensibility to their rider’s desires. They are the most cloned animal in the world.
At stud farms in the Buenos Aires area they are looked after as if works of art. And now science is being used to figure out how to reproduce the finest animals.
The project is expected to start producing results within three years and will precede the launch of a genetic selection program aimed at optimizing the horses’ physical and temperamental characteristics.
There’s nothing new about using applied research and biotechnology to improve polo ponies but interest in the science is growing, as is the money people are prepared to pay for its results.
The clone of a legendary mare fetched a whopping $800,000 at auction.
According to estimates, there are around 200 cloned Argentine polos, many copies of elite level mounts.
So far, all seem to be in excellent health.
Argentina “is absolutely at the cutting-edge of applied research into polo ponies,” said geneticist Sebastian Demyda, one of the project’s leaders.
This includes every biotechnological technique from embryonic transfer to cloning and gender selection: mares are preferred because of their more docile temperament.
Argentina’s polo association accepts cloning — although not everyone considers this ethical, and one private clinic specializing in embryo manipulation has ceased its activities.
“(Genetic) engineering is the limit,” said Buchanan, who believes tampering with individual embryos is a step too far.
Cloning however has become common practice in polo — and while clones were initially used only for reproductive purposes, now they are used in competition too.
Elite players can have up to six or seven clones in their pens.”The clones are doing very well, they’re winning prizes,” said Demyda.
But cloning has its drawbacks, not least when it comes to the gene pool.
“Clones narrow the race’s genetic structure, they’re like a photocopy,” said Demyda.
When it comes to the sport, they also distort the playing field. Cloning costs a minimum of $30,000 meaning only the richest can benefit.
“Cloning isn’t available to everyone, it’s very expensive and gives certain breeders an advantage.”
While science can help favor certain physical and even temperamental traits at birth, training maintains a crucial and almost mythical role in the development of polo horses.
It can take seven years to train a polo pony as it needs to be programmed into acting against its natural instincts.
Specialist Ezequiel Correa says “what’s fundamental is that it has been well tamed,” although without using violence.
A horse needs to get used to the swinging wooden mallet brushing its sides, and the sound when it connects with the metal ball.
It’s a painstaking art form that requires small steps of just 20 minutes training a day.
“It’s like teaching a child to read one letter at a time. If you make it read in front of the class, you traumatize it,” said Correa, who at 33 has trained 20 horses.
“If you expose a horse to polo before it’s ready, you traumatize it and it’s difficult to come back from that.”
Once that’s been achieved, though, the next step is to establish “chemistry” between horse and rider.
“You need a special connection, there’s a unique form of communication using the legs. If it works, you can have a champion.”
Science, it seems, cannot overcome every challenge.
“No-one can identify the new (Lionel) Messi by genes,” said Demyda.