Argentine grooms frequent the summer polo circuit in the UK. They are typically distinguishable by their tanned skin, espadrilles (canvas shoes), berets and thermos of hot water complete with pot of maté and drinking straw.
So what does a groom do?
Many are employed for the summer season on a temporary work visa by the polo industry. Most live on site at the polo yard, looking after the horses in their care 24/7. The grooms normally get one ‘day off’ a week when the horses are turned out instead of being ridden. However, mucking out and feeding in the morning and evening still has to be carried out, so it is not a day off as most of us would know it.
Grooms bring the horses up to fitness at the beginning of every season, or after any period of rehabilitation. They make sure that they are shod, exercised, rested, fed and groomed properly. They play a very important part in preparing and schooling them for polo. They need to be able to spot any injuries and understand the treatment required.
The groom also maintains and cleans all the tack for the horses. He is responsible for making sure the right bridle and saddle is used, the horse tacked up correctly, warmed up and ready for you to ride. The groom normally holds the horse for you while you mount, and will adjust your stirrups as required before passing you your stick and whip.
During a match your groom will be at the side of the ground with a change of pony ready and a spare polo stick in case you need either during a chukka. After each chukka he will be ready with your fresh horse and take your used pony while you have a drink of water before mounting again. When you head out on the field to play your next chukka your groom loosens the spent horse’s girth then takes it back to the pony lines. If it has finished playing he will probably quickly remove the tack and put a sweat blanket on it before heading back to the side of the field with your next horse.
At the end of the game you head off to celebrate your win but your groom still has to hose down the horses, collect up the tack and get everything back to the stables.
How to communicate with your groom?
If you don’t speak Spanish and he doesn’t speak English here are a few words that are useful to know.
Estás bien? Are you well?
Arriba uno por favor Up one please (stirrups)
Abajo dos [a_ba_ko] Down two (stirrups)
Ella fue bien [e_sha fu_ay] She went well
Sí, gracias Yes, thankyou
And what are they drinking?
There is not a polo stable or polo match which does not feature Argentinian maté. You’ll see it being drunk in the palenques (pony lines) and the stands. Maté transcends race and class through its tradition of sharing a drink. It is the drink of choice for famous international pro players such as Nacho Figueras and Adolfo Cambiaso.
The polo tradition of drinking maté through a metal straw from a dried gourd husk originates from Argentina, with the trained petizeros (polo grooms) who would start their morning before sunrise drinking maté and later after a long day working with the horses would often invite their employers to sit with them close to the horses and drink maté, sharing stories and updates about the horses. Maté acts as a bridge to communicating with people from different classes, backgrounds and nationalities over a traditionally common interest and love for polo and horses.
If you are offered a drink of maté, and want to try it, accept the gourd and take a tentative suck on the straw to check the water isn’t too hot. It will probably take about three or four sucks on the straw to drink all the liquid. You can take a pause between drinking, but don’t hog the maté for too long.
You are expected to drink it all. If you hear a bubbly sound you have hit the bottom and it’s time to pass the pot back to the person with the thermos. It is polite to say it’s good (esta bueno, or que rico), but don’t say thank you (gracias) until you want to stop drinking. The maté will be passed round the drinkers and eventually come back to you. Say gracias after drinking the maté when you want to drop out.
What is Maté?
Maté or Yerba Maté is a species of holly, which is native to subtropical South America and found in northeastern Argentina, Bolivia, southern Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. It was first cultivated and used by the Guaraní people. The maté plant is a shrub or small tree growing up to 15 metres tall. The leaves are evergreen and commonly called “herb”. They contain caffeine and other related compounds. The drink is brewed from the dried leaves of the tree. These leaves are harvested commercially for the production of maté in Argentina and Paraguay.