Getting into the swing of Polo

11 June 2017

This week's Motorpoint Polo at the Manor will once again demonstrate that Polo is a sport that can be enjoyed by everyone as thousands of spectators pour into our Polo Village to enjoy the matches and a splendid day out.

But what about playing the game? Surely, that's the preserve of the privileged few... there's no chance of just anyone turning up to give it a go, no polo for the hoi polloi.

Far from it, according to Cirencester Park Polo Club, which organises the matches we will watch on Saturday. Steeped in history though Cirencester Park is, as one of the country's most prestigious polo grounds in a beautiful 3,000-acre estate, the club offers lessons and Polo Experience Days for compete beginners and promises to have non-riders hitting a ball on horseback within an hour or two.

“A lot of people have this misconception that you have to be super rich to play polo but actually, it’s very accessible, anyone can turn up and have a go,” says professional polo instructor Dan Banks, our coach for the morning.

Well in me, Dan had certainly found that "anyone" to challenge his optimism. My only previous experience of riding a horse had been a rather harrowing brief encounter as a seven-year-old and my ballooning golf handicap bears ample evidence that I find it difficult enough to hit a ball with my feet planted firmly on the ground, never mind sat in the clouds.

Fortunately terra firma was exactly where we started as we were issued short mallets more akin to croquet than polo to familiarise ourselves with swinging at a polo ball on our own two feet.

"Don't try to hit the ball!" warned Dan. "The smoother the swing the better the strike." In an epiphany that I will be taking to my next round on the golf course, I found that he was absolutely right.

The teacher's next gift was of the Trojan variety - a wooden horse! Now it was time to try an unwieldy swing with the full 50-inch mallet but at least we were able to clamber a aboard a stationary "beast" rather than frighten a real version as we got to grips with the long stick.

wooden

The temptation, now, was even greater to reach down and swipe at the ball but a couple of fresh air swings and duff shots and Dan was once again on hand with his swing it easy and let the mallet connect with the ball advice. The coaching was so effective I was even swatting backhands (a backwards hit favoured by defenders in the proper game) with an efficiency I've never managed on the tennis court.

But I was brought back to earth as we dismounted. "That's the easy bit done," said Dan. "Now let's get on the ponies!"

Polo has ponies not horses so I was hoping my return to the saddle would be on a creature of a similar size to the one I had mounted aged seven. No such luck.

Pony refers to their agility not their size and Dan told us the best polo ponies usually started off as the most difficult to control - their ability to turn and bolt being a distinct advantage in a race for the polo ball.

"But fortunately you'll be riding our quietest pony called Sinitta." So much for so macho, but after an inelegant mount at the third attempt, I was soon grateful for Sinitta's docile nature as a less patient charge would have unseated this clumsy novice rider in seconds.

Not that anything felt subdued to me as I thudded in and out of the saddle when we were encouraged to get up to a decent canter. "While the horse does all the work, it's important to get in an athletic position. Imagine you are doing the running and try to lean forward rather than sitting back in the saddle."

We were back to a more comfortable walking speed when it was time to pick up the polo mallets again and try to combine the riding with the polo. As you might suspect, hitting the ball on the move (however pedestrian the speed) was not quite as easy as it had been on the wooden horse.

Good as gold though Sinitta was, it was really difficult to steer her into just the right position to make my ungainly play for the ball.

hit

"There, there!" said Dan but there was nothing patronising about his tone. It was a reminder of one of his key instructions. "You should always be thinking about two theres - there, for where you want the horse to go; and there, for where you want the ball to go. It means you have to guide your pony on a line slightly inside the line of your swing and where you will send the ball. There!... There!"  

While I can't claim to have achieved much more than make the odd good contact at a brisk walking pace, and with very questionable technique,  I was surprised by how much progress could be made by a non-rider in just a couple of hours.

Polo is great fun to play as well as watch and I will marvel at the skills of the players at Saturday's Motorpoint Polo at the Manor with renewed admiration. Tickets still available here.

Find out more about the Polo Academy and Polo Experience Days at Cirencester Park Polo Club Academy. 

act

 

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