As Britain’s annual royal charity match approaches, pro polo player Charlie Wood gives his tips on how to blend in with the polo elite: what to wear, what Spanish swearwords to use, and how to impress your date.
The history of polo in three sentences
Polo began in Persia, two and a half thousand years ago (it was originally played with the heads of the empire’s enemies)
Polo became popular with the Brits when they discovered it in India in the mid-1800s
It was brought to Britain soon after with a set of rules written and the rules were spread across the world
You can always blame “shocking umpiring”
“If your polo team is doing badly, blame it on “shocking umpiring”. Say “the umpire’s not interested in the game”, “he’s schooling the horse on the other side of the field” or ‘he’s not seeing the lines right’, that sort of thing. The first thing that people who grew up on the field will say is ‘shocking umpiring, I’m taking this straight to the HPA [The Hurlingham Polo Association]!’ . If you say that with enough confidence, people will just go, ‘yeah, for sure, terrible umpiring’.
“You can also blame a terrible field – say “the ground is so bouncy isn’t it?’, or, if the player’s on someone else’s horses, then blame the horses as well.”
Know the four main shots and look for their angles
“If you want to bullshit about polo, you should be able to specify the different type of shots. Look out for the two forehands and the angle at which the ball flies away.
Cut shot (when the player hits the ball to the right whilst riding forward. Difficult to play)
Neck shot (when the player hits the ball under the horse’s neck)
Open backhand (defensive shot that goes away from the horse)
Tail backhand (defensive shot played between the tail of the horse)
If a player hits a really good shot just say it’s ‘tidy’.”
Do call a dirty player a dick, but only in Spanish
“You’ll often see dirty parts of play, with elbowing being the most obvious. Watch out for players who are trying to cut other players off by zig-zagging in front of them – that would be a foul.
“While it’s not good etiquette to swear in English, you can hear some horrendous things in Argentine Spanish. If you swear in Spanish, it will sound like you know, and have been to Argentina (the modern Mecca of polo). ‘Chotto’ is Argentine slang for dick, but it’s commonly used in polo to mean a shit polo player. If you’re behaving badly and acting recklessly, rather than just playing poorly, they’ll probably call you a ‘boludo’ – which basically mean you have big balls and are therfore a bit stupid.
“Aside from the swearing, don’t make noises before a player’s hitting a penalty – the player needs the horse to be as settled as possible. But when a goal goes through you can go mental.”
Look out for blocking
“A good technical thing to comment on is blocking. What you see in the higher levels of polo is that one player will physically block another who is trying to get to the goal with the ball. That leaves the one who’s left with the ball to run around his team. If the marking and blocking is correct in the team, suddenly you get these breaks of brilliance where a player is able to whizz around everyone and score a goal. To bullshit as an observer, say ‘ah, I see that that so-and-so was blocked by number two, because the number two was marking him – that’s what allowed Perez to get the run around to the goal’.”
Use the right lingo – and don’t try football terms
“The sticks are called ‘sticks’, but if you want to sound really English you could say ‘mallets’. The ball is simply a ‘ball’, and the grassy playing area is ‘a ground’, or ‘a field’. Don’t call it a pitch, it’s not football. (If you hear ‘offside’, that’s also not football talk, that just means the right hand side of the horse).
“If you really want to look like you know what you’re talking about, talk about the horse’s gear. They have different bridles, so you could say ‘I see, that that horse is running with a ‘Pelham and running reins’, or ‘a gag and running reins’ or ‘this Pelham has a different action, and it allows the horse to stop better’. Hopefully whoever you’re speaking to will think you’re really clever or they’ll just get confused and stay quiet.”
Compliment “a good horseman” and a “typey” horse
“When it comes to compliments, less is more. If you say a player’s ‘a good horseman’, that says it all really. If you’re complimenting the horse, say ‘that’s a nice type’. ‘Type’ is an expression that we would use for the body shape of the horse, so when you hear people saying ‘that’s a typey horse’ that means it’s a nice, compact size for a polo pony (with a round bum, a reasonably short neck, but athletic, with a good long set of legs on). Say ‘that’s typey, that’s one well put together mare’. If you can define the sexes of the horses as ‘mares’ or ‘geldings’, it also sounds as if you know what you’re doing.”
Don’t show off your polo swing impressions
“Play it cool with the polo players. Don’t go into the gazebos where they sit with the rest of their team. I’d wait until they were walking to the presentation to approach them, because the team tents are quite a hostile environment, especially after they’ve had a loss.
“Never ask if ‘it’s like croquet on a horse’ – this is very annoying – and avoid trying to imitate a polo swing in front of a polo player. Without the horse or stick you just look silly. Don’t ask the players stupid questions, just ask them about themselves – they’ve all got quite big egos. And don’t ask about the prices of horses, that’s like asking how much money you have. It’s not really appropriate.”
Don’t dress like a polo player (unless you are playing)
“Don’t wear white trousers and knee-high polo boots if you’re not playing polo, because you’ll look like you’re trying to be a polo player, and the polo world is so small that everyone will know that you’re not. Attire-wise just go smart casual, with a nice pair of chinos and a blazer and a shirt. If you’re going to the Maserati Jerudong Trophy on Sunday – the sort of match where there’ll probably be some royals – and you want a chance of being invited into the VIP marquee, wear a tie too. It’s definitely not like dressing up for the races, but polo is still quite smart if you’re a man.”
Know the magic number (it’s six)
“The basic score system is that when two teams are the same handicap it starts at 0-0. But if one team’s aggregate handicap is more, you obviously have to start the teams on different scores. There is a formula to work out how far ahead the handicap score starts, which is really good for bullshitting.
“If one’s team is handicap of ten and the other eight, you take the difference (which is two), and times by the number of chukkas (a period of play in a polo match which lasts about seven minutes) which are typically six. So you go two, times by six, which is twelve. Then you divide that by six (because six is just the magic number). This gives you two, and that team would start two ahead (any fraction is counted as a half, which is very annoying, because if you draw then that team with a half goal wins). You’d better hope you haven’t had too many Pimms if you’re trying to explain that.”
X = Highest handicap
Y = Lowest handicap
Z = number of chukkas
6 = the magic number
X minus Y times Z divided by 6
Take your date to see the horses
“If you’re with a date, take her to see the horses. That’s almost always a winner. I would open the stable and look at the horse and say: ‘This is a re-trained racehorse: they usually get cast away when they’re considered that they’re not going to make it’. Show your sentimental side by saying ‘look, now we’ve given her this fantastic life as a polo pony when she could’ve been sent anywhere’. These obviously aren’t techniques I use myself…”
Useful polo namedrops
Juan Carlos Harriott is probably considered the most successful player in Argentina ever. He played for Coronel Suárez and has won the Argentine Open a record 20 times.
Adolfo Cambiaso is credited with changing the world of polo, changing the style of play. Through the Seventies and Eighties polo was very much a running game, but Cambiaso changed the way we use horses and the way we move with amazing ball skills.
Howard Hipwood is one of the biggest British players. He was playing off a nine handicap (the highest is ten), and was considered Britain’s best player for a long time. You should know him if you’re talking about British polo.
Facundo Pieres is the best player in Argentina right now. He’s in his late twenties and is fast becoming the best player in the world.
Polito Pieres is also from Argentina, and he’s recently gone up to a ten goal handicap this year.
James Beim, the captain of the English team is probably the most professional Brit right now, but the best up-and-comers in my opintion are Jack Richardson and Max Charlton.
Must-see English polo clubs
Cirencester Park, where they’re running the Jerudong trophy this weekend, is the main hub for polo in England. That’s in Gloucestershire.
Beaufort, is also in Gloucestershire, is another very good club. A lot of people will ask ‘oh, have you been to Beaufort?’
Cowdray in Midhurst, Sussex, is my personal favourite because the grounds are fantastic and it’s got such a great atmosphere.
And if you run out of bullshit
“If someone brings up a subject you don’t know, or asks a question you don’t know the answer to, just say: ‘I think it’s really more about horsepower in this game’. It means the quality of the horses they’ve got is better. You can always bring that up, just say: ‘Actually, I think it’s more a case of they’ve being out-horsed’.”