The days when professional polo players turned up, had a quick gin and cigarette before an afternoon of chukkas are long gone, as Rod Gilmour discovers.
Horses from all over the world are once again beginning to fill the empty stables from the winter at Great Trippetts Farm.
It is a sultry April morning in West Sussex and, despite the polo season being just one week away, there is a distinctly sedate feel at the yard.
Charles Beresford, Trippetts’ manager and one of England’s top polo players during his career, is escorting me on a tour of the line of stables where team patrons and owners can rent boxes for the forthcoming English season.
A group of ponies – polo horses are called thus – have just arrived from California. There is one which looks in decent condition, but Beresford assures me he is a bit plump and needs some work to get him in tune for the five-month season.
Beresford is at ease describing the working day here, just as he might have been during his playing days, despite his many forays battling for possession on polo fields across the globe. The photographer assures me that he was reputedly one of the finest exponents of the nearside backhand. Although my polo lexicon is lacking somewhat, I will later discover that this shot is one of the hardest to conquer.
South American voices can be heard as we enter the heart of the stables – four rows of horse boxes stretching across a vast former dairy house – all bar one of Britain’s top vets seeing to a horses’ set of teeth and a long-time blacksmith giving a master class at hammering in a horseshoe.
Mugs of mate, Argentina’s national drink, are everywhere. Meanwhile, the mix of Chilean and Argentine grooms – around 25 – are taking lunch in the adjacent mess, which houses a kitchen, series of tables and a games’ room.
With the tour over and the season looming, it’s now time to tackle the sport. And it only takes one morning session to quell my preconceptions of spectators, obligatory champagne glass in hand, watching two teams try to take control of a white ball and score through two white posts.
This is a two-tiered lesson. I first learn to hit the ball on Trippetts’ pristine No. 1 lawn, before holding a mallet and riding a pony at the same time in the arena. For someone who hasn’t ridden a horse for well over a decade, this means male multitasking of the highest order.
My teacher, Clare Milford-Haven, is a patron and highly-skilled player, as well as being Tatler’s former social editor. Where once she might have phoned in to the office on account of my first few shots (if I had celebrity status), now she is nonchalantly hitting some balls on the lawn and explaining polo’s plethora of shots.
I manage to connect with the sport’s staple diet shot – the offside forehand – which produces the most power following a hearty, but smooth, shoulder-height swing. It’s here, at ground level, that I also learn to hit the ball a yard or so in front of me, with both shoulders aiming sideways, to account for speed and accuracy.
Thirty minutes later, kitted out in leather boots and helmet, and I’m thrust upon one of Clare’s seasoned ponies. This time, Tommy Beresford, Charles’ son, who aged 17 is already an accomplished player, will show me the shots in the arena.
In an instant I learn just how difficult this sport is. Even when riding at around 10mph – the professionals reach speeds of 35mph and have to master ovals, figure of eights, stops and turns – connecting with the white ball is a serious art. Moreover, I’m aiming at a larger orange ball.
Tommy Beresford clearly loves the ride-off manoeuvre
After asking Gata to kick on, my eyes are soon ablaze as he reaches a canter. The ball is in sight and all the while I’m thinking of not putting too much pressure on the reins if I need to stop, as well as trying to hold on to the saddle to steady myself. I haven’t even thought about lining up the ball.
Then it’s time to unleash. Remember to bend over into the ball and hit it in front of you. Remember to hit with your body leaning in and to avoid whacking your four-legged companion around the neck. Just don’t top it.
It’s half an hour of pure fun once connections are made with mallet and ball. There’s even the faint thought that it could even turn into an addiction if I had the time and expert horsemanship to go with it.
Beresford junior then skilfully demonstrates some of the manoeuvres that the English summer will soon witness, such as the ride-off and bump, both of which put this sport fully into context.
Tommy Beresford demonstrates the open backhander
The days when the pros turned up, had a quick gin and cigarette before an afternoon of chukkas are long gone. Fitness rules with the top players in demand for up to nine months of the year.
Even after the briefest of canters, it is clear that polo is serious stuff and one of the toughest sports going.
FOUR FROM POLO’S LEXICON
THE BUMP AND RIDE-OFF
When a player can take an opponent out of a play, or off the line of the ball, a ploy not too dissimilar to a body check in ice hockey. However, the angle of collision must be slight, no greater than 45 degrees.
A shot taken with a swing of the mallet, under the pony’s neck, on the offside or nearside – the left hand side in polo – of the mount. The ball is hit with a flick of the wrist on a nearside neck shot to clear the ball.
When the mallet us swung in the opposite direction of travel (i.e. backwards) on the pony’s near side. Seen as a difficult shot to execute, as players are not allowed to switch hands with the mallet and must play right-handed.
A polo team owner, usually an amateur with a lower goal handicap, who can spend thousands to see a team through the summer, without financial reward.