Polo isn’t just for those on their high horses

polopix04SOUTH HAMILTON — Note to aspiring sportswriters: When your editor casually asks if you can ride a horse, think before you answer.

Caught off-guard by the question, I blurted out, “Yeah, I can ride.”

Technically it was true, though it had been more than 20 years since I’d gone horseback riding.

I figured a question about my ability to ride would lead to some hypothetical scenario, maybe resolve some debate kicking around the sports department. Instead, the follow-up was, “Want to try polo?”

Again, this would have been a moment to consider my answer carefully. But I quickly replied, “Yeah. Sure. Why not?”

A pragmatic pause should have been obvious: Hitting a small ball with a long-handled cane mallet while galloping along on a 1,000-pound polo pony takes more than put-me-in-coach enthusiasm.

But enthusiasm was all I had when I arrived at the Myopia Schooling Field across the street from Myopia Polo headquarters, home to the oldest active polo club in the country. Borrowing boots, gloves, a helmet, a mallet, and an endlessly patient horse named Doc, I went through a brief lesson.

It started with a primer on the proper mallet grip and swing technique (think one-handed golf swing), then proceeded to a rundown of the protective gear.

Once aboard Doc, I received some tips on guiding him around. Then I commanded, “Walk on, Doc,” clapped my heels against his body, and we were off.

My instructor Peter Poor, who owns the Stage Hill Polo school and organizes low-key games like the one I participated in, calls polo “hockey on a horse.” I’d argue that hockey players have it easier.

Even at nothing more than a mosey, simultaneous horse control and hand-eye-mallet coordination proved tricky. Trying to strike the ball while staying on the horse made polo feel more like a circus-style balancing act than a sport.

Back in the saddle

Before my lesson, my knowledge of the game was limited to video clips of Prince William or Prince Harry or top polo player and Ralph Lauren Polo model Nacho Figueras in action.

From what I gathered, this “sport of kings” was played on large, lush fields. It was fast and physical and potentially dangerous for horse and rider. The combination of high-speed thoroughbreds, hockey-like body checks, and mallets being swung in mid-air struck me as an unwise trinity.

But to lifelong polo devotees such as Poor, who started playing at 8 years old, the sport is a thrill ride unlike any other when horses and players with different personalities develop winning chemistry.

“When you go in at 38 miles an hour, wide open on a polo field that’s 300 yards long, and you’re looking at a ball that’s a little speck and you hit that thing and it goes through the goal post at 100 miles an hour, it’s a hell of a feeling,” said Poor.

“Someone’s smashing you from one side. Someone’s screaming at you from the other to try and get you to miss the ball. It’s unbelievable.”

My polo experience was a slower-paced, smaller-scale introduction to the sport at the Joseph F. Poor Memorial Arena named after Peter’s father. In arena polo, the walled, dirt playing surface and bigger ball create a less daunting atmosphere for novices. But make no mistake, arena polo still challenges players in the same way the full-field version does.

A typical arena game consists of four “chukkas,” or periods. Each period lasts 7 minutes 30 seconds.

During my one chukka, played without an assigned position, Poor and the other participants put their competitive natures aside and passed me the ball in prime scoring position. They understood that learning polo takes patience on all sides, especially with someone who hadn’t been on horseback in more than two decades.

I understood where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to do, but that rarely meant Doc and I were in the right position at the right time. Whiffing plenty at the orange ball, I could sense Doc rolling his eyes.

Still, the veteran Doc and I were well-matched, making my time in the saddle as comfortable as it could be.

Doc, in his early 20s, has played a lot of polo, and Poor said, “He’s enthusiastic about not having to do too much.” So he waited and waited for me to make solid contact.

Doc didn’t flinch when I swung the mallet inches from his face. He didn’t buck when I accidentally made contact with his rib cage. I apologized and patted his neck. Other players trotted by and told me polo ponies were accustomed to such close calls and contact.

With each swing, I worried that my momentum would carry me out of the saddle. So it was a small victory that I remained upright throughout the chukka. And I think Doc would agree.

A sport of the people

Watching others play at a faster speed, I could sense the game’s appeal and appreciate the camaraderie that builds among all participants, the two-legged and the four-legged.

“The part of polo I enjoy most is that it’s a competitive team sport while riding,” said Melissa Parry, a riding instructor and polo player from Danville, N.H., who helped Doc and me stay in synch during play.

Balancing horse movement with trying to strike the ball is the key to polo.

Parry participated in later chukkas when the game began to flow more like a typical match. From the side of the arena, I saw intermediate-level players demonstrate the importance of chemistry between riders and horses and between teammates.

Mastering the hand-eye coordination the sport demands and developing teamwork, Parry said, “was a challenging aspect of riding that I’d never experienced prior to playing polo.”

And she might never have discovered polo if not for Poor.

“He really does open it up to more than just the elite market,” said Parry. “Polo is usually hoity-toity, fancy-fancy. He brings it down to a level where you can experience what polo is, but without the really expensive price tag.”

Poor sees Stage Hill Polo and regular games at the arena as bringing polo to the people and changing the perception that it’s a rich person’s sport. While polo ponies can cost $250,000 and multiple mounts are used in high-level matches, Poor said an older, retired horse can go for as little as $2,000 and still compete in arena games like the one I tried.

The wealthy players “get a good portion of the press because they can play with the princes or Nacho Figueras,” said Poor of competitors who spend $5 million-$10 million annually to compete at the highest levels. “The majority of polo players are middle class and play at the arena or at the smaller clubs in New England. They own one or two horses and they have a blast. They are the backbone of the United States Polo Association.”

To further my polo career, Poor recommended that I take a mallet and a small ball to the office and work on my hand-eye coordination with proper equipment. Knock the ball around some long, wide corridors.

“You can do it on the ground and get that all down pat,” he said.

And since it was my editor who suggested I try polo, maybe he’d welcome some mallet swinging around the office. Why not?

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShiraSpringer.