You have to have a trust fund or a title to play polo, right? Wrong, says Kim Lomax – the new breed of polo club welcomes anyone, even if you’re wearing jeans
One day around 600 BC in deepest Persia, someone discovered that hitting a ball with a stick while riding a horse was really quite a fun thing to do. Fast-forward some 2,600 years, and thanks to some input from Indian tea planters, the British cavalry and Argentine gauchos, smacking around a piece of willow root has become the international, royal-approved, diamond-dripping, champagne-swilling, divot-treading sport that polo is today. I can thank Jilly Cooper for my first introduction to the sport, which led to many a sunny day standing on the sidelines, glass of bubbly in hand, feeling the ground shake beneath my kitten heels as eight ponies and riders thundered past. It never even occurred to me that it might be fun to actually play polo, or indeed that a commoner like me would be allowed to do so.
Then I went to Argentina, gave it a go, and was instantly hooked. It was fast, furious, skilful and aggressive, yet infused with old-fashioned bonhomie and good sportsmanship, and had at its heart a bond between horse and rider. Back in the UK and looking to feed my new habit, I began to ask around: can one play polo in the UK if one doesn’t have a trust fund or a title? A few things became immediately apparent. It’s not a game that you can play easily down your local park unless you prefer two wheels to four legs. And if you want to compete seriously, you’ll need not one pony but a whole string of them. You’ll need to keep them in grazing, in shoes and in good shape, and yourself in membership fees, handcrafted buffalo leather boots and monogrammed bamboo sticks. It all adds up. To eyewatering proportions …
But the good news is, if you fancy giving it a try or having the occasional knock-around, it is easier and cheaper to play polo than ever before. Over the last decade the number of polo clubs in the UK has nearly doubled, and these are no longer the bastion of shouty public schoolboys in pith helmets. The doors have been thrown open to the hoi polloi, often in the form of taster days popular with corporate bashes and stag and hen parties. You don’t have to be posh or loaded to attend, or even know how to ride.
Of course, there are polo clubs and there are polo clubs. Looking down the list, some of them just sounded too scary to my plebeian ears: Guards, Cowdray, Beaufort … And then I found the affable-sounding Lynt Polo in Wiltshire. Charlotte and Guy Verdon recently took over the place, and are working to develop a club that is friendly and offers value for money. “No one is saying that polo is a cheap sport, but we aim to make it as affordable as possible,” Charlotte tells me. This means that membership fees are cheaper than usual, and if you don’t have seven grand burning a hole in your back pocket you can lease a pony for a match or the whole season, rather than buying one.
Complete beginners are welcome at Lynt, and won’t find the place intimidating. It’s so casual, in fact, that I arrive to find everyone has turned up to play wearing jeans. Not me: I’m wearing Persil-white trousers, and feeling a little foolish. True, white is not the most practical colour to wear around horses, but I thought it was, well, the done thing? “Some of the more old-fashioned clubs will insist on wearing whites, but we don’t encourage it really,” says Guy. Ah. Well, at least my team-mates won’t lose me on the pitch on this overcast day.
First off, I’m introduced to my mount. This is a good sign. A friend of mine once paid good money to stand on a milk crate for an hour while swinging away and being shouted at by an ex-army Major. That’s not my idea of fun, and nor is it Guy’s, so at Lynt you will always ride a real pony (don’t call them horses: polo ponies are always ponies, whatever their size, OK?). However, if you’re new to riding you might want to spend some time aboard Troy, the resident wooden pony, to get your eye in and practice your swing.
Guy plays off a handicap of two goals (which means he is quite good), has previously locked sticks with several heirs to the throne, and is a very patient teacher to boot. We spend some time practicing stops, turns, forehand and backhand shots in the safe confines of the indoor arena. This building serves both to protect you from the elements, and to prevent you and your pony from ending up in Swindon in the event of a brakes failure.
Next up, we’re off to the polo grounds to join in with the club’s weekly practice chukkas, the polo equivalent of a kick around. A chukka is a seven-and-a-half-minute period of play, which is generally agreed to be about the right amount of time for a pony to be galloping around – although real pros often change pony several times within a chukka, leaping nimbly from saddle to saddle without touching the ground.
I’m given a fresh pony at this point. Somewhat to my relief, Gitana is smaller, more rotund and more sensible-looking than her sinewy comrades in the pony line. “Don’t be deceived by her appearance”, says the groom handing me her reins, “she’s a demon.” A few minutes into play, I understand what he means. Gitana is speedy, mean and can spin on a sixpence; everything you want from a polo pony. She’s also super-fit thanks to her rigorous daily interval training programme. I only wish I could say the same.
I notice something strange about this chukka: it’s all a bit polite. Previously I had played polo with all the grace of a pitbull, relentlessly “taking the man”, “riding off” aggressively, trying to hook sticks, and often forgetting to hit the ball entirely. But here the focus is not on the scores, but on keeping the game moving and making sure that everyone gets a shot at the ball. Novice polo can all too often end up with a static bunch of players hacking away at a ball, “killing snakes” as Guy refers to it. But add a couple of pros into the mix and the game gets fiercely fast – only ice hockey players reach greater speeds in the name of team sport. I watched a match recently where even the umpire ended up with several broken ribs. I try not to think about that as we race up the field. This game is certainly moving, and with Guy tirelessly delivering the ball right in front of me, I’m forced to face my fear and try to hit the thing.
Suddenly I find myself alone with the ball in range of the goalposts. I take a wild swing; the ball moves forwards; Gitana surges ahead, ears flat back. I swing again, connect, and … score! I’m left alone to perform a little goal celebration as play has switched ends and everyone else has galloped off. But I savour the moment. It’s a memory that will linger far longer than the aching muscles and the cracking bruise I later find on my shin, most likely inflicted by my own stick.
A few weeks later I’m back in the saddle at Coworth Park in Berkshire, this time under the expert tutelage of Roddy Wood, coach of the New Zealand polo team. Wood teaches me the tricky nearside forehand and backhand, adding a few more shots to my arsenal in preparation for an inter-journalist “friendly”. The following seven-and-a-half foul-ridden, expletive-charged minutes are anything but friendly, but somehow my team emerges unscathed and, more importantly, victorious.
Sipping a post-match Pimm’s a little later, I watch the New Zealand team warm up for a practice match: four sleek ponies, four pairs of taut white jeans, the sounds of a perfect summer’s day punctuated with hoofbeats and the pleasing smack of ball on mallet. I’m really channelling my inner Jilly Cooper heroine now, and find myself utterly powerless to resist this most seductive of sports. Resistance is futile, I decide. I’ll just have to extend my overdraft.
Lynt Polo, 01367 253 719/07957 468 220, email@example.com.
A one-hour lesson at Lynt including pony hire costs £60, or £40 each for a group of three or more. Taster days cost £100, or £120 including lunch.
Coworth Park Polo, 01344 875155, thepolocentre.com.
There are more than 70 polo clubs in the UK. Contact the Hurlingham Polo Association to find your nearest.