‘It’s harder than it looks’: H&H dressage editor tries her hand at polo

Fancy giving polo a go this summer? Find out what happened when H&H’s dressage editor Polly Bryan took a refresher polo lesson at the Beaufort Polo Club
Of course, the pros make it look easy but polo is quite the opposite — even the very basics. Disclaimer: I played a bit of polo at university, so this wasn’t my first time, but in the seven years since I last picked up a polo stick I had forgotten just how much hand-eye coordination you need to have even to hit the ball from a standstill, let alone a gallop. Add to that the various different shots involved, such as the backhand, and under-the-neck shots — plus actually hitting the ball in a specified direction, and you begin to realise just how skilled the professional players really are.

2. Polo ponies are like well-oiled machines
Trained polo ponies — which are usually around 15.2hh — are not like ordinary horses. For a start they don’t blink an eyelid about the 53-inch mallet waving around their face, and think nothing of coming into forceful contact with other horses in a ride-off — at top speed. They tend to have lightning quick reactions, and can stop and turn on a sixpence, which, when you’re not expecting it, can mean you end up shooting of the side door if you’re not careful!

3. It’s worth getting grips with the stick on the ground first
Before we were acquainted with our ponies, the Beaufort’s polo manager Caspar West took us through a refresher on the ground, using shorter ‘hand sticks’ (below). Even though it’s tempting to leap straight on board, spending a few minutes learning how to hold the stick correctly, and how to swing accurately and efficiently will mean you’ll get to grips with the real deal much faster.

4. Polo requires more strength and fitness than you might think
All horse sport requires a decent amount of fitness, but polo is extremely physical, and demands high levels of strength, flexibility and general fitness when played at the higher levels. Even just learning the sport is tiring, but a good coach — such as Caspar West and Olivia Lamphee, who runs the Beaufort Polo School — will explain how to hit the ball using minimal energy. It’s all about utilising gravity and letting the stick do the work. Easier said than done!
5. It makes you open your mind to different riding styles
There’s no getting away from it — polo requires a different style of riding to other horse sport, and you should be prepared to leave most of your ideas about dressage at the side of the pitch. As H&H dressage editor, I found this a challenge at first: polo is played with both sets of double reins in one hand placed over the top, and used for neck-reining. Players ask ponies to go by pushing their hands and weight forward, and shift their weight back to slow down — or stop dead in my case when I forgot how responsive polo ponies are to weight aids. Warming-up in this way felt very strange, but once I had the stick in my hand — and was distracted by the actual business of hitting the ball — I was amazed how quickly I got used to it.

6. It may be challenging, but it’s fantastic fun
Polo is not one of those sports you need to be good at before you really enjoy it. The exhilaration of nailing the perfect swing and sending that little white ball flying down the pitch while you urge your pony forward after it can be experienced within your very first lesson — and once you’ve felt that, you’ll be hooked.

7. You’ll immediately want to watch the world’s best in action
The UK polo season runs from May to September and it’s possible to enjoy the thrills of top-level polo cheaply all over the country. Once you’ve given it a go you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the speed and skill involved in the game, adding to the enjoyment. Catch world-class international polo at the Gloucestershire Festival of Polo, Beaufort Polo Club, 9-10 June, and at the Hurlingham Polo Association International Day, Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club, 28 July.

Fancy giving a polo a go yourself? Click here to find out more about lessons at the Beaufort Polo School. Pictures by JRidley Art & Photography

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