PORTSMOUTH — The renowned Newport International Polo team takes the field in Portsmouth week after week throughout the summer season. Many Newport County residents have stood by the sidelines and cheered, but do they know what it takes to play?
This reporter was able to experience what it’s like to duke it out on horseback in Newport Polo’s introductory clinic for adults Saturday.
The class — suited for anyone who is either looking to break into polo as a sport, partake as a hobby, or just experience something different on a nice afternoon — lasts about an hour and a half and is led by Dan Keating, head instructor and president of Newport Polo.
The intention is to acclimate players to riding horseback, teach some of the rules and regulations of polo, and provide a fun atmosphere for newbies to get comfortable attempting to whack the ball down the field to the goal.
The horses, who are very experienced and serve as training horses for all of the lessons as well as horses for away teams when they compete against Newport, are cared for by local high school polo players who are learning to groom and train them.
Participants are matched to a horse and then led to the training arena by Keating, who has more than 30 years of experience teaching polo.
First he explained what to do if and when you feel the horse is going too fast — something they’re very capable of considering their years on the field.
Then you learn the basics, but that means something different for everyone. “It goes at the pace of the participants’ abilities,” explained Agnes Keating, Dan’s wife and co-chair and founder of Newport Polo. So for this reporter, it was quite a slow trot.
However, for another clinic participant with more experience on horseback, the clinic proved to be helpful in getting started with other skills, like swinging the mallet. Matthew Niichel of Middletown decided to try the class after watching a polo match in Saratoga Springs, New York. He had previously participated in Western equestrian sports, but never anything like polo. “Once I saw the [intro clinic] ad I thought, ‘Wow, I have to do that!’” Niichel said.
Soon enough, Niichel was even “hooking,” or blocking another player’s mallet as they went to swing at the ball. Keating covered hitting the ball forward and backward, blocking another player and fouls like cutting off another player’s right of way.
With a maximum of six people in a class, even with varying abilities there was one-on-one guidance and all were made comfortable. It certainly lends an appreciation for the challenge of the sport after experiencing it firsthand.
“Once you get to a certain level, the horse just disappears and it feels like you’re the one running 45 miles per hour,” said Keating after the group finished the clinic’s scrimmage. “The better you get, the more fun it gets.”
The majority of Newport Polo’s membership is made of players who started in these clinics and lessons over the years.
“People don’t realize how fun it is until they try it,” Agnes Keating said. Sometimes newcomers are hesitant but they are nearly always surprised by what a great time it is even if you’re still getting the hang of it, she added.
Lessons are held throughout the spring, summer and fall and are open to participants of all skills levels. The schedule offers the classes at all different times and dates throughout the season and those interested can pick and choose what they’d like to do and what they feel capable of. No matter what you choose, you’re certain to walk away with a new set of skills and a sore right arm.