Roughly a year ago when I stepped out on the polo field at the Menlo Circus Club for my first riding lesson, I didn’t know what to expect. I simply came as a person who admires horses and wanted to learn more about the sport. Before this time I had a few opportunities to ride at a family ranch in Madisonville, Texas and the hills above my hometown of Oakland, California but nothing that could ever be considered serious riding. It wasn’t until I was 32 years old that I could reasonably muster the energy, resources, and time to satisfy my curiosity; and so there I was standing at the edge of a lush green field eagerly awaiting what would come next.
I didn’t know what to expect. I simply came as a person who admires horses and wanted to learn more about the sport.
I’d be delighted to tell you that the first lesson went well, the reality was the opposite. Ironically, the first words of advice given to me by owner and manager of the South Bay Polo Club, Francesca Finato, were not on the horse but on the ground. She very tactfully informed me that I put my half chaps on backwards. This of course was after she’d asked me if I’d ever ridden and I’d emphatically said “yes.” After redressing my chaps with every shred of dignity I felt I had left, I mounted a horse appropriately named “Tank.” With reins in my left hand, and mallet in my right, I was ready to hit the field. It seemed “Tank” shared my enthusiasm, trotting briskly onto the field. Unaware of what was taking place other than this powerful horse was having its way with me, I tensed up. At that moment the only thing I seemed able to do was hear Francesca call out: “keep your heels down!” At no point did I ever feel I was in any immediate danger, Francesca has great horses, but I knew at that moment if I wanted to play this game well I was going to need a plan.
I knew at that moment if I really wanted to play this game well I was going to need a plan.
After arriving back home with only a bruised ego, I set out on a goal of 100 hours of deliberate polo practice. Using only an excel spreadsheet to track focus areas, hours in the saddle, and costs, I developed a program that would productively emphasize riding and game play. I decided on 100 hours because it encouraged that I train at least two hours a week for 50 weeks.
I set out on a goal of 100 hours of deliberate Polo practice.
Now that I’ve not only reached, but exceeded the 100 hour goal, I felt it only right to share with the next crop of aspiring polo players the most important lessons and habits gained from my experience.
Love the Animal First and the Sport Second
I think it goes without saying that if one is going to play polo there should be a deep love and respect for horses. Animal welfare is the crux of the game’s rules, put in place to keep the animal and the rider as safe as possible. Whenever I ride, I always choose to remind myself that I’m on a living being that can feel pain and express its own set of emotions. I sincerely believe that when one can couple their deep love for the animal with dedication to the sport magic happens. For me, polo horse trainer Kathy Linfoot put it best when she said at the Linfoot Polo Clinic that “outside of dogs, horses are the most generous animals for letting us utilize them in the ways that we have in the past and do now in the present.” I couldn’t agree more.
Develop and Hold Firm to a Budget
Polo isn’t arbitrarily called the “sport of kings,” it’s expensive. If not careful, one could quickly find his or her self paying a king’s ransom. Gauging from my own enthusiasm, it’s easy to see how a new entrant would immediately want to buy a string of fabulous polo ponies with little or no idea of what it would actually take to care for them; tack, exercise, feed, transport, and healthcare are just a few of many items that must be considered. Since I’d like to be involved in the sport for a long time and prefer not to go bankrupt, I sat down with my wife and came up with a three year plan that empathizes training in the first, strategy and game play in the second, and a combination thereof in the third. The motto for the budget is “competence over everything else.” We agreed that only after the third year would we ever seriously consider buying a couple of polo ponies. With the clear understanding that owning, was and continues to be off the table, learning and development is the ultimate goal. Therefore, at the start, I strategically split my schedule between multiple coaches and clinics to ensure that my average lesson costs didn’t exceed $100. I also came up with a scheduling cadence where I’d alternate between the weeks I’d play multiple coached chukkers and weeks where I’d opt for a less expensive self-directed session of stick-and-ball. It was not easy to stick to this plan. A strong desire to play in more chukkers or take more lessons was always there. I remained disciplined by constantly reminding myself that I am playing the long game.
If not careful, one could easily find his or her self paying a king’s ransom.
Ahhh yes…since I’m the topic of the long game, on top of my budget balancing act, I also made a commitment to invest into my asset portfolio as much as I do polo … how else am I going to continue playing into my twilight years?
Develop a Training Plan That Maximizes Growth and Productivity, Riding as Much and as Many Different Horses as You Can
Francesca Finato, who I mentioned above is the owner of South Bay Polo, will often say “polo is 80% riding and 20% everything else.” Obviously there’s more to it than that, but for the absolute beginner, wiser words couldn’t be spoken. With Fran’s mantra at the forefront of my mind I set out to ride as much as I could with whomever I could, and always with my budget in mind. The result of my determination meant that in my first year I had the opportunity to ride well over 30 different horses from a variety of disciplines. Due to my experience with different horses I’ve come to understand how to modify my riding style to accommodate different horses as well as understand that not all horses use the same cues or aides. I also learned to jump horses and my Dressage Passage isn’t to shabby either.
Be Coachable and Welcome Constructive Feedback
Being coachable is important. I recognize that sometimes coaches can be tough and adults don’t often like being told what to do. However, as an athlete I learned very early on that in the end coaches, who often are athletes themselves, are there to help players improve their performance. In my experience, my coaches in the equestrian space have all had so much to offer, each one emphasizing something a little different than the other. For example, some coaches have helped me improve my posture, regulating speed, leg control, and so on. Frankly, without their feedback and advocacy, whether it was in person or via digital channels, I wouldn’t have advanced in the ways that I have. I’m grateful for their belief and support. My recommendation to any new polo player would be to seek out and work concurrently with as many different coaches/mentors as you can. For example, while working primarily with my polo coach, I also sought out lessons with hunter-jumper and dressage coaches to help strengthen my seat and increase the number of hours in the saddle. I know this type of cross training has made me into a better polo player.
Hit the Gym Pronto
As an advanced strength training and Olympic lifting hobbyist I quickly found that many of the skills honed in at the gym are completely transferable to polo. Concepts like keeping one’s weight in the heels, having the ability to unflappably work against opposing forces, and having a strong back and balanced core are a few that quickly come to mind. I will acknowledge there are some muscle groups specific to riding that can only be activated in the saddle, but the majority of the muscle groups used in riding can be largely targeted and further strengthened at one’s local gym. Therefore, to build stamina and reduce fatigue, I incorporated lots of strength, mobility, and cardio training into my polo regime.
Don’t Sleep on Arena Polo
Perhaps I am wrong, but early on, I sensed what can only be described as a subtle dichotomy between field and arena polo. I understand that it’s each players prerogative as to where they play; however, I must say, by completely eliminating arena polo from the equation one loses the ability to play year around, especially for those of us who live in places with a “rainy season.” Furthermore, much of what I have been able to take to the field, such as the basic understandings of defense, strategy, and general polo horsemanship was largely cultivated in the arena. I had the privilege to play with and against strong interscholastic and intercollegiate players who were more than happy to lend any their knowledge. As a new entrant who wanted to get as much time in the saddle as possible I highly recommend against sleeping on arena polo.
Learn and Work with the Grooms
Grooms are the unsung heroes of the polo world. They care for and train horses all day everyday. It’s important that in order for one to take in the entire polo experience that he or she shadow and try to work as a groom. Personally speaking, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about polo within just a few hours of shadowing grooms than I ever could just showing up to play on the weekends. It was while grooming and volunteering my time at the South Bay Horse Ranch that I quickly came to appreciate that polo is a lot more than tidy uniforms, champagne toasts, and large hats and that having an understanding of the mechanics of Pelham versus Gag bits, properly brushing, and how to apply tendon wraps (still a struggle) are vitally important for any aspiring player.
Communication with Your Teammates is Key
I’m not going to waste too much time stating the obvious but if you’re going to be galloping in excess of 20 miles an hour across a large expanse, it’s important that you articulate how you’re going to backup your teammates or let them know your next move. Polo is a game of strategy and cooperation between four players per team, it’s important to not be shy and open your mouth.
Make Lots of Friends
Polo attracts a wide array of men and women from different walks of life, each with their own unique polo journey. Thanks to the power of social media I’ve been able to cultivate friendships with people throughout the world who participate or share a passion for this sport. Whenever I’m on the field it’s beautiful to think that beyond our economics, ancestries, political beliefs, ages, and genders the love of the game is what unites us and for a few hours we can put everything aside and just play.
Always Have Fun
Polo is an exhilarating sport. It requires that players be fast, strategic, cooperative, and fearless. Did I also forget to mention that it requires one do all of the above while trying to control and remain stable atop a living, breathing speed machine capable of reaching speeds of up to 40 miles an hour? If you’re serious about engaging in the sport, do so with a willingness to learn and understand some days will be difficult and downright scary, but if you manage to push through these barriers you’ll wonder how you ever lived with out it.
…but if you manage to push through these barriers you’ll wonder how you ever lived with out it.
As for me and “Tank,” I think we finally found our groove and we can now enthusiastically trot out onto the field together.