The last time I was this near a horse, the beast in question decided uncharitably, if not without logic, that the easiest way to get rid of me was to veer sharply left beneath a low hanging branch.
It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I stood before Nevadita (Snowy) during my first polo lesson. I speak about as much Spanish as a pony does English, but I nevertheless tried to telepathise: “Don’t you dare try any funny business.”
I needn’t have worried. It turns out that a polo pony is a finely tuned, high performance mount, the Aston Martin DBS of the equine world. And at Polo Valley in Sotogrande, pilot Santi has schooled every pony with such precision that even when I inadvertently thunked Nevadita on the nose with my mallet during a badly executed lunge, she didn’t even flinch.
Polo has always been the sport of princes and kings, with a price tag to match. But Polo Valley — a farm turned training facility and guest house in southern Spain — will give you a taste of the game for a fraction of that cost. What’s more, no previous riding experience is necessary: in a long weekend you can go from being a total novice who has never so much as sat in a saddle, to playing a pretty aggressive match.
I started gently with glorified croquet on the field, swinging the mallet with rather more enthusiasm than skill, and occasionally hitting the ball. I was quickly allowed to graduate to a wooden horse (the Trojans would be proud). You’d think this would be easy enough, but even mounted on a stationary object there’s still a definite knack to balancing the mallet, swinging, and reaching low to the ground with sufficient coordination to make contact with the ball. Santi, who trains new players with as much attention to detail as he does ponies, is a hard task master, but a charming one. I found myself desperate to please.
When the ponies were added to the mix, however, the mallet seemed less important; my priority was staying on. I could manage the trotting and holding the reins with one hand, and at a push could twist and lean down to the right, the position required for a forehand. Reaching my right hand across my body and stretching down to the left was altogether more of a challenge, not least because of the rising sense of panic that I was losing balance.
It is said that horses can smell fear; if she did, Nevadita was polite enough to ignore it. For two days she carried me on the pitch and further afield on a river hack. She responded to the gentlest touch of the bit and reins, and gradually built my trust.
I practised with a game of tag, and with “stick and ball”, chasing the ball up and down the pitch to improve the frequency with which mallet and ball made contact, and also the accuracy of my shots. By the time that match day came and I was duly attired in a Polo Valley polo shirt, I not only looked the part but was well on my way to feeling like a proper player.
With eight horses on the pitch, all jostling for position, it felt rather more like rugby than polo. But the remarkable thing was that in the heat of the game, I forgot I was on a horse: I only had eyes for the ball.
Powder Byrne offers a Polo Valley taster weekend from £825pp. Designed for beginners, the package includes transfers from Gibraltar, full board, riding and polo lessons, and a countryside river hack.