Brummell’s style editor and editor of Hurlingham Polo Magazine Jemima Wilson learns to play polo at Cowdray Polo Academy
With its spectacular West Sussex backdrop and sophisticated crowd, the final of The Gold Cup at Cowdray Estate is one of the most eagerly anticipated polo tournaments on the UK calendar, attracting the best polo teams and players from around the world.
This year, in line with Covid-19 regulations, all competitive polo competitions are being played ‘behind closed doors’ with no spectators but there are still a number of ways to be part of the action.
To watch the exhilarating final played between teams Next Generation and Les Lions/Great Oaks live on Sunday 26 July, Cowdray TV is streaming the game at 3pm, and, whether you have watched a polo game before or not, you are guaranteed to be in awe of the speed, precision, power and elegance of the game.
Anyone keen to give the sport a go for themselves should put all misconceptions of polo as an elite sport aside. It’s true that any equestrian discipline involves investment and dedication in order to succeed, however, Cowdray Polo Academy offers lessons for all ability levels.
As an experienced equestrian with high-level horse riding skills, but very limited knowledge of how to ride for polo, I was curious to try the game for myself. Polo, it turns out is a very different ride. Firstly, the tack, worn by the horse, is different; the saddle has no knee-rolls, in order to allow the rider full range of movement to reach for shots in various directions, and the double reins are held in the left hand, with the mallet held in the right.
The riding position is also very different, with the most successful shots being played from the ‘half seat’, where the rider’s legs move backwards to enable them to rise out of the saddle, lean forward and twist in order to maximize stability and momentum for the shot.
Being secure and confident on a horse has its advantages, especially as the swing is perfected and lessons start to pick up more speed. However, many polo instructors actually prefer to teach people with no previous riding experience. Some classical riders, says polo instructor Guy Verdon, ‘want to go too fast too soon’. I may be guilty of that.
Verdon is a registered Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) polo coach who has played for more than 40 years and coached all over the world including Argentina, New Zealand, the USA, Spain, Dubai and Brunei. His teaching career has seen him coach all ability levels, including a former English Polo Captain and a James Bond director.
The academy aims to take new players to instructional chukka level after just 10 hours of private lessons, with the programme creating a game scenario with professional players riding alongside to guide. This is when the ‘ride off’ (where two players jostle at speed to gain possession of the ball) and ‘hooking’ of other player’s sticks can be taught in a safe environment.
My first lesson with the academy was a fantastic introduction to the Ambersham Polo Grounds, which are a short drive from the main Cowdray Estate in Midhurst. One of the most special things about learning to play at Cowdray Polo Academy is the experience of playing polo in the same setting as the prestigious Gold Cup tournament – a dream of many polo players.
In this first lesson at the Ambersham grounds, we concentrated on improving my full swing technique, starting at a walk and gradually progressing to a steady canter. Verdon gave me a number of tips and exercises to improve my position on the pony and to make my swing more accurate and effective. I learned the importance of keeping my arm straight throughout the swing, in order to create a pendulum motion; to follow through with the shot after hitting the ball and to not stand up too much in the half seat but to stay close the horse with my legs further back for stability.
Lessons are also conducted at Madam’s Farm, another short drive from the Cowdray Estate, where the academy and its ponies are based, using the polo facilities of former 8-goal England International polo player Alan Kent, who’s extensive polo career has seen him play at all levels worldwide and he is a regular coach for the England team.
In addition to individual and small-group lessons, the academy offers bespoke corporate days, which are an amazing team-building activity, as well as discovery sessions and gift vouchers, which make great presents for those who like a challenge. All the ponies at the academy are safe and suitable for a range of riding abilities, sure to fill even nervous riders with confidence and make sure everyone has fun.
If you’re inspired after watching the Gold Cup in action, why not try it for yourself? One thing’s for sure, once you try polo, you’ll get hooked…
Individual lessons £130 per hour. Joint lessons from £95 per hour; cowdray.co.uk/sport/cowdray-polo-academy