Driving into the grounds of Langley Abbey, home of Norfolk Polo Club, you can’t help but think, ‘Wow, what a fabulous place to learn to play polo!’
You walk past fields of polo ponies grazing, through a stone archway into a courtyard, where if you follow the aroma of coffee, you find yourself in the clubhouse, ready to start the morning with a frothy cappuccino.
There’s the usual form filling and disclaimer signing – I never thought of polo as being a dangerous sport. But maybe you could die if hit by a polo mallet, a non arena ball, or if you fell under the hooves of galloping polo ponies, but I think you’d have to be seriously good to run the risk of any of the above happening to you.
Afterwards you meet your instructor, Mark, whose ability to hit the ball with precision, accuracy and power can only be described as enviable.
The first part of the lesson is to practise several different swings with a short polo stick. Each swing is initially impossible but does get easier given time to practise.
How to hold the polo stick and swing
Hold the stick with the end of it digging into the fleshy part of your right hand, near your thumb, with your index finger round the stick for stablility – even if you’re left handed you have to hold it in your right.
Swing the stick like a pendulum and hit the ball with the flat part of the mallet.
Hit the ball from 5 o’clock to 1 o’clock, the idea being you won’t crash your horse’s head with the stick.
Next is a backhand swing, where you hit the ball with the back of your stick. And a third swing, you hold the stick in front of you at rest (in the air), turn your body 45 degrees to the back then swing through. You let your stick move first and the weight of the end carry it – ‘less is more’.
When you hit it well, you know as the ball goes a reasonable distance with minimal effort but perfecting this could take some time. When the instructor hits it, it goes out of the arena!
Cue the arrival of the polo ponies
Once you managage to hit the ball from the ground, the horses are summoned.
Into the arena come the Argentinian thoroughbreds with hogged manes and tied up tails and bandaged legs – impressive springs to mind. These polo ponies are from Sandhurst and there is a good chance Prince Harry and William have sat in these saddles!
Mine was called Pepito and after a leg up, I was ready to rock and roll or should I say salsa?
First to have a play about – steering is by neck reining as you only have one hand to ride with as the other one will be holding the stick.
So just how do you hold the reins in polo?
You have double reins in polo. The top rein goes to a snaffle bit and the bottom rein goes to a gag.
You hold your left hand as if you are reading a book and the top rein goes between thumb and forefinger, the bottom rein or gag rein goes between your fore finger and middle finger.
And just how to do you ride a polo pony?
Stirrups are jumping length. Style is similar to Western riding. There’s nothing subltle about it. It’s the antithesis of dressage! Reins up the neck and kick on is canter or gallop to the other end of the arena, reins up and sit back and feet far forward is stop, reins horizontally over the neck to the right is go right, horizontally over the neck to the left is go left and one leg on the girth, using the other slightly behind and reins against the neck either left or right depending on the way you want to go is to change direction by spinning.
Our small sticks were swapped for full size sticks, which give you a fighting chance of hitting the ball as technically you can reach it! Technically being the operative word!
Putting what you have learnt on the ground into practice when you are on the horse is the tricky part and it goes something like this…
You approach the ball, you swing, you miss. You approach the ball, you swing, you miss. You approach the ball, you swing, you dig the sand. You approach the ball, you nearly hit the horse, you miss, you are now over cautious about hitting the horse, so you miss and miss and miss the ball. You approach the ball, you go to hit the ball and you hit it and it goes about 30 centimetres.
How can this be so difficult?
So you give up trying to hit it and just go for a burn up and down for a bit. These polo ponies are just the business. They are nippy, can turn on a sixpence, and are just the most fun.
But there’s an arena ball. It draws us nearer. Pepito and I move towards it, I turn, I swing and I hit it! A few more shots like that and I’ll have earned my champagne lunch.
I think I’m hooked!