Hit that arena ball!


Here I am again at Norfolk Polo, ready for my second lesson.

I can’t wait or I wouldn’t have been able to wait, if the friend I was coming with, hadn’t cried off earlier in the week, and I hadn’t experienced the pleasure of driving through the market town of Loddon, where its gurning inhabitants force you to reverse over a mile down a winding street because the cars are on your side of the road, when they could simply stop at the junction for a moment and let you through.

Next time I will ignore sat nav if it tries to take me this way.

I walk into the clubhouse, catch sight of my instructor and bound over to say hi and pay before the lesson.

The instructor looks up, says hi and carries on looking at the computer and chatting to the woman next to him. I shuffle and play with my keys.

Thankfully, a glossy haired woman arrives at the adjacent desk to take my money.  I sink into a black leather sofa and filck through the Norfolk Polo Club magazine.

It is now 12.30, time for my lesson; the instructor collects me, a polo stick and a polo pony en route.

Today’s horse is Baja, a nippy little mare and I learn that last week’s horse was called Capito, not Pepito. Translated as Captain, but Capito isn’t spanish for Captain?

The lesson is an hour long, where I am very much left to my own devices, while the instructor fiddles with his phone. I am hitting the ball with minimal professional input and think I could do this at home if I bought a stick and some arena balls! The instructor on the other hand, is probably thinking, if I don’t look at her, she might hit the ball!

It’s windy and my right eye is watering. My polo stick feels like lead today, but when the wind catches it, it blows all over the place and I struggle to keep it in the air. What am I doing here?

I am annoyed that the instructor is still fiddling with his phone and more annoyed with myself for not telling him to stop! Not that I would tell him to stop, which makes me even more annoyed with myself. I cringe at the price of the lesson and some more when I think I’m not sure he’s even seen me hit a ball!

My hour is up. I feel deflated. Maybe this is how all second lessons go; you practise?

The instructor asks if I have my own horse but doesn’t wait to hear the answer and is fiddling with his phone again. And I wonder if I were wanting to buy and livery my own polo ponies there whether he’d be more interested or whether he has the same amicable ambivalence for anyone at this stage in their game.

Or could it be he is interested in my game, but just can’t bear to watch as I hack the sand and struggle with my polo stick in the wind?

As my instructor is going to South Africa for three weeks, I think maybe I should still have lessons while he’s away or I’ll never hit that arena ball, but he’s Norfolk Polo’s only instructor; Suffolk Polo doesn’t have any polo ponies, you have to have your own; and another local arena club has all their ponies on winter livery.

Will I have the skills and resources to play a game of polo by the start of next season?

All I can say is, it is a good job I’ve started early!





Anyone for a chukka?


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!