Inspired by the media frenzy surrounding this weekend’s Mint Polo In The Park (and perhaps also by our recent encounter with the ruggedly handsome Jack Kidd) Londonist decided to investigate the ‘sport of kings’ for ourselves. After all, how hard could looking glamorous whilst juggling a stick, ball and horse really be? The lovely people at Ascot Park Polo Club, who have been helping to provide free training for school children in Hammersmith and Fulham, kindly invited us down to their school - located only 30 minutes from London -so that we could release our inner Argentinian.
The friendly welcome we received on arrival immediately dispelled our fears of feeling out of place and we were impressed to see the club’s founder, a man described by the Prince of Wales as “one of the best instructors that there is in polo" still teaching beginner’s lessons. Indeed it is obvious that Peter Grace’s passion, enthusiasm and open-mindedness are the reasons for the inclusive atmosphere at Ascot Park, a place at which over 30,000 people have tried polo, 80% of whom had never ridden before.
We joined 3 other students around a small mock up of a polo pitch, complete with mini equestrian figurines, and spent our first 40 minutes learning about safety, rules and tactics. Surprisingly, we were riveted by the entire talk and somewhat reassured to learn that there are so many safety features for a game which contains more contact than is ever seen in Rugby and in which everyone is moving at around 35mph. (Makes Johnny Wilkinson look a bit girly, really..)
After the briefing we dragged ourselves nervously to the pitch, where we stood on plastic crates and learned how to swing the mallet. It felt a bit like golf, and once we’d learned how to use our bicep and not our elbow to get the thing moving it was rewarding to see the ball zooming away in a (nearly) straight line. Buoyed with confidence, we proceeded to the training enclosure where a group of unfazed ponies stood regarding us nonchalantly. Not being experienced riders, this was the point at which our nerves kicked in but, after a worried glance at our photographer produced nothing but a jubilant wave of his (apparently delicious, the git) bacon sandwich, we found ourselves seated on a horse and clutching two sets of reins.
Those familiar with riding will immediately realise that this is unusual, but it’s just the start of the differences between polo riding and most other equestrian pursuits, something which actually makes polo lessons incredibly fair as everyone has to learn from scratch. The truth of this is exemplified by the vivacious Mia Randall-Coath, who had never ridden before but whose first lesson began a ‘wonderful new chapter in my life’ and who is now not only a great player but also Executive Secretary of International Women's Polo Association, proving that you don’t have to be a life member of the pony club to enjoy and be successful in Polo.
Our lesson started with a few tips on how to control the horse and incite it to move at different speeds. (Essentially slow, bumpy and ‘vroom!’) With that out of the way, we were furnished with a mallet and our earlier confidence quickly felt laughable as we attempted to hit the ball and stay on the horse at the same time. In fact, during the first minutes we were chiefly occupied with talking to our horse and trying to persuade the patronising animal (who we suspect of laughing quietly at us as it kicked the ball away) to move in the right direction and dodge our flailing mallet. With some gentle guidance from the instructor, however, we were soon scoring goals and competing against the other students to see who could get the ball down the field fastest.
The experience session is great fun, but we’d seriously recommend booking a practice chukka too. No matter what your previous experience, these mini games are where everything comes together and you really learn about the dynamics of Polo. For the first minute or two, admittedly, everything will go out of the window, but after that the memory of those little equestrian figures starts coming back and, with the supportive coaching from the experienced players who join each team, you suddenly find yourself spurring the horse on to get the ball before anyone else, forgetting any fear or lack of riding ability. Being in the centre of a big, horsey scrum can definitely be interesting, but at no point did we feel unsafe.
So what did we learn? Polo is an exhilarating, challenging, surprisingly tactical (think chess on horseback) sport which at Ascot Park is played without a whiff of elitism. Moreover, the classes are a similar price to riding lessons which, considering that you'll be learning from people who are at the forefront of the sport, seems like a fairly good deal. You can customise the lessons to suit you and we may even attempt to get back in the saddle ourselves - once the stiffness wears off, that is.