"Which part of the mallet do you think you hit the ball with?" Malcolm Borwick, the dashing England polo champ is giving a back-to-basics polo lesson to a bunch of usually desk-bound journalists. Unused to so much daylight, we are standing in a field feeling baffled, scrutinising our mallets from every angle, as if we're contestants on The Crystal Maze.
"It’s this bit!" shouts someone, pointing at the flat end, which is about two inches in diameter. The other end is pointy so of course it's the flat end. We all concur loudly as if we thought of it first — but we are all wrong. "You must think we're extremely skilled if you imagine we can hit the ball with that while riding a horse!" says an amused Malcolm.
"I lawlessly attempt to score goals in a manner vaguely reminiscent of hockey"
We are at Richmond's Ham Polo Club, the only polo club in London, and Head Coach Jason Warren is on hand to witness our ineptitude. It turns out you are meant to hit the ball with the biggest bit of the mallet (the part I'd thought of as its side). And with this revelation, I am moved to wonder just how much time I spent in the drinks tent when I've been on corporate jollies to watch the polo.
After teaching us how to grip and swing a polo stick, Malcolm explains the rules. Of course, as soon as we're put into teams (for an on-foot run-through) I disregard everything he's said, and lawlessly attempt to score goals in a manner vaguely reminiscent of hockey. Despite committing several fouls (which result in penalty shots for the other team) I still expect a round of applause and a big bouquet.
The tabloids have set their sights on Malcolm teaching Meghan Markle to play polo
There are four roles on each team, and according to Malcolm, players' personalities tend to dictate which position they play. "As young as nine or 10, you start to see where you fit on the polo field," he explains. "Number Four is the defence — they stop the other team from scoring. Number Three gives the orders, Number Two runs around like a terrier doing all the work, and Number One is the goal-scorer.
"That's the glamorous job because they get all the glory without getting their hands dirty!"
It's funny he should say that, because I do enjoy the glory — I've actually been wondering why nobody's doused me in champagne. And hearing these player descriptions, I start to suspect that Malcolm (who assigned us our positions on the team) has had us sussed since we arrived. Malcolm, I decide, is like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat of polo.
Bring out the ponies!
After loosely grasping the game, we're each sat astride a wooden practise horse to see if our technique withstands being elevated off the ground — and once our coaches are satisfied that we won't cause any catastrophes, the grooms bring out actual polo ponies.
I had not expected be allowed on a real horse, but nobody seems to think this is as much of a big deal as I do, and so I find myself roaming all over the field on a horse whose name I can't remember. "Horsey! This way!" I tell my steed, as I steer her towards one of the polo balls that's been scattered about on the grass. I aim clumsily and come not even close to hitting it. "OK horsey! Come on — let's try this one!"
"Have you hit any balls yet?" asks Malcolm, checking in optimistically. No, I have not, and now my wrist is hurting. I start to realise why Malcolm has such meaty forearms. When he tells us he's playing in a polo match that afternoon, I think it may be best that I haven't hit any balls. They are like rocks and I do not want to want to do him an injury. Since Malcolm has played in charity matches with Wills and Harry, the tabloids have set their sights on him teaching Meghan Markle how to play polo. There is no way I am scuppering this story.
"My grandfather played, so he taught me how to play"
After my lesson, I am shown around the club by Polo Manager Will Healy. A former pro, who played at Cowdray in Sussex, this is Will's ninth season managing Ham Polo Club. "I was brought up here," he says. "My grandfather played, so he taught me how to play. This is where I started as a kid."
It emerges that Will's grandfather is Billy Walsh, who revived Ham Polo Club after the second world war. It had originally opened as Ham Common Polo Club in 1926 when there were several polo clubs in London, the main three being Ranelagh, Roehampton, and Hurlingham, which until WW2 was the headquarters of British polo.
Everyone is welcome to watch on a Sunday
While Hurlingham is now home to three-day June jolly Polo in the Park, Ham Polo Club is the only place in London where you can watch matches throughout the polo season, which begins at the start of May and finishes at the end of September.
Everyone is welcome to rock up with a picnic to watch a Sunday afternoon match, and Friday nights are a chance for non-members to slip inside the clubhouse where there’s a live band and a DJ for post-polo entertainment. Access to the clubhouse is usually only available to members who pay upwards of £340 a season, so the £20 ticket for Friday night fever seems like a small price to pay to see what happens when the breeches come off!
There are two types of membership — social (for spectating) and playing — for those who want to play in matches and tournaments. Will, who puts the teams together, explains that the number of playing members is capped at about 120 due to the stable space available. Aside from eight club-owned polo ponies which are trotted out for lessons, the rest of the horses at the club are privately owned by members.
"It’s not a cheap sport," says Head Coach Jason, who charges £165 for a one hour one-to-one lesson for an adult beginner. Learning with friends can be a cheaper way to go about it: "If a few people know each other, and they're at the same level, I can organise a group lesson," says Jason — but it would still set you back £145 per person.
"You've really got to get your own horses"
Once you've learnt the basics, you can get to grips with the game in an instructional chukka. "They're for beginners to learn on a big field and play like they're in a game, with me stopping them and coaching them. It's not competitive, but we're doing what we'd be doing if we were playing," says Jason, who runs these on a Wednesday evening and at the weekend.
The club's polo ponies are available for lessons and instructional chukkas, but, "when you want to progress, you've really got to get your own horses," says Jason. Half of Londoners today don't have their own car, let alone horse.
As well as coaching, Jason runs fitness bootcamps and one-to-one sessions to get members — and non-members — fit for polo. And like Polo Manager Will, he's also a club pro — which means members can hire him to play on their team in tournaments.
Looking at the club's Upcoming Events list I can see a Lady's Trophy and a Mixed Doubles Tournament. Are the rest of the 20-plus matches just for men? "No, there'll be women playing in every tournament," says Jason. "We have a lot of female players here — it's almost 50-50. There aren't many female players at the top level in England, but we play mixed here all the time." He explains that in a mixed doubles tournament each team must consist of two male and two female players, "but there'll usually be one or two women on a team in every match here anyway, so it's really just for fun."
"There's no gender classification in polo — I think it's the only contact sport that's mixed"
I admit to Jason that with all the shoving into each other on the pitch, I wouldn't be too keen to battle for the ball against a guy. He says: "The thing about polo is, it's as much about the horse as it is the rider. So you get women who are really tough, who've got good horses, and they can match you equally. There's no gender classification in polo — I think it's the only contact sport that's mixed."
With a Junior Academy for under 18s, children as young as eight can learn to play polo — and the club also offers riding lessons. But isn't galloping about on a horse wielding a wooden mallet hitting rock-like balls dangerous? "I’ve fallen off hundreds of times and been OK," shrugs Jason, who's been playing since he was 12. "I’ve had a ball to the head, but it's nothing. The rules make the sport safer because everyone's going in the same direction."
Malcolm Borwick, who had his first polo lesson at the age of 10 and went on to spend a decade playing for England, tells me this: "Don't let your fear get in the way. That's the most important thing, because all your worst fears will be completely over-ridden by the joy and the challenge of doing the sport!"
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.