If you’ve ever stood on the side lines at a polo match, or even watched one on TV, you’ve probably marvelled at the speed, agility and skill of the ponies and their brightly-clad riders. You might not, though, have thought of getting involved with it yourself. The good news is that you don’t have to be a millionaire or even distantly related to the Royal Family to play polo, as the sport is much more accessible than you might think.
Polo is probably the oldest team sport in the world, with origins going back well over 2,000 years in Persia (now Iran). It spread to India in the 13th Century, eventually becoming popular with the British Army in India as a form of military training. There are now around 70 polo clubs across the UK and Ireland, under the regulation of the sport’s governing body, the Hurlingham Polo Association.
“In recent years, polo has been working hard to shed its exclusive image and become more accessible to more people,” says Jade Vere-Drummond of the MHF polo school in Essex. “Yes, it’s expensive at the top level, but then so are dressage and showjumping. We’re working a lot with the Pony Club and schools and universities to offer as many opportunities as possible. It’s great that we’ve got the big, fancy, glitzy events to help publicise the sport, but there’s more to it than that. We’ve developed the ‘polo pathway’ to help ease people into the sport as gently as possible. From an initial taster session, we’d encourage you to have a short course of lessons then play in a couple of ‘instructional’ chukkas, where the coach rides with you. Then we set up special tournaments for novices so that you’re playing with people on the same level and it’s not too scary. Polo can actually be more economical than other equestrian disciplines as you don’t have to have your own horse, you can have a few lessons then hire a trained horse to play on.”
Eden Ormerod of Druids Lodge Polo Club has “horses in his blood”, and started playing polo when he was 11 with the Royal Artillery Pony Club, and turned professional at 18. Since then, he’s represented England and competed all over the world.
“I think the thing that attracted me initially was the thrill of competing as part of a team. I still love that, but through playing competitively I discovered a much deeper love for the horses involved. They are undoubtedly now my strongest reason for playing, and my greatest joy when playing is to be developing a partnership with these incredible animals.
“Modern pony ponies tend to have a lot of thoroughbred in them for speed, and there are a lot of retired racehorses going onto successful second careers in the game. A good polo pony has to be very balanced, both physically and mentally, but must also be sensitive and brave to push into tight spaces or ‘ride off’ against other horses. Some horses are born to it, but it’s amazing to see how others find their feet in it,” he says.
If you want to have a go at polo, being able to ride already can be an advantage but not a necessity.
“If you’re already a good horse rider, then you’ve got a definite head start,” says Eden. “If you are already adept at communication, have a good feel and are well balanced then it’s going to make hitting the ball or making a defensive play all the easier. As polo ponies live together, exercise together and run on the field together, I believe their herd lifestyle helps make them particularly easy to manage and in turn I think that’s what helps people grasp the basic riding skills so fast. After that, as with any discipline, there’s a lifetime of improving left for all of us!”
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And just in case you thought polo looked too intimidating to try, Alec Banner-Eve, also of the MHF polo school, says that isn’t necessarily the case.
“Polo ponies are actually great confidence-givers, as they’re trained not to mind loud noises from crowds, mallets being swung near their heads and legs and riding into other horses. I didn’t come from a horsey family, and learnt to ride on polo ponies when I was 11. We use our ponies here for Riding for the Disabled and also to help rehabilitate injured servicemen — they’re incredibly steady.”
Many Pony Clubs and riding clubs organise polo taster days, so watch out for events advertised on their websites or social media. Otherwise, visit the Hurlingham Polo Club website to find a club near you.
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