H&H's racing editor Hannah Lemieux, who has finished her first season pointing, heads to Cowdray Park to try her hand at polo. Find out how she gets on...
I find this out for myself during a polo lesson with Guy Verdon at the Polo Academy based a stone’s throw from the renowned Cowdray Park in West Sussex.
Having ridden out at the yard of racehorse trainer Gary Moore, I hotfoot it across the county to the stables where Guy keeps his string of six ponies.
I’ve done my best to ‘fit in’, donning jeans and a ‘polo’ top, however my racing ‘bobble’ hat cover does perhaps give away the fact I’m more comfortable sitting on a racehorse than a polo pony.
Two of Guy’s ponies, both mares, have come from careers racing on the Flat — it is not uncommon as they have the speed, however as Guy explains it can take a while to retrain their way of thinking and establish steering ready for the polo field.
I am introduced to Argentinean-bred Varita, my mount for the 45-minute lesson, who has been kindly tacked up by one of Guy’s grooms . As Guy quickly hops on, I’m half expecting to offer me a ‘leg-up’ before remembering where I am. So feeling more like a 90-year-old granny than a 26-year-old ‘fit’ first-season point-to-point jockey I haul myself into the saddle from the ground.
First hurdle accomplished, before I find myself staring in confusion at the multitude of leather in my hands that I naturally would be trying to bridge. “Do you know how the reins go?” Guy asks before showing me how the double of reins are held — always in the left-hand with the polo mallet always held in the right-hand (thank goodness I am right-handed).
I go to pull my leathers up — not used to riding this length, I feel like I’m riding longer than Carl Hester but Guy reassures me they look a perfect length and I leave them as they are.
Mastering the technique
We head out onto the vast polo field and Guy begins with explaining both technique and position. Guy starts off with the reins — now I am actually holding them properly.
“You want short reins but not too much contact with the pony’s mouth,” he explains.
“To canter push the rein forward and squeeze with your leg. To stop pull back on rein towards your chin not down towards the saddle.”
Polo ponies rarely trot, instead they go straight from walk to canter. Although, as Guy often teaches people who have never sat on a horse, his experienced ponies are used to the odd trot work.
Polo ponies clearly need to be very responsive when it comes to turning and when I have a go Varita knows exactly what she needs to do. “If you want to turn right, bring the reins across neck to the right-hand side and squeeze with the outside left leg,” Guy tells me. Then vice-versa for turning left.
After a canter around the pitch (Guy is also on a pony), we have a go at flying changes — something I have not tried since ‘attempting’ dressage.
Next up, it’s time to man a stick and get hitting some balls. Once I’ve established how to hold the mallet (thumb goes through the loop at the top and you kind of twist your hand around the grip).
Going against any riding instructor’s mantra to ‘grip with you lower leg’, Guy highlights that in polo you grip with the knee instead and roll forward onto the knee before taking a hit.
“However, similar to usual riding — and racing — you still want to maintain a straight line between the knee and toes,” says Guy. “You will often see some polo players throwing their legs forward.”
Guy shows me the correct technique for hitting, which I come to realise is all about the movement in the shoulder and keeping the arm straight throughout the swing.
He explains about the importance of timing — roll forward onto the knee a few strides out and start the swing (take the mallet back behind the shoulder) when the pony’s nose reaches the ball.
Encountering some problems…
My attempts begin rather hit and miss, with Varita being particularly tolerant with me — even when I am hitting the ball through her legs.
My initial problem is that I am using my wrist too much to hit the ball and not keeping my arm straight enough. “Your wrist will end up hurting a lot,” he explains.
But I am pleased to get some solid hits under my belt (to balance out the sections of turf I have already dislodged!)
“Did you play hockey?” Guy asks. Well, I did about what feels like a century ago at school.
“I can always tell those who have played balls sports, it really shows,” he says, giving me some reassurance I’m not making a complete fool of myself.
“I also teach some people who have never played a ball sport or ridden a horse.”
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…and eventually managing to score
From walk we progress to hitting at canter and we go the length of the polo field — I even manage to get the ball between the goal posts.
“The speed of the swing should maintain the same in canter as in walk, however, you just need to start the swing sooner,” Guy tells me.
I finish up my lesson feeling a lot more confident than when I started. I am very tempted to go back for some more lessons with Guy, having thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the polo saddle. If only polo involved a few chase fence too…