Pretending to be posh: Learning to play polo in Sydney

This week’s adventure was learning to play polo at Windsor Polo Club

Things I had no eyed deer about polo

  • The rules in polo make soccer’s offside rule seem simple
  • It is one of the few sports men and women play together on the same handicap scale
  • Playing left handed is banned
  • Polo can be played on a camel, elephant or a Yak (but not in Sydney)

I have always wanted to play polo, but being from the North of England I have seen it as the sport of posh British Southerners and not for me. Anyway, much to my delight, I discovered that even someone with no experience (and a Northern accent) can learn to play in Sydney. And so it was, I found myself learning to play polo this weekend at Windsor Polo Club.

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During the week I chose what I was going to be wearing carefully. The instructions said riding boots, jeans or jodhpurs, and on arrival I noticed that everyone, seemed to have put effort into looking the part. The Ralph Lauren tops were in abundance, as were white trousers. I wore my fashion boots that look like riding boots that I had bought on a trip back to the UK and hoped they would pass not too close scrutiny. I drew the line at the white trousers traditionally worn in polo, because as any woman knows, the wrong ones can be a shocker for showing cellulite.

As I hadn’t rode a horse in a long time, I was relieved to see that the other learners were a real mixture; from one person who had only sat on a horse for the first time last week, to an experienced dressage rider. Throughout the day I came to realise that polo is a real leveller, and certainly a lot more than whether you can ride a horse.

imageLearning with imaginary horses The day begins with an introduction to foot mallets – sticks that are short enough for us to get used to the different types of polo shots and allow us to practise walking about on the field without worrying about controlling a horse. From a distance it must have looked like we were all playing a random game of Croquet as we practised our technique. The idea in polo is to swing the mallet like a pendulum, but I noticed a few of us looked like we were perfecting our golf swing and hooking and whacking the ball.

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Mounting the metal horses Next, we took it in turns to get on the iron horses and use the longer mallets. This is where it really hits home that if you don’t get your shot right you are going to hit the horse in the head or leg. The loud clangs of mallet on metal confirmed this. We practise handling our shots and the fear of leaning over the side at a height. (Goodness knows how those people who play elephant polo cope with this.) As we take it in turns, we go back to the field and practise on foot. After doing the manoeuvres up a height, it feels so much easier on the ground and I finally start to master my technique…. Or so I think I have.

The real thing After morning tea it is time for the real thing and we are allocated our horses. Before we mount, we learn the “English” method of holding the reins in one hand, as opposed to the “Argentinean” method. Holding the reins in one hand feels completely foreign to me, as does holding a big mallet in the other. My horse, Freya is a good polo imagepony and she knows I don’t know what I’m doing, consequently, everyone else rides out, and I’m still sitting there clicking my heels like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz trying to go home. I catch everyone up and we start practising on the field.  It amazes me how calm the horses are with balls and mallets flying about everywhere. There are so many things to remember, so many things contrary to “normal” horse riding; your grip, the manoeuvres, lining up the ball so it’s close enough to hit but the horse doesn’t run over it, lean forward, heels back, heels down, lean over, head over the ball, don’t hit the horse, don’t fall off……… Of course, this is where I went wrong.

In the same way that I was the only person to vomit in zero gravity, I was the only person to fall off their horse. (You can take me anywhere twice, the second time to apologise.) I over compensated on my lean whilst the horse was cantering, like I am always told not to do on a motor bike, and came off. Luckily it didn’t hurt as much as I imagined it would and the only real injury was to my pride.

I got straight back on, (once Freya came back), as I realised that I just wouldn’t do day two if I didn’t get straight back on immediately. After taking it very slowly, it was time for lunch and home time.

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Day 2 – and goodness, do I hurt. Not from falling off a horse, but from the constant arm movement of holding up and swinging the mallet. It was too easy to get into the bad habit of whacking the mallet rather than let it swing and I was paying the consequences today.

We start the day by alternating between the metal horses and the ground, practicing our off side and near side shots. Left-handed playing is not allowed in polo so shots on the left side (the off side) must be taken with the right hand reaching across the horse.

Next we learn the rules of the game – which are many. There are so many ways to foul, even with only four players per side. It makes the offside rule in soccer seem so simple.

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The competition Then it is off to the field to practise and play a real game. Men and women are rated on the same handicap scale in polo and play together in matches, one of the few sports where this happens. Today it was men versus women. It was really amazing to watch the difference between the previous day’s complete novices and the confidence that comes from competition – focusing on getting to the ball not balancing on a horse.

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Watching a “real” match Training over, we watch the club’s polo players arrive to play a few chukkas. The horse boxes are big. Horses are changed several times during a match so a number are needed. Cars are parked alongside the field and non-players sit and observe from their car boots. The polo field is enormous, the play is fast and the sound of the horses running is thunderous and amazing to hear. I’m definitely a convert to polo, but watching rather than playing. I think I’m better suited to the bicycle polo that British Polo Day held in the Sydney Botanic Gardens a few years ago. But I know a number of people who trained with me this weekend will definitely be back for more lessons. Indeed, a number of the players in the “real” chukka we watched started by attending a similar introductory lesson at the club. Plus, despite finding that there is actually a heavy over representation of English people playing polo in Sydney – they are very welcoming to everyone, even Northerners!

Day 3 – back to work ….And OMG even squeezing the toothpaste hurts this morning.

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imageLessons:  I learnt at Windsor Polo Club through Riverlands Polo: Nicola and Luke are real experts, friendly, welcoming and very patient – as are the polo ponies.

Watching polo in Sydney and afield:  Windsor Polo Club play chukkas every weekend during the two seasons; Autumn (February- June) and Spring (August – November). The Club warmly welcomes spectators of the sport to pack a picnic and come and enjoy the game and make some new friends!

This is not a sponsored post. This represents my personal opinion.

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