For many people, polo is a sport played by people whose cars you’d like to key. But polo means “ball” in Tibetan, and we know how wise they are. So suspend the hate, and have a look at a game so fun you want to plotz.
Polo can be as stealth as nicotine, more expensive than cocaine and as addictive as success
With a first tournament recorded in 600BC (the Turkomans won), polo has been the preserve of those with time, money and horses. You need a lot of horses to play this game. If you have no horse, then even the minimum of two seems extreme. One pony is needed per chukka – that’s an inning – and there are seven of those per match. Chukkas are about seven and a half minutes each, and those ponies ramp it up at the touch of the rein. It’s not the sport to play if you hate fast things flying past your nose. By 1869, it came to Britain as hockey on horseback. As cavalry training, it’s a battle charge with balls.
Once you’ve sat on a polo pony and hit a ball, your life is ostensibly over. Polo can be as stealth as nicotine, more expensive than cocaine and as addictive as success. Go on, try to escape. You don’t even have to ride or hit at first. These ponies are like no other animal. When a polo pony looks at you, it’s sizing you up. Hit the ball, it will race on, playing for you. Miss the ball and the pony thinks, “Why am I being ridden by a moron?” You can feel massive disappointment through your breeches. It’s like riding your own mother after you tell her you’ve failed to graduate.
Polo came to me like a stray cat during a trip to the really quite nice Palazzo Versace in Dubai. The British Polo Day circus was in town. I was offered a polo lesson and champagne. Well, why not. Dubai Polo Academy’s Steven Thompson showed me how to hit the ball. Unlike school horses so bored they dream of a French abattoir, my pony, an ex-racehorse called Yem Kin, twisted and turned, skidded and wheeled, swiveling ears to a shift in the saddle. In that one hour back in March, polo stopped being an elitist game bedecked with bad fashion and became something elegant and alive. It’s you, a horse, a stick, a ball and seven other dudes with the same stuff. That’s a party of eight going at 30 miles an hour across the equivalent of several football pitches.
I’m racing, gripped by what freelance polo player Sami Lomri calls, “ball fever”
Why do polo ponies seem wiser than ordinary horses? According to “my” coach Sean Wilson-Smith, head of Hampshire Polo Club, “They work in a herd, and they know the job.” Sean never makes you feel like you can’t play: he’s the popular kid who’ll ride you off – basically bunting you away from the ball on horseback – with an infectious laugh and a huge smile. According to Polo Quarterly editor Aurora Eastwood, the ponies are made with training. “We teach [the horses] to react quickly but in a controlled manner. After all, the player’s attention must be elsewhere during the game, not on the pony.” When playing, I forget there’s a horse under me. I’m racing, gripped by what freelance polo player Sami Lomri calls, “ball fever”. He once lost his mallet during a game and rode on, playing defence.
Polo is played by a lot of the not-rich too. Clubs help. For £80, you can get a lesson. “Only at a higher level is it more expensive,” says Sean, “but affordable at a lower level. Schools like Hampshire Polo School have made it a thing where anyone can come and have a go and have a weekly or monthly lesson.” So if you want to try it, skip drinking in a London bar for one night. There’s your lesson money.
Also, 50% of new players are female. In a game known for its macho stance, the growing number of womenfolk riding off burly guys must mean something – perhaps polo is the best way to channel one’s aggression? Robert Burke, a trainer at Ascot, ex-fighter pilot and polo mentor, once said, “Polo is a nasty game, brutal …That’s why so many bankers and solicitors … are so bloody good it.” His direct style – “You ride in an agricultural fashion” – can make you laugh or cry. Either way, you obey him.
Gaston Devrient is a pro who trains the British Army team. Among his other achievements, he tries to teach me how to hit from a wooden pony standing in what looks like a large bird house. It’s bloody hard. He makes it look easy. No wonder: his DNA have been at this for generations. “It started with my grandfather. So my grandfather, my father, my brother who is ten years older than myself, three generations, and myself.” I want to change ponies by leaping through the air from pony to pony. “All pros do that. A pro who cannot do that is no pro.” Gaston has the kind of smile that would find car keys dropped in the dark. He also has a fantastic Instagram account.
You can learn polo near Stonehenge – that’s Druid’s Lodge, headed by the widely-heralded Giles Ormerod. The first lesson I have here is with a short mallet – a hand mallet. On foot, Giles shows me how to hit and, boy, it seems easy. He’s jolly, sure, and rightly a stickler for rules, form and safety. All I want to do is gallop and hit the freaking ball. He has a chessboard with animals on it, to show you how to ride position. I don’t remember much, really, except staring at the mallets and wanting one of my own. Wish I had listened, though, because now I can’t play without fouling. Giles is, for the record, a great teacher and leader of student and university teams where much of the sport’s growth lies. He’s a doyen, respected.
“Polo is an addiction only cured by poverty or death.”
If you’re an adult with a partner who isn’t so keen on watching you being shunted by a laughing trainer in Hampshire, Cliveden House Hotel has a polo experience catering to players married to non-players who hate the game, hate horses and hate them. Not only does this package include a a stay at one of the nation’s infamously sexy hotels (think Profumo and a naked sexy Christine Keeler sitting backwards on a chair), you get a polo lesson at the privately owned Emsworth Polo Grounds. The bearded Tarquin Southwell, once a tabloid darling, teaches you at a canter, saying, “No one hits from a trot”. Learning to swing, hit and gallop across the laser-levelled lawn at Emsworth is a treat. No wonder so many top-end corporations hold secret bonding polo rituals here, in a sumptuous exclusive venue newly available for private hire. I felt a bit giddy and smug after Southwell’s teaching, like I’d stolen something precious. Driving off on the well-manicured lane, windows down, my Cutler and Gross aviators filling with a fine dust, I remembered the player’s motto, “Polo is an addiction only cured by poverty or death.” Come play with me next week, okay? C