After stepping out of my show hunter-comfort bubble by covering a dressage competition for the Chronicle, I realized there were all kinds of different equine sports I had never seen or tried. I very much enjoyed watching the dressage horses show, so why not continue broadening my equine education, explore some new sports, and share what I learn with some fellow niche riders? With that in mind, I suited up and headed out to the Middleburg Polo Academy for a lesson in stick and ball.
When it comes to polo, I think it’s fair to say my experience prior to the lesson was preeetty extensive. Along with attending a single polo match in Wellington, Fla., this past winter, I’ve observed countless tiny threaded polo ponies galloping across the corners of Ralph Lauren shirts, played croquet, and ridden a pony before. I thought the mash-up of those various unrelated experiences might give me an edge going into a polo lesson. Shockingly, they did not.
First of all, carrying a polo mallet over your head like the miniature riders on Ralph Lauren shirts do is really difficult, especially if you have absolutely no upper body or arm strength, like yours truly. I tried carrying the mallet upright for about a minute before resigning to letting my arm hang like a limp noodle, raising it only when I was in hitting range of the ball (or for photo ops).
Nothing to see here-just a totally legit polo player holding her mallet semi-correctly going out for a chukker.
And let’s talk about the ball for a second. I was thinking that there might be a ball for beginners, one that was maybe about the size of a basketball and really hard to miss. No such luck. The balls we used were about baseball size, and I completely whiffed and missed 50 percent of the time, and that was at a walk. To add insult to injury, I’m told the really good polo players practice with golf balls.
As far as previous riding experience helping me in polo, any hopes that my hunt seat equitation would carry over on the polo field were quickly dashed when the polo instructor, Daniel Tognini, gave me the run-down of polo riding basics: pinch and hold with your knee and thigh, lean the direction you want to turn, and always keep your eye down on the ball when you’re going in for a hit.
I cannot recall how many times my poor hunter/jumper instructor, Katie Wills, has yelled at me to stop trying to turn my horse like a motorcycle, to stop pinching with my knee, and to not look down at the jump. I can only hope my hour of committing all three equitation sins simultaneously whilst attempting to play polo didn’t erase any equitation skills when I get back on my hunter. It was nice to have all my faults work to my advantage for once, though!
|Daniel telling me to grip with my knee and thigh. (Cue crying of all hunt seat equitation trainers.)|
While I found playing around with a mallet and attempting to play polo very entertaining, my pony partner was considerably less amused. Juana, the half Thoroughbred half Argentinian polo pony whom Daniel lent me for the ride, found my utter lack of polo skills very irritating, as it prevented her from going faster than a walk for most of the lesson. I believe this picture accurately sums up my enthusiasm and her lack thereof.
|That's one very excited hunter rider and one very unamused polo pony!|
I was told at the lesson that polo ponies are trained to follow the ball, so I’m sure poor Juana was aghast when, after taking me right to the ball like she was supposed to, at a very slow and steady walk, I would swing and completely miss. It’s OK, though, because when I would miss the ball, Juana would generally walk or trot over it and get to play a little soccer, which is fitting given the World Cup tournament and all.
|"Wait, Juana, go back, I missed the ball again!" *audible pony sigh*|
After all our hard work walking, trotting, swinging and missing, Daniel said I could have a little free time and go for a canter if I wanted. I thought that sounded very fun and would be nice to let Juana actually go the speed she had wanted to go the whole time. Juana agreed, but she thought canter was a bit tame and opted for more of a flat out gallop. I severely underestimated how fast that horse was capable of going! She’s like a little sports car, and Daniel tells me she wasn’t even going as fast as she can.
As far as hitting a tiny ball while going that speed is concerned, it was plenty hard trying to hold the mallet, convince Juana that we were not in the Kentucky Derby, and to please turn when we got to the end of the ring; I have no idea how you also hit the ball, and hit a ball that other people on other speedy ponies are trying to stop you from hitting!
|As you can see, I'm not even capable of holding my foot in the stirrup while Juana gallops, let alone hitting a ball!|
All in all, my first polo experience was incredible. I want to take Juana home in my pocket, have a million more lessons with Daniel, and possibly quit my day job and become a polo player (probably not the wisest choice given my utter lack of polo talent). I’ll stick with the writing and leave the polo playing to the experts—though I may just have to see how my hunter feels about mallets next time I’m home. Who knows, maybe he’ll like trying polo as much as I did!
Ann Glavan is an editorial intern for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. Ann interned for Phelps Media Group during the 2014 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival before joining the Chronicle team for the summer. She currently attends the University of Missouri and is studying journalism and economics.