While planning a weekend trip to a relative’s wedding in Seattle last summer, I searched the internet for non-wedding activities for my boyfriend Matt and me to do. Google helpfully suggested polo lessons. I was intrigued. As a hunter-jumper rider, I can ride a horse, but riding a horse while hitting a ball sounded like a fun challenge. After a bit of unseemly begging, Matt agreed to go with me, and that’s how we found ourselves at the Tacoma Polo Club on a sunny Friday afternoon.
Instructor Claudia Howell introduced herself, and led us over to meet our two horses, a bay mare and a speckled mare. I promptly demonstrated my ignorance by asking if Sadie, the roan mare, was in fact, a mule. Her roached mane, a polo standard look, made her ears look really, really long.
First, we needed a basic orientation to the game of polo. Neither of us knew anything about the sport or its rules. Claudia explained that polo was first played in Persia 2,500 years ago. It spread throughout the Middle East and Asia. Today it is also popular in South America, Great Britain and the U.S.
Polo is traditionally played on a grass field by two teams of four players. Players each wear a number, one through four. Number Three is usually the team’s captain. That is why all the equine apparel manufacturers, from Ariat to Equine Couture, make those polo shirts with a number three on them.
The object of polo is to score goals by knocking the ball through the opponent’s goal with a long mallet. Outdoor polo is played on a grass field the size of nine football fields. Indoor polo is played in an arena with only three players on a team. Arena polo is a game of short sprints and frequent direction changes. Field polo is faster with long gallops and passes. Polo matches last approximately an hour-and-a-half and are split into periods called chukkas.
Claudia handed Matt and me short polo mallets called “foot mallets,” and taught us the four basic polo strokes. To over-simplify, you hit the ball with the wide side of the mallet, not the end as in croquet. You can hit the polo ball forward or backward, from either the right or the left side of your horse.
The purpose of the foot mallets is to learn how to swing at the ball without the added complication of steering a moving horse. We took a few practice swings before taking aim on the ball. I have always struggled with golf, and found it similarly difficult to coordinate the ball with the position of the mallet head. I kept whacking the ground. Or the air. Sometimes both. Matt, meanwhile, was making it look easy.
Once we felt comfortable with the foot mallets, Claudia took us to meet “Charlie Horse,” the name I gave the pinto-painted metal horse we were to climb aboard for hitting practice. He had a realistic head and neck (“realistic” being a relative term), with metal legs making him the approximate height of a real horse. Charlie was enclosed within a roofed, hitting cage. The floor, front and back, was sloped upward. When you hit a polo ball, it rolled back to you so you could hit it again.
Charlie’s role was important. Much like our practice with the foot mallets, we could get a feel for hitting a ball while mounted, without accidentally hitting or injuring our horses as we flailed around with the mallets.
I tried it first and learned about the logistics of swinging a full-length mallet while leaning over the horse’s side without falling off. It’s all about counterbalancing your weight so you don’t tip over. You also can rest your rein hand on the horse’s neck. Did I mention that you hold the reins in the left hand and hold the mallet in right? It takes some getting used to!
After taking turns on Charlie Horse, it was time to try out our skills on real horses. Claudia assigned the bay Sierra to Matt and the spotty Sadie to me. We watched as Claudia tacked up. There is a LOT that goes in to preparing a polo pony. Legs are wrapped and tails are tied up in short tight mud knots. Breast collars and martingales are standard equipment as are overgirths and double reins with gag bits.
We rode out to the practice field where we walked our patient ponies and ineffectually whacked at the balls. We were still trying to learn the “how” of swinging properly while taking care not to hit our horses’ legs.
The lesson seemed to be over with so quickly! There is a lot to learn about the game and it definitely takes a lot of practice. I had a great time and would do it again in a heartbeat.
The lessons are appropriate for all levels of rider. Matt has very little horse experience and even he had a fun time and a wonderful experience. Claudia is a gracious and accommodating instructor who provides you with quality horses to ride. You can even bring your own horse to a lesson.
Although Northwest polo is primarily a summer sport, lessons are available under cover year around at Polo Zealot School at Tacoma Polo Club. Claudia holds monthly introductory clinics at the club to start you on your polo career. Check Polo-Zealot-School.com for upcoming dates.
There are six other polo clubs scattered around Oregon and Washington (see list). There’s probably one within driving distance of your home. They are eager to start your polo addiction so they have more people to play with. You’re welcome at any club to watch practice games or tournaments and meet the people.
Despite its royal reputation, club polo is a family-friendly sport. You don’t need a big string of horses to have fun. You can play with only one horse, splitting a position with another player who has only one horse.
Polo can provide a break in routine for you and your horse. A chance to put all those rollbacks and flying lead changes you practiced to good use. It can increase you and your horse’s confidence while riding with other horses outside of an arena.
If you made a New Years’ Resolution to try something fun and different with your horse this year, this is the ticket!
Learn what makes a good polo pony.
About the Author
Serena Carlson has been riding horses since age 15, and sitting on them ineffectually trying to steer and/or stop since she was much younger. In addition to horses, she owns 3 very bad cats and a rubber boa named “Bungee.” Serena resides in Eastern Washington and currently serves as the typist/editor for a draft cross mare who has her own blog at http://rockinroxie.blogspot.com.