Sarah samples: polo

Sarah McKinlay road-tests a range of equestrian disciplines. This time, it's polo. Images by Trish Dunell

6697My first introduction to polo came unexpectedly. I was in hospital getting pins in my knee removed, when another patient embarked on a passionate conversation about his new obsession – polo. He was in his late 40s and had never been on a horse until his first lesson. He was hooked instantly, renounced his previous life and purchased nine polo ponies!

Curious, I went along to a professional match – and was blown away by the accuracy, speed and aggressiveness. I’d heard polo described as rugby on horseback but after watching a high-goal match, the rugby comparison seemed tame – ice hockey (with etiquette) is more on the mark!

I’ve wanted to try the ‘Sport of Kings’ for some time, but had no idea just how to start. If you don’t come from a polo family or know someone in the game, polo seems inaccessible. Fortunately, that isn’t the case – the sport is actively on the search for new members. After many years of playing internationally, Waikato’s Simon Keyte has opened his field for lessons, as a way to give back to the sport which has given a lot to him and his family.

My lesson was hosted at the gorgeous Waikato property Simon owns alongside polo-playing cousin, JP Clarkin. It’s easy to see why Simon is passionate about his career; polo has allowed him to travel the world producing ponies and playing with the world’s best.

My equine teacher, Doofus, was an obliging and handsome chestnut thoroughbred gelding.

I'm instructed on how best to hold the mallet
I’m instructed on how best to hold the mallet

We began with a run-down of equipment. The right hand is reserved for the mallet. The left hand is in charge of two sets of reins – one rein is attached to the bit for direction and the other for brakes.

Like golf, players are handicapped according to their ability. Beginners start on -2 with the maximum of a 10-goal handicap. But I had handicaps of my own – I’m left-handed, have abysmal hand-eye coordination and zero upper body strength. Have I mentioned that the polo rules state players must carry their stick in their right hands?

The polo riding position is also different. Your thighs are the foundation of your seat. They grip you to the saddle, leaving the lower leg free for steering. The polo saddle has a high pommel, flat seat and there is no padding under the knee roll, to allow a tight grip. Your weight is up and over your toes to make it easier to rotate your core and bend down to the ball. Core strength is important, as you must be able to turn over your centre of gravity.

When Simon asked what physical training I was undertaking, I hoped yoga and jogging was a satisfactory answer, but his laugh made me think otherwise…and I wasn’t wrong. Nothing can prepare you – polo is the workout of a century!

To start with, connecting with the ball was challenging. Timing is vital. It’s automatic to the seasoned players, but I really had to judge my pony’s stride length to calculate the distance to the ball, then time my swing.

This is harder than it looks.... and it doesn't look easy!
This is harder than it looks…. and it doesn’t look easy!

The weight of the mallet began to take its toll by the end of the lesson. Simon demonstrated some pretty fancy hitting techniques but I was focused on getting a straight line without smacking Doofus in the face or backside!

Polo ponies (they are always referred to as ponies, even though most are between 14.2 and 16 hands) are amazingly sensitive. I loved the ease of riding a horse that neck-reined on a dime and was responsive to my leg. The top ponies are as competitive as their riders, chase the ball and don’t hesitate when asked to push other ponies off the line of the ball.   

Simon places emphasis on producing quality ponies for world class polo, as the right mount can account for 80% of a player’s success. “We only play as well as our ponies. There is no outstanding difference between players on a 6-goal handicap to a 7-goal handicap. They have the same strength, ability and technique, but the guys who carry on to play high-goal polo have ridden better ponies for longer.” That’s why Simon gives his best ponies to cousin JP, whose aim is a 10-goal handicap.

Did I mention I was left-handed, with co-ordination challenges?
Did I mention I was left-handed, with co-ordination challenges?

The lesson wasn’t over until I hit some goals; obligingly Doof kicked a few through and apparently, that counts!

Apart from the obvious horse appeal, polo’s team aspect means it’s hugely social, unlike most equestrian sports which are individualist. Most New Zealand players have normal weekday professions and live for the weekend for their polo fix.

If polo might be the equestrian lifestyle change you’ve been looking for, don’t mortgage your house to purchase a stable of ponies just yet; organise a lesson with a professional first. You can locate polo schools or clubs though the NZ Polo Association website (www.polo.org.nz) and they can put you in touch with a professional who offers introductory lessons where they supply the pony and equipment.

In the meantime, organise a round of golf – I’ve been told the best Argentinian players hit the greens on their non-polo days.

Polo explained

Polo is a game is between two teams of four players. A match lasts 45 minutes and is broken into chukkas. There are six chukkas per match with each chukka lasting seven and a half minutes, except the last which finishes at seven minutes unless teams are tied.

A fresh pony is used every three to four minutes; each player rides eight to nine ponies per match. Whenever a goal is scored, the teams change ends. The ball must travel in a straight line and there are very clear rules regarding right of way, and following the line of the ball, much like road rules, for player and pony safety.

The mounts are called ‘ponies’ regardless of their size. Ponies are carefully selected for a particular chukka, much like a golf club has a specific purpose during a round of golf.6760-1 (dragged)

Polo terminology

  • Mallet: aka stick. The shaft is often made from flexible material like bamboo, and the head from hardwood. The length ranges from 48 -54 inches depending on the height of the pony, and the ball is hit with the long side of the mallet (not the end).
  • Stick & ball: practice time
  • Chukka: a period of play
  • Line of the ball: the imaginary line the ball travels, representing a right of way for the player following nearest that line. There are strict rules governing opponent’s entry in to the right of way, in order to minimise the risk of collisions. Crossing the line is a foul
  • Ride off: two riders may attempt to push each other off the line of the ball to prevent an opponent from striking the ball
  • Treading in: the replacement of turf divots, a half-time spectator activity