2016 is clearly the year to try things that previously slightly terrified me. Marathon? Yeah, go on. Playing polo? Sure, why not?!
My only experience of polo was watching the Polo on the Beach at Watergate Bay in Cornwall a few years ago. We stood on the hotel terrace and watched, champagne in hand, and didn’t have a clue what the rules were or what was really going on. Fast-forward a few years to being invited by La Martina, the iconic polo clothing brand, to learn how to play this fast-growing sport in the beautifully British setting of the Ham Polo Club in leafy Richmond. Finally, a chance to learn more about polo, and potentially embarrass myself in front of a group of polo professionals. Quite used to the odd epic (and very public) fail, which is a staple part of trying new skills at CrossFit, obviously I jumped at the chance to have a go!
I had no idea that polo actually originated from the Persian Empire over 2,500 years ago, or that the modern day game was formed in Manipur, India, in the 1800s and used as training by the British Army. If you need to wield a sword whilst on horseback, what better training than swinging a mallet at a ball whilst trying to stay in your saddle? Polo and Britishness have been intrinsically linked ever since.
Back to the Ham Polo Club and two of the best instructors Britain has to offer: Ebe, from the Guards Academy, and Malcolm Borwick who has an international career spanning 20 years in the sport. Armed with our training mallets (to be held in your right hand only to avoid confusion – as a left-hander I was already causing trouble) and dressed in our La Martina polo shirts (plus the red sweater I’m wearing in the top photo, which I completely fell in love with), we began one of the most fun, engaging, and enjoyable days of learning I’ve had for a long time.
Polo is played in 7 minute blocks or ‘chukkas’ with 4 riders per team (3 for arena games) and 4-6 chukkas per game. Riders often switch horses mid-chukka as it’s a pretty demanding sport – getting through 8 ponies in a game is not that unusual. Luckily we started with our feet very firmly on the ground whilst we learned the ropes…
We were all taken through the four basic shots (nearside backhand and forehand; offside backhand and forehand) and despite pretending to be a right-hander for the day, I managed not to take anyone out with either the ball or mallet. Result! We tested out our skills in two teams on foot (me running in heels and being put in the ‘glory girl’ position 1, which was particularly entertaining when I missed a shot at an open goal and then redeemed myself by scoring a cracker). We got to try out the proper polo mallets mounted on a wooden horse – it’s all about the swing and the follow-through, and less about generating power – before trying a mini chukka on some of the Polo Club’s beautiful ponies.
After our session we were treated to a champagne tasting session from Lanson, trying their Black Label (dry and fruity with a lot of depth – my favourite), Rose Label (perfect aperitif) and White Label (a little sweeter for a palate that prefers the Chardonnay grape). Lanson is one of Her Majesty’s suppliers and it’s easy to see why – with grapes blended across 5 vintages and aged for 3 years instead of the typical 15 months, there is a consistency of flavour difficult to obtain with other champagnes. I am definitely looking forward to a glass or two of Lanson at Polo in the Park in June!
What a brilliant day. Now of course on top of CrossFit and running I want to take up polo…and I certainly want to see more of this sport. Join me at Polo in the Park at the Hurlingham Club, June 3rd – 5th, for a little La Martina, Lanson and of course some great games of polo!