The ball is hit with a resounding thwack! and eight players, mallets held high in the air, turn their horses in unison and gallop down the pitch towards the ball which has settled in the short-cropped grass in the middle of the polo field. A rider on the blue team reaches the ball first and swings his mallet in a wide arc through the air. He misses. The seven other players have now caught up to him and the horses slide to a stop. They jostle and bump one another in the scrum, twirl and spin in an awkward dance as their riders navigate, all four reins held in one hand, clacking their mallets as if in a sword fight, desperate to make contact with the elusive ball.
Suddenly, the horses are thundering off again down the 300-yard field, racing side by side. A player from the red team reaches the ball and gives it a solid wallop, sending it off towards the goal posts. They continue to barrel after the ball, the horse’s legs eating up the ground with each stride. With a calculated swing, the red player sends the ball through the goal posts and waves his mallet in the air exuberantly. The referee blows his whistle and spectators on the sidelines cheer and clap as the players walk their exhausted horses off the field. At the line of stock trailers fresh horses await, saddled and ready for their turn to play.
As I sit beside the clubhouse and take photos of the action, I’m itching to mount up and play, to feel the exhilaration of flying across this open space on horseback. I’ve been riding since the age of seven and over the past 17 years I’ve tried many equestrian disciplines: show jumping, dressage, three-day eventing, cattle penning, driving, long-distance riding, and vaulting. But, as a university student bouncing from one paycheque to the next, I definitely thought polo was out of my league in more ways than one.
Polo is often seen as being exclusive and expensive. Even to play polo at the low-goal level (professional is considered high-goal) each player ideally needs a string of two or three horses. A well-trained polo pony can run anywhere between $7,000-$15,000. Multiply that a couple times, then add on the boarding costs, plus vet and farrier bills, and you are looking at around $1,000 a month, minimum, barring any medical disasters.
When Brent Hoeppner, a member of the Victoria Polo Club who has played polo for the past 14 years, invited me to give the game a try on one of his polo ponies, I wasn’t about to turn the opportunity down. I worried about embarrassing myself either by clumsiness with my mallet-handling skills (I had none) or by taking a spill and injuring myself (I was well overdue) or by doing a combination of both due to my lack of coordination.
I showed up in my riding gear only to discover I had it all wrong: my breeches were grey instead of white, boots black rather than brown, my polo shirt lacked any of the numbers between 1 and 4 which players associate with their position, and my black velvet helmet looked pretentious compared to the sporty skull caps with metal face guards worn by the other players. I tucked my hair up under my helmet and wove my way through the horse trailers until I found Brent.
He introduced me to one of his three mounts, Tiego, who I’d be warming up for him. The grey gelding stood quietly next to the trailer, basking in the sun, a hind leg cocked nonchalantly. As he slid the rope halter over Tiego’s nose, the horse pricked his ears and shuffled his feet with anticipation. Brent showed me how the various pieces of tack were placed and attached, how all four legs were protected with boots or polo wraps (sometimes boots over polo wraps), and how the pony’s tail was doubled back and wrapped with tape so the hair couldn’t interfere in the game.
Once mounted, we set off at a brisk walk around the outskirts of the 10-acre field. Most players have friends come along as grooms and hot walkers for the games and practices. It’s important for each player to have a good team on the ground acting as a pit crew, since the breaks between the four chukkers (the seven-and-a-half minute periods of play) are only three minutes long, just enough time to leap off one horse and onto the next. When the horses come off the field, they are hot and drenched with sweat, much like a Thoroughbred after a race, so they need to be walked out and cooled down to prevent their muscles from seizing up and to reduce the risk of colic.
The best polo ponies are of Thoroughbred breeding because of their long, flat muscles, their stamina, and slim, narrow bodies. They generally stand between 15-15.2 hands — any taller and they won’t be as quick and handy on the pitch, and it becomes more difficult for the rider to reach the ball with their mallet. (Even though they are technically horses because they stand above the 14.2 hand height limit for a pony, they are still referred to as ponies because of their smallish height and compact, agile bodies.)
In India and Argentina, polo ponies are bred and trained specifically for the sport, and often sold to foreign players who prefer to buy a “made” polo pony rather than spend the time and money training a horse that might not work out on the polo field. It takes years of training before a pony can take part in a chukker and be expected to understand the action. They have to be properly conditioned and taught how to nec krein; they have to learn about mallets, flying balls, and bumping into each other. Brent calls the polo ponies “supreme athletes,” since they are expected to run hard off and on for seven and a half minutes before taking a break — that’s at least twice as long as most racehorses are asked to run. In low-goal polo, which is the type played at the Victoria Polo Club, it’s not uncommon for the horses to play up to two chukkers per game.
“The horse is 90% of the game,” says David Harris, a long-time polo player who retrained two off-the-track Thoroughbred racehorses to be polo ponies. “The horses are loved and looked after well.” If properly taken care of, the horses can play year after year; David rode one of his polo ponies until the age of 27. Over the winter, many players opt to let the horses out on pasture to rest and then bring them back into condition over the spring. This allows the horses to heal any bumps and bruises or minor injuries while having time to relax and enjoy ‘just being a horse’ for a while.
“Every single rule in polo is based on the safety of the horse,” says Brent. My favourite rule, which drives this point home, is that play is not stopped if a rider falls from his horse (in case a rider decides to ‘accidentally’ fall off his mount to stop a breakaway by the opposing team), but the whistle is blown immediately if a horse takes a tumble.
After a few minutes, I bumped Tiego with my heels and we set off into a silky trot. I practiced holding the four reins in my left hand, looping them between my gloved fingers, but they criss-crossed in a tangled web of leather. I’d ridden with four reins before, but usually they’d be split between two hands — much easier to keep track of. I placed the reins gently on the right side of Tiego’s neck and he jumped, on cue, to the left. I softened my hands forward and he stretched his neck out, lengthening his stride.
The only injury I suffered from my first practice was a sore right shoulder, the result of swinging the over-a-metre-long mallet back to hit the ball and then swooshing it up skywards to rest in between hits. Most of my training occurred at the walk so that I could learn how to hit the ball with the center of the mallet. Even that I found challenging!
Moving up to a trot is likely a few training sessions away. For now I’m content to practice stick-and-balling on the sidelines while warming up and cooling down the ponies for the players. One day I’ll be in the center of the action, galloping after the ball, my mallet poised and ready as I play the Game of Kings.
To find a polo club in your area and learn to play (or just have fun watching), visit polocanada.ca.