Friday, 24 October 2014

Polo lesson #1: "You have to look at the ball"

Four reins in my left hand, polo stick in my right (bouncing uncomfortably in the crook of my neck), I cantered the length of the pitch. I had been tasked with tapping the ball from one end to the other, but the horse ended up kicking the ball more times than I hit it. It was about 50:50 whether I made contact with the ball, and 50:50 again as to whether it moved more than a metre. After five minutes, the neat circular swing I practiced at the start had become dangerously wobbly and lasso-like. As a result, my horse started dodging left when I tried to hit the ball - an unhelpful but understandable instinct for self-preservation.

I was followed by my instructor, the Doctor, a former surgeon and polo fanatic who founded the polo club the year I was born. An exemplar of polo prowess, he scooped up the ball from wherever it ended up after my botched shots, showing off a wide array of sharp 360° swings that sliced the ball from under the horse's neck, or cut it from beside the hind legs. He shouted encouragement and instructions after each of my wild swipes: 'You have to look at the ball!', 'Hit the ball don't just touch it!', and after every shot he made, the ball appeared just ahead of me. While very convenient placement, it was unnerving when a hard ball rocketed past at body level. After one hit my horse squarely on the behind, I began to flinch every time I heard the clunk of his stick.

We did one run of the pitch at full speed, during which I completely lost control of both stick and horse. Unable to turn or stop, I didn't even make a convincing run to the goal, but went straight past it on the far right. Just a small taster of the terrifying pace of polo. I was also given an introduction on how to fight for the ball by 'riding off' the opposing player. The Doctor demonstrated by barging his horse up against mine and hooking his knee in front of my saddle. My horse, something of a polo veteran, sportingly shouldered up against the opposition for a while, but I was all too keen to retreat and give way!

After lesson #1, I was invited to join in a baby chukka of two against one on the polo pitch. Unable to hit the ball, let alone receive or aim a pass, I just galloped in circles and tried to look busy. I vaguely followed the instructions barked by my teammate, but in general, did my best to avoid going anywhere near the ball. Unfortunately, my horse was much more competitive; on more than one occasion, she skid into a sharp 180° turn and sped after the ball, despite the reluctance of her passenger. The experience took me back to my school days and haplessly running around the lacrosse pitch. At least this time there was a horse underneath me!

The lessons have offered a glimpse into what a real game of polo would be like: fast and ferocious, demanding extraordinary control of stick, ball and horse... Needless to say, it's not the sort of sport I will excel in!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Polo Game

"They're coming to play at 5pm". A phone call announces the forthcoming game. It may only be amateur polo - just 28 minutes of play spread over four chukkas, rather than 49 minutes and seven chukkas - but it is an intense, pressurised hour or more for the grooms. Each is responsible for two riders and eight horses, supplying fresh mounts for each chukka in exchange for two that have just played. The horses arrive from the pitch glistening with foamy sweat, their sides heaving and nostrils flared: seven minutes to untack them, swap their saddles onto fresh horses and take off their bandages before the next two arrive... The game is a chaotic blur of sweaty animals and dirty leather tack.

The preparation begins about 2 hours before. 32 horses are groomed; 64 legs are bandaged; bridles, saddles and bandages are piled up ready for use. A grid with the details of the game is passed around the grooms - which riders play which horses in what order - and there is a reshuffle of horses and equipment, before as many as possible are tacked up and their tails tied in a plaited knot. Then, the players turn up; the game gets underway. An exhausting hour or two later, they disappear as suddenly as they arrived.

A polo virgin and less than 48 hours in Argentina, my first game is a baptism of fire. I don't know my horses names, have never tacked up a polo pony before, and know the players only by the initials embossed on their tack. I am apprehensive, to say the least, about my complete polo ignorance. However, when the riders arrive, they are happy to give me a whistle-stop introduction. It turns out that the horses I had that morning christened as Sammy, Alfred, Molly and Pimms, are officially called Dalinda, Jacinta, Quarta Milla and Marie, and each wears a different, but equally aggressive-looking bit. I hastily scribble down names, distinguishing feature, type of bridle and order of play on a scrumpled scrap of paper. 

I'm also given a crash course on how to saddle a polo pony: instead of a buckle, a long leather strap is threaded through loops on the girth and the saddle, cinched suffocatingly tight and then knotted. Whether I lack technique or brute strength, it seems highly impractical and time-consuming when you have eight ponies to saddle at speed! A rapid demo on how to plait the tail into a neat bun follows, a fiddly piece of handiwork I am yet to master without tying multiple messy knots. The game itself is a whirlwind. I frequently fumble for the scribbled notes, trying to identify horse, bridle and relevant chukka, all the while being handed horses drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. The pace is overwhelming. 

Three weeks on and I still find games a bit traumatic. I have however picked up a few tricks of the trade: rub Vaseline on the girth so it's easier to cinch up; if the tail knot is unachievable, there is no shame in just using tape; if possible, have every horse saddled before the game even starts! I have also learnt the names of the horses, the bits and the players. I still need the scrap of paper though!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

An Argentine Groom #2

Hector is slightly detached from the other grooms. He sticks to his own horses, his own stable block, his own corale and his own routine. He's up at 5am to turn the horses out and reappears periodically throughout the day, whether to do his laundry, shoe a horse, or ride one. Slightly bow-legged, he prowls around the yard wearing pumps, loose chinos wrapped close to his calves by horse bandages, and a large cotton shirt that billows out behind him when he rides (when not covered by a woollen, M&S-style jersey). The carved wooden handle of a knife pokes out of his belt, and he often has a few loops of baling twine around his neck.

A polo player as well as a groom, entrusted with training the youngest horses and working the most difficult ones, there's no doubt that he is the most experienced horseman of the grooms. He couldn't look more at home on a horse. Legs thrust forwards and right arm held easily at waist height, he can put any horse through its paces, whether galloping across the fields and pulling up to a sharp stop, or practising razor sharp turns in the menage.

He's travelled across Europe with polo ponies, and has worked here for 17 years - he's currently sleeping in the guest room of the Polo Club House while waiting for the construction of his own on-site house to finish. Hardened perhaps by years of earning his living from horses, he's certainly on the severe side - he's been known to castrate a stallion with a kitchen knife to save on the vets bills.

He works with his son, a sweet but shy teenager who I've never heard utter a word. An efficient, self-contained duo, they go about their work wordlessly. Yet even so, Hector is a noisy presence on the yard. He hollers directions at his herd, 'aaaayy's' loudly at a horse if it misbehaves, sings as he works and, when he does stop to chat, speaks loudly in an incomprehensible garble.

It takes him two weeks to talk to me, during which time I'm referred to as 'la Chica'. We have since advanced to a 'buen dia Lottie' greeting, and a 'finitio?' bark if I'm near him when I get off a horse. Yesterday, he even gave me a few tips (and a thumbs up) in the menage when we happened to be riding there together. It may be slow, but it's progress!