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!

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