Legend has it that around 2,500 years ago Iranian warriors flaunted their defeated enemies’ decapitated heads in sport to showcase their battleground prowess.
In addition to proving their worth on the battlefield the game of polo is believed to have originally been adopted for training cavalry regiments.
The sport filtered across the Byzantine Empire and finally to India where the British picked it up and claimed it as their own.
The practise of holding the reigns and steering with one hand while wielding a heavy mallet with the other proved the perfect training tool in negotiating your way through the battlefield with one hand while swinging your sword to disembowel the opposing army.
Given its blood-soaked history it’s ironic that modern-day polo is perceived as an elitist spectator sport enjoyed by a privileged few, usually accompanied with a flute of champagne, and the ubiquitous divot stomping.
Nestled in between the idyllic setting of Richmond Park and the River Thames is the Ham Polo Club – the last surviving polo club in London.
I was invited down to the club to don a helmet, wield a polo mallet and give it a go under the expert tutelage of former England polo captain Malcolm Borwick.
The ‘zero to hero’ crash course included polo on foot, again on wooden horses and finally being unleashed on actual ponies.
As a decent horse rider who’s been in the saddle since the tender age of two I wasn’t too concerned about riding, however co-ordinating my moves to ensure I didn’t end up smacking the pony on the nose was something I was a little worried about.
Once I had (sort of) mastered the different forehand and backhand strokes we were divided into teams to take part in a mini chukka on foot.
Beginner’s guide to polo
An international polo game is divided in to six chukkas (segments( with each one lasting seven minutes.
Each polo team consists of four players.
Malcolm described them as follows:
(1) The Striker – The poser up front who doesn’t want to get their white jeans dirty, scores all the goals, reaps all the glory and takes home all the girls.
(2) The Jack Russell – The player who does the dirty work, scraps for the ball when it is first put down in the middle of the pitch and makes most of the tackles.
(3) The Captain – The big boss who takes control of the team.
(4) The Defender – The guy who sits way back in the field and acts as a brick wall every time the opposing team’s Striker or Jack Russell goes for goal.
Although polo is played on horseback it is very much a contact sport.
Malcolm explained to us that the way to get the ball from your opponent is by ‘hooking’ – this involves using your mallet to grab your opponent’s mallet before they can swing for the ball.
Alternatively players can try out the intimidating ‘ride-off’. This tactic involves shouldering your opponent out of the way with your horse.
Did I mention that you could be galloping at a whopping 40 miles an hour while giving this a go?
When playing on foot my competitive spirit definitely came out as I charged after the ball desperately trying to ‘run-off’ the other girls.
However, my hand-eye coordination didn’t back up my feisty spirit and sadly I didn’t manage to score any goals.
Moving on up to the wooden horses we tried everything we had learned so far with the full-sized mallets.
Not one for the weak of heart (or muscle) these mallets are long and heavy and you need to be fairly strong to hit the ball with some welly.
I had the opportunity to ride a truly lovely mare named Panchi, who had only touched down in London from Argentina a few days before.
It’s widely known in the equestrian world that Argentina is the nation that excels at polo and their ponies are in high demand all over the world.
Panchi was a very kind and well behaved horse – like all polo ponies she was extremely responsive to all commands, was nippy and could turn on a sixpence.
But it’s not like regular riding, when playing polo it’s like steering with a joystick.
You hold both reigns in your left hand and jerk them to the left or right depending on what direction you wish to turn and use your opposite leg at the same time.
Feeling comfortable on your horse is half the battle – along with upper body and core strength!
As if the day itself wasn’t fun enough I also managed to scoop the ‘Most improved polo player award’.
If watching polo, rather than getting involved in the action, is more your bag Chestertons Polo in the Park will take place June 5-7.
Pictures courtesy of Tom Dymond, with thanks