SPORT SERIES: Polo, ponies, and what on earth is a chukka?
2016 is clearly the year for me to try things I was previously slightly terrified of. 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 a sparkling 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.
Learning to play polo is such a great day out, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning a new sport with some lovely individuals such as Alicia Grimshaw from About Time, Sloan Magazine and polo photographer and afficiando, Helen Cruden. If you quite fancy yourself a day sitting atop a beautiful beast and discovering how accurately you can swing a large mallet, you can book lessons at Guards Polo Academy where Ebe coaches. I can highly, highly recommend it even if you've never ridden horses before. The coaching from Malcolm and Ebe was second to none and you'll leave with a sense of pride at having learned something new, and a newfound appreciation for this traditionally exclusive sport. Failing that, the polo is a great spectator's day out and a perfect excuse for a picnic and divot-stomping!