On top of game during horse play

After many years of faking it, I can now finally wear a Polo shirt without feeling dishonest.

Yes, despite having to sign a waiver warning about injury, dismemberment and the possibility of death, I braved the potential consequences Thursday and gave polo a try. 

I have to say I quite enjoyed horsing around for the better part of an afternoon.

Of course, my polo excursion wasn’t just a whim. 

I was there as part of a sneak preview for the 29th annual PACE Polo For Heart to give media types, such as myself, a taste of what the sport is all about. 

Sponsored by PACE Credit Union, along with the York Region Media Group, among many others, the event runs June 20 to 22 and promises two daily polo matches, a best hat competition, live music, children’s entertainment, boutique tents and all sorts of other attractions.

The event was started in 1979 by Toronto Polo Club member Col. Michael Sifton and, over the years, has raised more than $3.5 million toward research into heart disease and stroke. 

The late Mr. Sifton’s son and honorary chairperson of the event, Cliff Sifton, said it’s the goal of this year’s event to raise more than $250,000 to benefit the Southlake Regional Health Centre’s regional cardiac care program and programs through the Heart and Stroke Foundation, such as its Chase McEachern Tribute Fund that provides automated external defibrillators to community arenas and schools. Polo for Heart organizers are hoping to crack the $4-million mark this year, Mr. Sifton said.

And Mr. Sifton might just be betting on the right horse. 

Polo is an exciting game, in which man and beast must work together to achieve victory.

The game really draws people in, he added, and they never forget their first time seeing it live or playing it. 

I have to agree with him, because I never will.  

As I pulled into the driveway, the sky above Bancroft Farms in Kettleby was bright and clear, save for a downpour of wispy white seeds from surrounding trees. 

As I understand it, it’s perfect weather for a polo match; I wouldn’t know. 

From my vantage point, parked atop a hill, I could just make out the polo field below and immediately a swarm of intangible butterflies soared in my stomach. 

I hadn’t so much as seen a horse and here I was getting nervous already. 

Exiting my vehicle, I trodded across the emerald earthen carpet beneath my feet and made my way over to one of the sports heroes I’d cheered on in my youth. I approached former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark, who, growing up in rural Saskatchewan, is no stranger to horses. I asked him if it was his first crack at polo, too.

It wasn’t his first time, but he said he doesn’t consider himself an expert. 

That made me feel a little bit better, somehow.

As part of Thursday’s festivities, Mr. Clark was preparing to mount a horse and take on a pair of seventh grade polo players as part of a fun challenge. I asked him what he thought the odds were of him beating the pair of young polo veterans.

“Well, I’m not really sure,” Mr. Clark said. 

“The goal is to go out there and have a good time ... It’s all for fun.” 

Following my brush with Toronto hockey royalty of seasons past, I was led to the rustic interior of the polo shack and fitted with a pair of what might be the most uncomfortable boots I’ve ever had on my feet. 
Tight? Check. Inflexible? Check. Nearly impossible to walk? You’d better believe it.

It was after strapping on the riding boots I was directed to sign the aforementioned waiver. 

Polo is only the second most dangerous sport, I was told, right after F1 racing. 

For some reason, that didn’t make me feel better.

Polo is only the second most dangerous sport, I was told, right after F1 racing. That didn’t make me feel better.

I was then outfitted with a mallet and helmet and I accompanied the other brave souls preparing to try polo down to the field. 

With a little help, I climbed atop a wooden practice horse and prayed I managed to stay atop it. The penalty for falling, I was told by polo head instructor and owner of Polo Management Services at Bancroft Farms, Brian O’Leary, was two cases of beer. 

Falling off a real horse, mercifully, only cost one case.

Mr. O’Leary taught us how to hold the mallet first, how stand up in the stirrups second and, finally, how to swing the mallet to hit the ball. 

It was similar to a golf swing I was told. Not being a golfer, that meant almost nothing.

I did start to get the hang of the swing, however, and, just as I was getting comfortable, it was time to hop off and try the real thing. 

As I dismounted, I asked if the real horse would remain as stationary as its wooden counterpart. No such luck.

As the group of aspiring polo players made their way over to the breathing horses, the shoot-out between Wendel Clark and the seventh grade polo stars began. It was a take-off of Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader, the crowd was told. 

Instead, it was Are You More Talented At Polo than a Seventh Grader. The young guns won.

I re-approached Mr. Clark about the match and asked his feelings on the loss. He was upbeat and gracious in defeat.

“I’m still walking,” he said with a smile. “It was a good time and it really gives you a bird’s eye view of the level of the talent possessed by the people who play this game all the time.”

As the shoot-out ended, it was my turn to climb atop a horse. More seasoned riders merely threw one foot in the stirrup and thrust themselves upon the animal’s back. Having no pride about such things, I requested to step on the mounting block.

I approached a tall horse waiting patiently with one of the staff. Its muscles bulged beneath its brown hair and it stepped from side to side with anticipation.

I’ll never prove it, but I swear it was giving me a look that said, “You haven’t the slightest clue what you’re doing.” I was determined to prove the horse wrong.

With a little help, I climbed up and found my way into the saddle. It was almost dizzying to suddenly be up so high atop such a magnificent and powerful animal.

I was then instructed to grab the reins with one hand and told that it’s just like a joy stick. Forward meant go and left and right meant left and right. My main concern was stop. 

The command for that was just to pull back on the reins.

Nervously, I squeezed my heels and the horse slowly trotted forward. I wobbled to and fro above it exhilarated, but anticipating a fall at any moment.

Luckily, no such tumble materialized and I started to have a great time. I even got the confidence to try to put my training atop the wooden horse to the test.

I eyed up a few polo balls and immediately spurred my mount into a break-neck shuffle. I stood up in the stirrups, leaned over to the right side and unleashed the mallet into an unsuspecting orange ball. It rolled through the dirt toward the fence.

I felt proud, I felt inspired, I felt it was time to get off the horse. 

I’d ridden a horse, I’d hit a couple of balls and managed to do both without falling.

I know it’s always best to quit while you’re ahead and while you still have one.

Learn more:

  • The 29th Annual PACE Polo For Heart takes place at the Gormley Polo Centre at 13401 Leslie St. in Richmond Hill June 20 to 22.
  • Gates open each day 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and polo matches take place at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $15.
  • To order tickets, visit www.poloforheart.org or call 416-432-9735.