The 10 Best Things about Playing the ‘Game of Kings’ (aka Polo)

You’ve seen it gracing the pages of Hello! Magazine and on the silver screen as a symbol of the aristocracy but you’ve likely never given much thought to the game itself or the people that play it.

Polo, the ‘Game of Kings’; it’s photogenic, fast and complex all wrapped up in one not so tiny package but what’s it like to really play it and be a part of this exclusive and elusive club of players?

I’d been asking myself the same question for years until I learned that I could actually find out. Thanks to Apes Hill Polo Club in Barbados and Polo Management Services in Toronto.

One summer of learning and playing later and I’m hooked (a polo pun). And as my first summer of playing comes to a close, with no signs of the addiction fading, I’ve been doing some thinking about what I truly love about the sport. Without further ado, here it is:

1) The Feeling and Sound when you hit the Ball (properly)

It looks impossible. The very concept of riding a horse with one hand (actually your whole body) while coordinating swinging a long, wooden (yes wooden, more on that later) mallet that looks not unlike a longer croquet mallet in order to hit a small, hard, white ball (somewhere between the size of a golf ball and a softball) just doesn’t look like something that everyone could conceivably do. Complicate that with speed and seven other players trying to do the same thing and it sounds really tricky. But all the complexities of simply hitting the ball are what make it feel so great when you can put it all together and hit the ball (and make it feel utterly terrible when it’s not done properly, believe me, you learn the difference quickly)

When it all comes together properly the solid little ball feels light as air when it makes contact with the mallet and is launched across the field. It’s a feeling only really made better by the ball landing between the goal posts.

2) The Incredible Creatures

I’d been an equestrian for 10 years before I even dipped my toes into the world of polo. Having done my fair share of riding circles in dusty school rings on less than athletic and enthusiastic horses I was blown away by the quality and intelligence of the creatures that I played polo with (even at a beginner level these were miles more intelligent and athletic than most English school horses).

They were fit enough to gallop for at least 10 minutes flat out across a field that covered roughly 10 acres and could stop and turn on a dime (so much so that a quick turn or stop could throw you out of the saddle if you weren’t prepared). These were the ultimate equine athletes.

But it wasn’t just their fitness, these horses actually had brains. They were just as capable/if not more capable of playing the game than I was. They could read the plays happening on the field (sometimes faster than me), get me to the play, properly position themselves for me to hit the ball and participate in defensive maneuvers such as riding off (body checking) and hooking (mallets) without fear. No wonder books like the Maltese Cat have been written about polo ponies.

Further, they were bombproof. They don’t spook; they hardly flinch when hit with a mallet or a ball (unintentionally, unfortunately, that is a risk of a sport where mallets are swung and balls are launched through the air), and they give their whole heart on the field.

3) Teamwork and Trust between Horse and (Wo)Man

The horses are everything in polo (see above). It’s humbling as a rider to realize that in this sport, the ponies account for more than half of your ability to play the game (roughly 80% of your game is dependent on your equine partner). These aren’t brutes being controlled by you, and there isn’t the usual binary between the human brain and horse brawn. No, a polo pony and a player are truly a team.

There is a huge amount of trust needed between the player and their pony in order to form a successful team. You need to trust that the horse will put their needs aside to get you into the play, to move even if you aren’t looking or facing the same direction, to counterbalance while you lean farther than should be possible up and out of the saddle to reach for that little white ball and to play against their equine competitors with as much heart and dedication as you play against the human competitors. Not to mention, they have to trust that you’ll keep them safe (to the best of your ability) meaning that you won’t ride into someone’s swing (equaling a mallet in the face for your equine friend) or ride off from too dangerous an angle.

4) The Feeling of Flying

I’ve been called an adrenaline junkie a few times in my life, and that’s not wrong (but it does run in my family so I suppose I could blame genetics). Polo is the ultimate adrenaline rush; it’s fast, it’s furious and it feels like flying. So I’d wager that’s partly what has attracted me to it and held me in it.

It’s been said before that ‘there’s no trotting in polo’. In fact, the game of polo is played largely above the speed of a canter (though polo ponies have several gears, like a car). For those who come from the English camp of riding, you’ve probably rarely gone faster than a canter, at least I certainly hadn’t before playing polo.

But in polo, I found myself charging across massive green fields urging my pony faster and faster with nothing but the sound of the wind and maybe the hoof beats and voices of the seven other players around me; the perfect adrenaline rush.

5) The People

Polo is a team sport; you cannot play polo alone (playing alone is called ‘stick and ball’ and is the equivalent of practicing). While one degree of the teamwork aspect is between you and your horse, the other degree is between you and the three other players on your team. When you’re new to the sport, it’s hard to understand that a shot spoiled for the opposition (through defensive maneuvers on your part) is equal to a shot made by you. Sometimes you have to miss the ball to take the man and trust that your teammates will get the shot. And it’s hard to believe until you get the hang of it, but picking up a teammate’s missed shot or simply being involved in bringing the ball down the field (without being the one to tap it through the goal posts) feels pretty great too.

The polo community is not a big one by any standards but I have yet to find an unwelcome person in the community. And I’ve met great and interesting people in the short period of time that I’ve played, all of whom have welcomed me to the sport and taken me under their wing to show me the ropes. If you can prove that you’re out there to have fun, be safe and play to the best of your ability you’re as good as in. Besides we’re all addicted to the sport so there’s always that to bond over if all else fails.

6) The lifestyle

Polo may be a game but it’s a lot more than that, it’s a lifestyle. It’s not about playing the game and leaving immediately after, there’s a huge culture of hospitality around the sport which has made it more than a that. The ‘polo lifestyle’ is about finding and using every possible excuse to have an Asado (Argentinian barbecue), about sharing a beer (or bottle of water) after the match at the side of a massive green field while the sun sets, about walking the field together to replace divots made during the course of the game, about making an annual pilgrimage to the home of modern polo, Argentina, in November to play and experience the sport at it’s best and more.

7) The excuse to travel

Winston Churchill once said that ‘a polo handicap is a person’s ticket to the world’ and he’s not wrong. Polo is played all over the world and thanks to the culture of hospitality that surrounds the sport there are plenty of clubs, polo schools, and estancias open to players (new and experienced). I’ve played for less than a year and already I’ve played in Barbados, Toronto and will soon play in Argentina.

Because it’s played all over the world, it brings together people of all different languages and cultures. All you really need are a good pair of polo boots, a helmet and a few Spanish words (where there is polo there’s generally an Argentinian pro ready to teach) and you’re set to take to the field anywhere the wind blows.

8) Style

Polo has a fashionable legacy; it’s hard to mention polo without mentioning fashion, and rightly so, it’s an incredibly photogenic sport thanks to  what the players wear to hit the field; crisp white denim, rich brown leather, and brightly coloured jerseys (the original ‘polo’ shirts), not to mention the patterns and colours our horses sport on their saddle blankets and leg wraps.

Huge brands like Polo Ralph Lauren and USPA capitalize on the branding capabilities of the sport with their polo pony branded ‘polo’ shirts and polo themed ad campaigns, and lesser known brands such as La MartinaStick and Ball, and Pampeano for authentic fashion and equipment help to ensure there’s no shortage of polo inspired fashions and equipment for use on or off the field.

And it does feel pretty great to put on your run of the mill Polo Ralph Lauren polo shirt and sport that polo pony with the pride of knowing you understand the legacy and heritage and actually play the sport that inspired it all.

9) The Nuances and Complexities of the Game

The game is not an easy one to learn. In addition to the physical requirements placed on the players and horses, it’s a mental game. The rules are built around protecting the equine players and as such there are a wealth of fouls that can be committed (intentionally or unintentionally) such as crossing the line of the ball or riding off (body checking) from too much of an angle.

The fouls and the rules are such that no new player could ever hope to memorize or recognize them on the field. Knowledge of them comes with experience. So when you first start out you play with the intention not to commit too many fouls (or at the very least no particularly dangerous ones) and to learn them as you go.

It’s the perfect game for someone with a busy mind because not only are you tasked with controlling your horse, hitting the ball and communicating with your team but also with watching the plays, strategizing, marking and making sure you don’t commit any fouls. Oh and I should mention that the teams switch ends after every goal scored, so good luck keeping that straight on top of everything else!

10) The history and heritage of the sport

Polo is one of the oldest sports in the world with a documented history reaching back approximately 2500-years and it’s hard to forget that. Polo is one of the few sports that has maintained traditions from all reaches of its history. From the white pants worn by players (from when it was played in the hot Indian climate) to the wooden (not quite waterproof) mallets that break far too often if you ask any player, to the gentlemanly respect the players employs on the field (a remnant of its history as a military pursuit played only by gentlemen), it’s all a way of reminding you just how old a sport you’re playing even if some of the quirks are as unpractical as they get. When I brought my first mallet home my brother took one look at it and said ‘that will break in a week’ (it didn’t, it’s still around albeit worse for wear) and hello! white pants and horses? (that was never going to end well).

Not to mention, throughout its rich history, there’s been no shortage of celebrity players from Winston Churchill to Clark Gable, and Walt Disney to the British Princes. It’s pretty cool to be able to have something in common with such big celebrities.

There you have it; an impossibly simplified list of the 10 best things about playing polo. For those interested in learning to play the ‘Game of Kings’ in the Toronto area (though you’ve been forewarned that once you start it’s near impossible to stop) check out the Polo Management Services website.