Star reporter takes a lesson in the rough and tumble world of polo: Summer School



Body checking.

Who knew there was full-on, come-from-behind shoulder, hip and knee bulldozing in the genteel, jet-setting sport of polo?

Fun facts about polo

Though I’ve heard it referred to as “hockey on horseback,” I was always under the impression that polo was more like cricket or croquet on horseback — all technique and know-how with very little roughhousing.

What I learned over just a few hours on a polo field north of Toronto is that the skill set required to play this game includes the horsemanship of a trick rider, the split-second, hand-eye co-ordination of a tennis pro and the brute courage of a burly linebacker. According to the rules of engagement, an opponent is permitted, dare I say encouraged, to ride full throttle alongside another player to spoil their shot.

When the Star’s Life section decided to send reporters to summer school to learn about something that had always interested them, I chose polo.

I’ve ridden horses for more than 30 years. I’ve tried my hand at dressage, jumping and most recently eventing. I have a horse — a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare.

I am 58 years old. When I was 21 I bought my first horse — a thoroughbred off a racetrack in New York state.

Polo, I figured, would be as easy “A.”

I was wrong.

For an introduction to the sport I approached Brian O’Leary, owner of Polo Management Services near Kettleby, Ont. O’Leary is involved in a variety of horse sport disciplines including thoroughbred racing and, of course, polo. He’s also chairman of The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Horse Show.

On his 42-hectare property, complete with an outdoor fenced arena and a regulation size grass polo field, O’Leary offers private and group lessons to aspiring and experienced polo players.

He starts his novice students with a one-day course. If they’re still game they can graduate to an eight-week package of lessons. The program is offered to keeners who are attracted to the prospect of competing and ultimately, membership in the Toronto Polo Club.

O’Leary appreciates that new students are apprehensive. But he’s confident he can make a polo player out of anyone with a willingness to learn. He also wants to dispel the stereotype that polo is the reserve of the rich and famous.

He says if someone takes lessons and gets the bug they can become a competitive polo player without mortgaging the house or marrying a millionaire.

While I’m still standing on my own two feet, O’Leary begins by showing me how to hold the mallet and the proper “batting” position. Because I’m not yet on a horse, I’m given a short mallet and a soft plastic ball the size of a grapefruit. With my feet facing forward, about 18-inches apart, I bend at the waist, twist my torso and hold my head over the ball, which is at my side. Then, with my head positioned directly over the ball and my arm extended straight back, I swing with a complete 360-degree follow-through — like a golfer — at least that’s the theory.

Within minutes I’m on the fast track — straddling a wooden pony painted white with a nylon rope for reins. I’m taught how to replicate the position I had on the ground while hanging over the side of the horse and anchoring my body by pressing my opposite knee into the saddle. Head over the ball, my arm straight back — a swing — and a miss.

Undaunted, O’Leary graduates me to a live horse.

Her name is Sierra, a brave 11-year-old chestnut mare that’s demure of temperament but still fleet of foot.

O’Leary and his assistants test my courage by joking her barn name is “Killer,” then quickly explain she’s “bombproof” — a horsey expression which means that even if a grenade were tossed in her direction, she’d barely take notice.

But it was never my worry that I couldn’t stay in the saddle.

The instructions are clear. Pull the reins to the left and the horse will turn left. Pull back on one set of reins and the horse will slow down. Pull back on a second set and the horse will stop.

There are only two gaits in polo, explains O’Leary, walk and canter. No one intentionally trots.

I had limited success in the stationary position. So would I ever hit that ball once we started moving?

That fear had kept me awake the night before my first day at polo school. From my perspective on top of Sierra the 4-inch ball looks much smaller, like a cue ball. As I pick up a canter it starts to resemble a smaller golf ball.

O’Leary sets up a long line of five balls down the length of the polo field and I’m instructed to canter along side each one and strike them forward. Suddenly I’m nervous about hitting Sierra’s heavily wrapped and protected legs with the mallet, which is now wobbling above my head. I’m keeping too much distance between Sierra and my intended target.

This isn’t working.

With every miss my confidence withers. At one point my rigid determination to get closer to the ball actually causes Sierra to dribble to a walk. I was close to the target but I’d lost my forward momentum — I wasn’t going anywhere.

Playing polo, I’ve learned, is like rubbing your tummy and patting your head: just when you get one thing going the other falls apart.

And even though, as I’d expected, I hadn’t made any meaningful contact with the ball, O’Leary said it was time to move on to the next challenge: to up the degree of difficulty by practicing the art of the bodycheck.

With the balls removed from the equation I’d man up.

For my final lesson O’Leary and I cantered shoulder-to-shoulder down the length of the field. He pressed his horse into Sierra’s side. “Come on. Push back,” he shouted. “Lean.”

I did.

And it felt good.

I’d found my position.

If this were football I’d be the team’s muscle — the offensive lineman who leaves the glory and the art to more nimble and talented players. If this were hockey I’d be the team’s goon.

Sport has a way of finding a person’s strength. Going into this day I knew I’d have trouble hitting the ball and I wasn’t surprised when I failed.

But I was thrilled to learn that I could handle the heavy contact.

O’Leary encourages me by suggesting it wouldn’t take long for me to learn how to hit the ball.

More important, I learned I had the cojones to push back — to at least spoil someone else’s shot with a little rough play of my own.