|February 25, 2022
|Posted by Melinda under Uncategorized
Until you are in a sport, it’s far too easy to simplify it to ridiculousness. We’ve talked about this before. Dressage is more than w/t/c perfect circles. Jumping is more than aiming your horse at the fence and getting a good release of your hands with your bum in the air, and let’s not even talk about free jumping your horse as an indication that you are ready for anything bigger than a cavelleti. Endurance is far more than trotting down the trail all day with lunch stops, and yeah, endurance horses have skillz.
I’m sure you all see some pics of polo and are like…well duh, I know it is complicated, but I get the gist. Ride a horse fast, swing a mallet, hit the ball. Religiously follow the rule of not crossing the path of the ball, which usually has galloping horses behind it, thus preserving life and limb to play another game.
I’ll be completely up front. This was my impression of the “whole” game when I first started playing in high school. Because I was also trying to learn how to ride at the same time (8 out of 10 do not recommend), this was probably as much detail about “how to play polo” my brain was capable of. So hard. But so much fun.
OMG. I cannot even begin to explain how this description barely scratches the surface.
All that is true (*something can be true without being the truth). I point my horse at the ball and I ride **fast(er). I swing the mallet and hit the ball (sometimes). I try not to commit fouls since all the fouls exist purely so that you don’t actually die or kill someone else in this insane sport.
But it is so much more.
*I shamelessly stole this line from Kristin Hannah’s book The Great Alone which I just finished.
**I’m trying. Please note that one of my recent books was Go Ride Far, not Go Ride Faster.
Ride and hit. Ride and hit. We can all agree those tiny words have so much behind them. But…. it misses a huge part of the game….it’s a team sport.
I’ve never been a team player. All the team sports I’ve ever played have been the type where you do your own thing and your score contributes to the over whole. I love supporting my teammates and watching them succeed. But I like doing it from the sidelines having “done my part” while doing it on my own.
That isn’t polo.
Ride and hit. Ride and hit. You only do that when you are up front and it’s your turn. Most of the game is defensive moves (sometimes you get to hit the ball), offensive plays (sometimes you get to hit the ball), and working as a team to make a goal (in which your contribution may or may not have been to hit the ball).
You know what people are who just think the sport is an individual ride and hit the ball? Labrador Retrievers.
Don’t be a Labrador Retriever.
Be a pack of wild hyenas. Or whatever is your choice of cooperative group of animals with a social structure that work together so that all may feast in the end.
The team aspect of this game is so hard. Passing, accepting passes, being where your teammates tell you to be, anticipating plays, hitting the ball where you told your teammates you were going to hit it, anticipating the other team and being in the right place at the right time to hook, ride off, and generally cause interference with their goals. A And let’s not forget the afore mentioned ride and hit part of this game. Actually being able to hit the ball when it’s time for you to hit the ball (!), all while mounted on a thousand pound animal that’s playing a game of its own – mostly polo but sometimes a game of their own choosing, just to make it interesting.
My brain is so tired after 2 or 3 chukkers – even practice ones – that I get stupid and slow. Completely overloaded by the mental work needed to put all the pieces together.
But I’m getting better.
On Wednesdays there’s an advanced practice and lesson.
About two weeks ago I worked up the nerve to ask the team whether I could come on a Wednesday because I needed an extra polo practice before I headed to the desert to play my first game and my first grass polo. They said yes, put me on an honest, broke horse and I did my best. Which was pretty awful, but everyone has to start somewhere.
This week I did another Wednesday lesson and I’ve gotten better.
Let’s be clear. I’m still an awful player. Terrible. There’s so many holes in my riding and playing ability for polo that I look like a fish net stocking.
But I’m improving and the Wednesday night coaches saw it too (!)
I’m basically not naturally good at anything (except standardized testing), but I put in the time and the work and try to stay coachable and it turns out that will get you a long ways, especially if you combine that with a bit of luck and a certain amount of completely inappropriate obsession and focus as only an ADHD mind can do.
So now that we’ve established that polo is far more than riding around and whacking a ball, what does it take to play polo?
It’s a game of rider fitness and flexibility and grip strength. Thank the stars that at 37 years old I’ve stayed reasonably fit and have kept on up cardio, weight training, and yoga. I’m probably one of the few parents in Fig’s gymnastics class that can still do some basic gymnastic skills, but popping off a few cartwheels, hand stands, and back bends ain’t got nothing on polo. Polo is asymmetrical sport full of twisting and bending and balance. In a biological body of use it or lose it (but for heaven’s sake don’t do anything irreparable), I’m pathetically grateful for how active I’ve stayed as I’ve gotten older. Unless you are 19 years old, you gotta schedule some rider conditioning time.
It’s a game of horse fitness and agility. We do these things called “sets.” Think of them as the during the week conditioning rides of endurance. Medium distance 20-60 minute walk/trot sets with a few canters thrown in once the horses are legged up in the season. There’s not enough time to actually get done everything you need to get done in polo, and you need a string of polo horses to play, so for added excitement these rides are done while ponying 1 or 2, or maybe 6 horses. ‘Cause you gotta leave time to actually practice polo.
But before you play you gotta work on some equitation between you and the horse. “Shortwork” is what they call it and it’s where you switch from endurance conditioning sets to a combination of western reining and dressage. It’s where you practice your stopping and turns and everything else that completely goes out the window when you actually start playing. There’s western-y stuff, which is a challenge because despite everything I’ve done on horseback, I’ve never done a western sport. Even that one time me and Farley did cow work it was in an english saddle and I basically just pretended in was endurance with the added benefit of cow obstacles. There’s roll-backs (about fell off the first time I asked a polo pony to do this and she obliged) and flying lead changes (bane of my existence unless the horse is a kind soul and offers). There’s cavalry drills (nice and familiar from my reenacting days), patterns reminiscent of gymkhana games, all done in an english saddle with zero knee rolls, short stirrups, and a prayer.
For people like me that are coming to polo from sports like dressage and endurance, there’s a lot of baggage that needs to be “unlearned” as well as learned. “You ride too pretty” is something I’ve heard half a dozen times over the last couple of months and I’m working on it. Stabilize with my knees, get my calf off the horse, stick my toes out, stop bracing, push my hand forward, and rotate my body sideways at all gaits – but mostly the canter and the gallop. STOP TROTTING…which is a tall order for a girl who learned how to ride on Standardbreds and then did endurance for a decade. I’ll pause while you laugh at the irony of this.
And then there’s the hitting. Always the hitting. Every time I “fix” something in my equitation or position my ability to hit the ball with the mallet completely disintegrates. Which means riding around by myself and doing “stick and ball” sessions practicing all the different hits and penalty shots.
Between all the sets, stick and ball sessions, short work, and rider fitness, make sure you’ve made time for drills and game strategy practice. Whew.
Now you can actually scrimmage and play some practice chukkers with you and 5-7 of your best friends. Yay!
It’s a lot.
And remember that polo is not a sport of a single horse. I’m learning to do this on a dozen different horses. And then being prepared to do on an unfamiliar horse I’ve rented and have 10 minutes to warm up and to get to know before it’s game time.
Which is perhaps the most succinct way to summarize simplified polo. Insanity.
My friend commented that while I appear to have wildly different athletic pursuits over time, the common thread seems to be my obsession with the ones that aren’t conducive to *open caskets.
There you have it. Polo in a nutshell.
P.S. *I mean…she’s not wrong. But I’m having a helluva fun time and so far have managed to mostly keep the unscheduled dismounts to a minimum and at least in a team sport there’s witnesses to call 911? so really, it seems just as safe as multi-hour conditioning rides into the wilderness alone……