If charging 550kg of horse flesh, in the saddle, at a combined speed of 112mph, armed with a mallet and with only a natty polo shirt for protection doesn’t sound extreme to you, then you may need to recalibrate your concept of ‘tough’. OK, so the Champers-quaffing spectators arriving in high-end motors to Polo Clubs do create a preconception of the sport as upper-crust, but this equine endeavour is on the rise again, so maybe it’s time to take an open-minded look?
RISING visited the brand new Cortium Sports Polo Club in leafy West Sussex, in the UK countryside, to be schooled in the noble art of mallet-swinging by England international and pony trainer Malcolm Borwick, who plays in the Maserati Polo Tour and is an ambassador for Maserati GB.
Pale Rider On A Horse
For the record RISING has only ridden horses once before, and that was in a barn, so we couldn’t have been a much greener recruit. Fortunately Malcolm Borwick is used to this, and we spend quite a lot of time getting used to handling a polo mallet before we even see a horse.
Stood atop a pile of straw bales, doing my best bandy-legged John Wayne impression, I’m handed a 50+inch mallet and told to practice swings without hitting the bales, AKA the horse’s legs, using my right hand. At first it’s surprisingly difficult and my left-handedness doesn’t help. I’m told Britain’s Prince William has the same issue – you can’t play polo left-handed because you have to know which side of the horse your opponents are going to be swinging a skull-cracking mallet into. ‘If you hit a horse between the eyes it’s lights out,’ says Borwick.
‘Polo is a contact sport – I’ve had a broken shoulder, broken leg, hematomas on the spine’
Modern polo has its roots in British Cavalry combat training, adapted from an ancient Persian sport. It was an ideal match for the life-or-death reliance on speed, manoeuvrability and timing of war on horseback, except that rather than using a sword to lop the heads off unfortunate foot soldiers, you’re whacking a ball on the ground with an oversized hammer. ‘Polo is a contact sport,’ says Borwick matter of factly. And he should know. ‘I’ve had a broken shoulder, broken leg, hematomas on the spine.’
The biggest risk to rider and horse is falls – when you’re travelling at up to 56mph, using the ground to stop is a bad idea. ‘We probably work on five falls a year, and from those five falls one of them might be serious. We're not wearing back protectors or inflatable jackets if we fall off. This is us putting ourselves on the line, which is why it is the most phenomenal sport adrenaline-wise,’ says Borwick.
I can see exactly what he means once my straw bale training is over and I swing up onto a polo pony for the first time. It’s a long way to the ground from up here, and this would be a lot of horse to fall on top of me. Borwick tells me to forget the usual ‘push pull’ on the reins – instead polo ponies are taught to respond to ‘joystick’ control. Excellent, my PS4 skills should come in handy here – and I’m shocked by just how responsive this animal is to relatively small inputs; left, right, forwards, even backwards with hardly any lag!
‘They are trained to be the most manoeuvrable, fastest accelerating – the most precise example of an equine athlete. They have to run like a racehorse, stop like a cutting horse, turn on a sixpence. They have to have this incredible athleticism,’ says Borwick.
Getting The Hang Of Joystick Control
I gently press my heels in and the animal moves forwards, facing off against my opponents. But here things start to get sticky. Either riding a horse, or hitting a ball, or anticipating where your opposite number is going to be, is fairly straightforward; but putting them all together is mentally overloading. And then there’s the physical challenge. Maintaining your position on the horse while rotating your shoulders into a swing, before using your core strength to lean down, strike and recover without toppling off is a real workout. ‘There is very little training that you can do for polo, because you’re using every single muscle in your body. You've got all of your stabilising muscles for your riding, you’ve got all your big muscles for the levers, for the swing, and you've got all your reaction muscles for the finesse of the ball,’ says Borwick.
‘Our hands are physically shaking and that level of adrenaline is what makes polo the most attractive sport to play’
I now understand why there’s a rule in polo where you are not allowed to cross the line of the ball struck by your opponent – this would be a recipe for a very messy high-speed pile-up. When contact occurs between riders, it’s parallel; shoulder to shoulder. ‘We are obviously using the horse for a lot of contact. Actually if you're into that physical fight with someone on a polo field it's probably because you're out of position. We try and dominate position earlier. If you can anticipate where your opponents are going and get field position on them, you shouldn't have to have that physical contact,’ reveals Borwick.
Inevitably the margins for error at 50mph are tiny, as Borwick knows. ‘We are judging the speed and distance, judging between crossing over the back legs of the horse in front; we’re measuring it down to inches. We get it wrong and it's not the horse’s fault, it's our fault. If you get it wrong you can get that equivalent of a tap tackle effect.’
I’m starting to see that timing is everything in polo. ‘The faster you go, the earlier you start your swing because you have to hit that timing spot,’ says Borwick. ‘That timing spot gets smaller and smaller and smaller. Whereas in golf you have a static position every time and your rhythm is dictated by your own swing, in polo because that rhythm is dictated by the speed of the horse, you have to be very precise with your timing.’
When I do get the timing right, the feeling of a sweet swing, striking the ball perfectly while on the move, is majestic. I can see how it could get addictive. ‘The adrenaline that's coursing through your veins when you're playing polo at a high level is only explicable by a physical reaction. You look at what’s happening to your body in a pause between chukkas; our hands are shaking, like physically shaking, and that level of adrenaline is what makes polo the most attractive sport to play,’ says Borwick, who has played 50 times for England. ‘Once I was lucky enough to be in the position to score the winning goal with 30 seconds to go. Likewise, once I've been in a position to have a penalty, to take the game to overtime and not score it. I've lived in those two extremes, playing for my country.’
‘There are local polo clubs where you can turn up, pay £50, and get given your boots for a lesson’
Turf War Isn’t Just For The Toffs
I’m assuming that Borwick must have been brought up with the sport to get into the top flight? ‘My parents didn’t play polo, my father didn't play polo, so don't let any preconceptions about the sport stop you doing it.’ But what about the elitist reputation? ‘This sport is welcome to everybody and anybody,’ says Borwick. ‘Everyone from princes to blacksmiths play polo, and that’s how we want the sport to be seen. There are local polo clubs where you can turn up, pay £50, you'll get given your boots, everything there on site and that will be your polo lesson. It’s accessible.’
By the end of my first polo training session I have to agree. I may have arrived in a Maserati (not my car) and played a sport of Princes and Kings, but I never felt out of place. And once you’re on a horse, wielding a mallet with intent, all the preconceptions melt away. Besides, there’s something about hammering along a perfectly groomed polo field in the summer sunshine, to put in all on the line, that gets your blood going and feels glorious. It’s civilised, but it’s a battle all the same…
WHAT NEXT? ‘Find your local polo club, ring them up and ask to go for a lesson. If not, get in touch with me directly and I’ll give you a lesson,’ says Borwick – just watch out for the steep learning curve and stick with it for the rewards. ‘Day one, you'll feel that you don't make any progress. Day two you'll be five per cent better, and then it gets easier and easier. By the end of your sixth lesson you’ll know that you can do it.’
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.