One thing that I think it would be fair to say that I never expected to be doing in my life would be learning Polo. After all, I don’t particularly like horses and I’ve never ridden one before but it’s been awhile since I’ve experienced any sort of horsepower so I was happy to settle for even just one.
Besides all of that, Argentina is known as having the best Polo players and horses in the world, so if you are going to do it anywhere, this is the place!
We started with a quick briefing on the basic controls of the horse. The accelerator is a kick it the sides or the whip, the brakes are a pull on the reins and the steering is a combination of increasing your weight on one side or generally pulling the reigns in the hoped-for direction. Handling using either method was not a strong point with my horse. There is a 4 speed transmission gears with the gears also operated by a kick in the sides, each kick taking you up a gear from a walk, trot, canter and gallop. Reverse is difficult to engage and not pleasant for the horse or driver; just keep pulling on the reins and it will go backwards (sort of).
Driving position is also a tad uncomfortable with Polo saddles being the smallest of all horse saddles. Whilst this allows the rider plenty of latitude to hit the ball and move around on the horse, this makes balance a bit of an issue as you are not held in place at all. Compounding the balance issue is the fact that in addition to 2 sets of reins, you have to hold the whip in your left hand, leaving your right hand for the mallet. Note that that leaves no hands available for any balance and hanging on to the Jesus handle is certainly not an option, although I would have appreciated one!
Now all of this would be good if the horse gave a smooth ride, but they bounce around like a crazy thing with a slight roughness at a walk that turned into an incredibly bumpy ride at a trot and was almost out of control at a gallop. Speed was basically limited by how you can maintain balance (not long).
Oh, there is the added complication that a horse is not a machine, so does not necessarily respond in the way that you intend. In fact, they can tell if you don’t know what you are doing and can then be downright stubborn and refuse to do what you want, in my case my horse would refuse to turn right. The only way to correct this problem is to reboot the horse by getting off it and back on again, then driving it like you stole it. Horses are also equipped with an autopilot of sorts whereby if you don’t apply any controls for a period of time, it will automatically start heading off to where it’s friends and food are, cute.
Polo is a pretty simple game, one objective and only 1 rule, don’t cross the path of the ball. This one rule actually makes the game a bit more tactical than you might think, the left-only nature of my horse adding to the difficulty.
We paired-off in teams of boys vs girls (3 a side) with Fernando the very nice Argentinian Polo Player and instructor on the girl’s side. Of course Sharen’s combination of fearlessness and agression resulted in her scoring all 5 goals for the girl’s team leading them to a 5-4 victory over the boys (I only got one with my left turning horse).
The sport is so limited and generally exclusive because the horses can only play for 5 minutes each (by a pro) before they are exhausted and need to be replaced. This means that they need around 5 to 10 horses per game and apparently some of the best players have over 100 horses. Their limited playing time combined with the fact that the horses can only play for about 7 years of their 25 year useful life and the season is only a few months a year makes it a very expensive sport.
Over all we had a fantastic day and really enjoyed this novel sport and our introduction to horse riding, Fernando was a great instructor and if you’re ever in Buenos Aires you should give it a go!