Jo Hughes finds it’s not so hard to get in to the sport of polo
President Obama’s choice of a wooden polo mallet for Prince George’s first birthday was seen as the perfect gift for a royal baby. But when Prince George grows up enough to join the family tradition and play the Sport of Kings, he may find it has changed a great deal.
If current trends are anything to go by he definitely won’t only be mixing with kings or princes.Women are taking up the sport in growing numbers - and you don’t have to be a princess to take part. To play polo today all you need is the nerve to take the first step into an adrenalin filled world and join in the exhilarating ride.
With the number of polo clubs in the UK having doubled in the last decade, and new members registering all the time, it is one of the fastest growing sports and now accessible to all. You may still end up drinking Champagne with the rich and famous and you will definitely meet some awe-inspiring riders, but to join in you don’t have to own a pony, or any equipment.
In fact, according to Claudia Aylott of the White Rose Polo Club, you don’t even have to know how to ride. The club, at Townend Farm, North Cliffe, is the largest in Yorkshire. It was set up by Claudia’s husband Hedley Aylott, who fell in love with the game after playing it just once on a ‘red letter day’ he was given as a present.That was ten years ago and ever since then he has made it his mission to promote polo in Yorkshire.
Today the White Rose Polo Club has 60 ponies, lots of staff, a coach and professional player and its own polo pitch where chukkas are played at least three times a week. It regularly hosts tournaments including the Yorkshire Open Championship, The Summit Cup, and the Ladies Open Tournament.
It offers hen parties, birthday parties and corporate days, as well as private and group lessons for experienced and non-experienced riders, and by the end of every lesson, everyone ends up playing a chukka.
Just over half of the members of the White Rose Club who have signed up since it was started are women.Some of them did not even know how to ride when they first started attending, but says Claudia, like her they caught the polo bug.
“You can learn to ride just as you would for polo. Some people learn very quickly. It is addictive, once people have one lesson they want to come back. I have never had a lesson where anyone ever said they did not like it. All you need for a lesson is to wear is sensible shoes, a hat, and a mallet,” she says.
Beginners, for example at a hen party, will start off learning how swing the mallets, have a go on a wooden horse, then on a real one, and finish up having a go at playing, leaving aside time for strawberries and Champagne.
“Lots of ladies are attracted because it is competitive, ladies are very competitive,” she laughs. “I think for ladies the attraction is there anyway. A lot of ladies love horses, and some who come have got to a certain stage where they have tried eventing, or dressage, and this is something different, this is a team sport, and highly competitive. It is an exhilarating sport, it is challenging, it is a real skill, it takes time to get good, and you always feel you have more to learn. It’s a team sport, and it’s fun!”
Polo is one of the few sports where both sexes can and do play together. They are both rated together on a handicap scale, and final scores take the discrepancy into account. For club member Joan Gough, 55, this is another of the attractions of the sport; “You can all be completely equal, men and women, and all ages.” After giving up riding for thirty years she took it back up again eight years ago and joined the club: “It becomes part of your family life,” she says.
There is definitely an air of jollity around the women who play polo. Similar to any high-adrenaline, challenging sport, it brings you to life, it makes you fit, and it makes you feel happy. And of course there is the added attraction of the horses. The sport is all about speed, and whilst the stocky Argentinian polo ponies are very fast and tough, there is a growing trend to use retrained racehorses.
The White Rose Club retrains thoroughbreds from some of the many nearby racing yards in Yorkshire. In one chukka, which is one quarter of the match, the ponies could run one to two miles, so they have to be rested. You can’t play a pony in more than two chukkas and these can’t be consecutive. For Suzanne Hart this is the attraction of polo, it is all about “battling with another sentient being” .
She describes herself as “a bit older than 55” and is one of the women who took up riding in later life, seven years ago, and began to play polo. “Polo is a challenge, it is a chance to get right out of your comfort zone, it stretches you in every way, it gives your heart a scare every day, it is frightening… I love it!” she says.
• In a match there are four chukkas, one chukka lasts seven and a half minutes, you can’t play a pony in more than two chukkas and they can’t be consecutive.
• The Argentine polo pony is a cross between a thoroughbred and a Criollo. Lately retired racehorses are being retrained to play polo. High goal teams like thoroughbreds because they are so fast.
• High Goal Team describes a team whose players have a high-grade handicap. The lowest handicap grade is S and it rises through -2,-1, 0, to 10.
• There are only a few 10 goalers in the world, and most of them are Argentinian. Members of the English team would be 7 or 8, the best woman player has a handicap of 4, anyone over 2 is often a professional player.
• Teams are handicapped by adding up the score, this makes it a level playing field for scoring, the discrepancy is shown on the score board, so for example there may be a one goal head start for a poor handicap.
• The aim of the game is to score as many goals as possible, after each goal ends the direction of the players changes.
• Each player has a job in the team, for example Number 1 scores goals, Number 4 passes balls forward and defends the goal.
• The mallet swings like a pendulum, and you hit the ball, which is made out of hard plastic and about the size of an orange, with the middle of the mallet.
• At the end of each chukka you have two and a half minutes to change over to new horses.
• The cost of a private polo lesson at the White Rose Polo Club is £55.
• White Rose Polo Club offers a Zero to Hero six lesson course for £250, which promises to teach you from scratch, even if you can’t ride, to get to a level called constructional chukkas. Constructional chukkas is polo where you are taught as you go along. You can then join the Polo Club.
• There are more than 70 polo clubs in the UK, a figure that has doubled in a decade, and some 3,000 registered players. There has also been a dramatic increase in young enthusiasts, with more than 1,500 school and university players registered nationwide.