Here there be dragons...

"I'm telling you stories. Trust me." - Winterson

Does playing the sport of kings make me a queen?

Polo... The sport of kings! Alas but I'm neither king nor queen and as such have never had the opportunity to play this fantastic sport. But then today, thanks to a wicked combination of Facebook and Groupon, I finally got that chance!

This story begins last summer -- Laura and I were discussing how much fun it'd be to try polo.   Sadly when I went home and researched, I decided it was prohibitively expensive and that dream was shelved.

Well a few months later a facebook acquaintance posted something asking if anybody was interested in a polo lesson -- I was one of several who responded positively.  And then nothing really came of it.  But a couple months after that, that same friend posted a link to GroupOn and tagged everybody who had expressed an interest in polo from her original post.  The link offered a variety of options -- but the one I liked was a semi-private polo lesson for $99.   Sweet.  Called Laura who was all for it and ordered the tickets.   Lesson had to be used by November.

But then show season hit.  And sailing.  And puppy class.  And general all-round insanity.  And we thought we had a good date but then Laura came off a young horse and was going to be off for six weeks *sigh*  So it got put on hold again.  But eventually we had a date that'd work for both of us and two sound riders.  Sweet.

And then, this morning, Laura's daughter was sick.  *sigh*  So being the good mom she is, she was out.  Too late at this point to reschedule as they polo guys require 48h for a make-up.  Which meant I was going regardless, but this kind of thing would be way more fun with a friend, so I put the word out.   I called my working students first but they were all working real jobs.  Imagine that >;-P    So then I called some of my riding friends -- most of them were busy too, but one was able to *very* quickly rearrange life to come play.  Woohoo!

So now polo...   Have you ever played golf?   How about ridden a dirt bike?  Played hockey?  How about all three at the same time?  Cause, well, that's pretty much polo.   hahaha - and have I mentioned I've never been successful at any of the above three sports?  Oh dear.

We started our polo lesson on the ground.  Definitely a wise move.  First step -- how to hold the mallet.  Stick your thumb through a loop, twist it around a few times, hook your hand between the loop and the mallet, and hang on.  Good to go.  Actually did make for a fairly secure hold.  From there we were introduced to each of the four swings.  Off-side fore, off-side back, near-side back, and near-side fore.  Ummm for the non-horse-people out there, off-side is right and near-side is left -- which in this circumstance seemed very backwards to me since the mallet is in the right hand and so the near-side is farthest away *g*  hahaha  Keep in mind, the mallet doesn't change hands -- so hitting the ball when it's on the near-side of the horse is a bit of a challenge.

So first one is hitting the ball forward when it's on the off-side (aka the right -- where the mallet is).  This one works pretty much as you'd expect -- the only challenge is that in the follow through you have to really make sure the mallet goes forward and doesn't arc around (ie golf).  Because if it arcs around, you'll hit your horse.  Boo on that.  Trickier was the second swing -- hitting the ball backwards when it's on the off-side.  Same general concept but with the theory that you've gone past the ball and are sending it the opposite direction.  I liked that one :)  Then the same two concepts on the near-side.  The forward one on the near side is all technique -- twisted at that angle, strength does very little good.  Jen got a good giggle at the fact that as soon as Janet (our awesome clinician) mentioned that one particular one was hard and not to expect to get it on the first day and isn't that the one I do best *g*.   Classic.  The easy ones otoh...  hahaha oh dear.

So we played that game for a while till we were deemed sufficiently well trained to get on a horse.

A wooden one.  hahaha seriously.  I so want one of these for the school.  When we were chatting earlier, Janet had mentioned she'd actually had people fall off said wooden horse -- this seemed really funny until I was leaning WAAAAAYYYYY off the side to hit a ball and suddenly realized *exactly* how one could end on the ground.  But I did manage to follow rule 1 on the wooden horse.

So we practiced swinging on the wooden horse a few times (poor Janet had to keep sending them back to us -- she could've used Sasha :) -- key details: the ground is a LOT farther away.  And don't hit the horse!

Got it.

Then way too early, time to get on a horse.  You've heard that before right?  Yeah but this time, it was a real live polo pony.   One just off the competitive season about to be turned out to gain pony fat.  One whose name I could hardly pronounce much less spell so...

First step - tack.  I was surprised the ponies weren't nearly as bubble-wrapped as I would've thought.  Polos (aptly named for once!) were the only leg protection (although in games they wear tendon boots and bell boots).  The bridle was a gag with double reins.  Martingale was the most intense I've ever seen -- leather was as thick as a usual stirrup leather.  But the fit was the same as I'd expect and all the tack was in good condition.  The breastplate had similarly intense straps, but again all well fitting and good to go.

The stirrup irons were also very thick -- at least double the traditional size.   My guess is to give you more security when you're leaning off the side!  No kneerolls on the saddle and I found the saddle balance tipped me very backward -- but when I was leaning off the side trying to hit the ball, I felt very secure, so my thought is they're balanced that way on purpose.  As with any riding sport -- trying to use the wrong saddle won't go well.  Jumping in dressage tack or dressaging in a jockey saddle are not impossible, but not easy either.   So while I felt off-balance at first in this one, it definitely worked for what we were doing :)

Stirrup length was between show-jump length and xc length.   You want your knee bent enough that you can move around, but enough leg to wrap around the horse and hang on!

And then the reins.  All four of them.   And unlike in a double bridle -- neither set is skinny.  Booo.  Even more unusual for me -- all four reins in one hand.  Fun :)  So Janet told us how to separate the reins and hold them all in one hand and reminded us that these horses neck rein and should be on essentially no contact.  Sweet.

Then the other difference -- steering is almost all rein aids.   My legs did very little to turn the horse and I will be forever grateful they don't respond to shifts in balance!   Can you imagine taking a top level dressage horse, one who'll swap leads at the slightest weight shift, and suddenly leaning so far off the side that you're parallel to the ground?  hahaha oh dear.  Can only imagine the reaction.   These ponies just held their line.  Very patient and very well trained.

Jen and I rode around for a bit hitting balls.  A couple challenges on a real horse -- the wooden one always faced forwards.  The live ones turn their heads!  Imagine that!  But how much does it suck when the horse turns to look at the mallet as you're swinging it!   Stopped just short of walloping my horse in the jowl.  Poor sainted pony :(   I would've been so upset.   But fortunately my swing really didn't have any strength behind it, so easy to stop it.  But that definitely made me even more hesitant as we were going.

Eventually though we were getting the hang of it and starting to read better how and where our horses would move and just generally getting more comfortable.   The ponies knew the game and would follow the ball after hitting it.  I thought that was pretty kewl.  Now you have to realize, both Jen and I are pretty type-A personalities.   I know, you're so surprised!  hahaha so of course as soon as we mastered (and by "mastered" I mean "were barely competent at") the basic skills we had to turn it into a game.   But we both acknowledged that chasing the *same* ball swinging mallets directly beside each other would probably not be a good idea for either us OR our sainted ponies, so we simply decided to race from one end of the arena to the other.  hahaha Jen won the first round and I won the second.  We were debating whether we should have a tie breaker when we ran out of time.   Probably for the best!

So yeah it was So. Much. Fun.  I haven't laughed that hard in ages.  I'm quite certain I'll be sore tomorrow, but totally worth it :)   I love any time I get to try something completely new (see the sailing posts :) but getting to do something completely new on horseback is a rarity for me and it was so very much fun.   And Janet was awesome; we were there quite a bit longer than we had actually paid for *g*   So the question for my GRS students is -- any interest in a clinic?   It's an hour - 1.5h away.  But so very entertaining!

Oh and as for the subject line -- the debate reigns re whether "the sport of kings" is polo or horse racing, but polo is the sport that actually counts multiple kings among its participants :)   So for the sake of my subject line, we're going with polo.


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