Learning to Play Polo: Part 5
The highs and lows of playing polo are real. I know I’m just getting started, but it’s already been a rollercoaster for me in my brief time learning to play the game.
My last post discussed the challenges of a recent lesson that didn’t go so well. That was definitely a low. I was frustrated with my poor performance on the horse. I felt like I was sliding off, couldn’t keep my balance, and was just all around not in the “zone”.
But this last lesson was different. I finally got to participate in my first few practice chukkers, and it was a blast. Not only did I enjoy myself more than any other time learning to play, but I also felt more confident and capable on the horse.
Before continuing, if you’re just joining me, feel free to click here to jump back to Learning To Play Polo: Part 1, where it all began!
In this article, I’ll share my takeaways from my first practice chukkers, specifically, how the horse will teach you how to play, some realizations about the relationship with the horse, and several lessons from actually playing.
How the horse will teach you how to play
Since I’ve started playing, I’ve been told by my friends and coaches that certain horses will teach you how to play polo. I never quite understood this statement and I just attributed it to certain horses being better trained than others. But now that I’ve actually been out on the field during a chukker, I know exactly what they mean.
As you’ll know by now, polo ponies are not your average horse. They don’t get frightened when a mallet comes up past their face, they don’t shy away from full contact with other horses and riders, and they not only anticipate but participate in chasing down the ball. That’s right, they actually chase the ball as well… keep in mind, this is not normal for a horse.
While the rider is still in “control”, the polo pony knows where you want to go. They are, afterall, the most important athlete on the field. And what kind of athlete doesn’t understand their field of play. So long as you’re not riding a green horse you should expect that your horse will be anticipating your actions and will be following the “pack” up and down the field.
With this in mind, I can honestly say that playing in the chukker was my best riding yet, because there was no question about the next moves. The horse was going where it needed to, and so long as I was able to anticipate those moves (as any average skilled athlete would be able to do) and then direct the horse as needed for the play, we were completely in sync. It was a great feeling!
Relationship with the horse
I definitely don’t consider myself an expert in animal psychology, and I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve got horses nailed down just yet. Who knows, maybe I never will. But I do think that I’m developing a better understanding of how to act and connect with the horse. And I’m attributing this to my time in, drum roll please, the boardroom.
Whether you’re trying to get other people to understand your ideas, participate in a discussion, or sit back and listen, there are a number of subtle cues to either deliver or observe. And I’m finding that a lot of the same cues, go a long way to helping the rider around the horse. Body language, clear and strong voice, clean and firm physical movements all attribute to the horse knowing that you are in charge, in the same way that these attributes communicate leadership and strength in business.
When I first started approaching the horses, this wasn’t as clear to me. I had the incorrect impression that horses were more like big pets. But as my lessons have progressed, I have continued to develop a better understanding of the way to approach horses and while this is continuing to evolve, I feel like this is at least an easy way for me to relate the horse and rider relationship to an area of life that I know very well.
What I learned from actually playing
It might sound obvious, as most things do in retrospect, but swinging the mallet and connecting with the ball is a lot easier when you don’t have 5 other horses racing down the field after the ball at the same time. But nonetheless, connecting is the objective and it is significantly harder while riding for the following three reasons:
1. Competing with other players to get into position
As a beginner, getting a horse into position for a perfect swing can be hard enough when you’re on the field by yourself. Add other team members and competitors to the mix and you’ll find that maneuvering becomes much more difficult. But the real challenge is that the ball is in motion, and you’re no longer just trying to make contact with a stationary object – you actually need to align yourself with the ball, while it’s moving, and get your horse to stay on the right line to give you a good chance of making contact.
2. Not knowing where the ball is coming from
As I’m a beginner, I played in position 1 during the chukkers. This essentially means that I’m at the head of the team as we charge down the field. The reason for this is pretty simple, if I miss a swing or a pass one of my teammates behind me will be able to pick it up – so it’s kind of like defense against your weakest offense.
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that I spent a lot of my time looking behind me trying to get a sense of where the ball is on the field. Sometimes it was easy to anticipate where the ball was going and other times it was more difficult. But in any case, knowing where and when to move to is critical, challenging, and all part of the fun.
3. Getting in position to be in position
Being at the front means that you’re looking for one of your teammates to pass a long ball forward to you. In order for you to take advantage of that as it happens, you need to be aware of where the play is happening behind you so that you can get a sense of where the play will move to as the pass comes forward. If you have a natural ability to anticipate where the play is moving, then this will come as second nature. But controlling the speed of the horse so you don’t overshoot the pass or don’t fall too far behind it is equally as important as being on the right line to get a swing off.
I like to think about the general concept of “sticking with traffic”, which when related to polo basically means that you keep pace with the rest of the pack. This will ensure that you don’t fall behind, but you also don’t get too far ahead that you take yourself out of the game. And while this might seem obvious, as a beginner it can be easy to think that you should just be trying to get as far ahead as possible in order to get in position to score. Instead, the focus should be positioning yourself for a pass so that your team has a chance to make a clean pass forward to you.
This is obviously a very high level take away from my first time playing practice chukkers. As I continue to play, I expect that these takeaways will expand greatly and maybe the ones that I have shared here will need to be updated to reflect better knowledge of the sport and riding. In any case, I’m still a beginner, and I’m loving every minute of the process of learning how to play polo.
If you’re in the process of learning how to play, let me know if there is anything that you missed in the comments below. If you are not playing but you’re considering it, let me know what’s stopping you from taking the plunge.
Until next time!