It’s not every day that you get the chance to learn how to play polo like a pro, and even less so at the prestigious Guards Club, so I jumped at the opportunity. We had been invited for a taster session before the Land Rover Duke of Cornwall Trophy Final and kindly been lent a Range Rover Sport to test drive for the weekend. The first thing we noticed about it was the roomy boot and sense of spaciousness inside, increased by the panoramic roof. There are actually 2 additional flat-fold seats in the boot, that spring into place at a touch of a button.
The Range Rover was equipped with some gadgets that James Bond would no doubt enjoy, from the colour mood lighting options to the dual-view touchscreen. While I watched TV and DVDs, Paul was able to use the Sat Nav system. There was a nifty head up display projecting our speed and other data onto the driver’s windscreen and a blind-spot assist anti-collision system. We found the dual USB phone charger really handy and the console cooler compartment would be great for picnics.
We put our car through its paces in the Cotswolds, where its sleek good looks fitted in perfectly…The Range Rover Sport is the world’s first diesel hybrid SUV with complete off-road capability and the fuel economy was really impressive.
Next we headed to see family in Devon, where it was raining hard. The legendary road handling came into its own as we drove through flooded streets. The next day the rain had thankfully stopped and we headed towards Windsor Great Park, where the iconic Guards Polo Club is located.
It’s an absolutely stunning part of the country with some beautiful flowers lining the drive through the park. There’s actually a Guards Polo Academy at nearby Coworth Park where you can learn how to play polo, but we were to play on the hallowed grounds themselves. It’s very rare, and even more so just before a proper polo tournament.
We got kitted out in stylish polo shirts from La Martina and I admired the perfectly tailored blazers. To play polo, you need tight jodhpurs or trousers, a boot with a low heel, a polo shirt as well as a stick. Paul had chosen an appropriate belt 😉
We were introduced to Max Charlton, one of the top polo players in Britain, playing off a handicap of 7 goals. Polo works a bit like golf in that all players have a handicap and the ultimate goal is a handicap of 10. Max is a Land Rover Ambassador and took time out from his busy schedule to show us how to play polo for the day. I haven’t ridden for a few years so was intrigued to see how it would pan out.
There are 4 players on each polo team and the matches or “chukkas” as they are known, last from 7 to 7 ½ minutes each. Max started with a demonstration of how to hit the ball, making it look incredibly easy, before revealing his ‘keepie uppie’ skills!
Now it was time for us to have a go as we practiced hitting a polo ball. It felt a bit like playing golf except that you hit it with the side of the stick and with your right hand only, an interesting challenge for a left-hander like me. Afterwards we had a go at hitting the ball while seated on a stationary wooden horse. Mastering this technique took quite a while. It wasn’t too hard making contact with the ball but hitting it hard took some practice.
When we managed to do this, it was time to try on the real thing. My pony was a patient soul who coped admirably with my haphazard efforts learning how to play polo.
Thankfully they gave us large orange balls to play with rather than the small white ones we’d been hitting earlier. Even so, doing this from a moving horse was tough! Leaning down is easier than you think though. After our session, we had an opportunity to interview Max, which proved to be a fascinating insight into the world of a professional polo player.
You’ve been playing polo since you were 12 but what first drew you to the sport?
When I was 12 years old my parents were having their house renovated and the architect owned polo club, in turn he asked me to go and have a polo lesson and the passion has stemmed from then. I had ridden before however only at a very basic level equivalent to Pony Club level.How many ponies do you have and what do you look for when buying a new one?
I have 18 horses at any one time. Every year buy 2/3 new horses and sell 2/3. They are all currently based at Black Bears yard in Henley On Thames, however I will be moving from them next year as I will no longer be playing for Black Bears.
How do you prepare for a match, physically and mentally?
Throughout the year I physically partake in light polo training. On game day, my daily routine consists of a fairly relaxed start at the stables, where I will prepare my horses at 08:00 and leave by 09:30 to go home, have an early lunch and a rest prior to returning the the location the game will be taking place at 1 hour 30 minutes prior to the game commences. Within this hour and a half I will prepare the horses and pull together the horse list as to who I will ride in the game. I will take around 8/9 horses to each game, and will change them in between and at the end of Chukkas. I can’t do anything out of routine on game day.
What is your ultimate goal and what are you focusing on to achieve this?
When commending my career I always wanted to become the highest rated English polo player which I am delighted to now have achieved. I am now aiming to be in a good high goal team in England. I will always be based here in the UK, however my career means that I am abroad playing polo about 5 months out of the year. Each time I am away I tend to be abroad for 2 weeks at a time, and am mainly abroad in the winter months. I am currently playing in the French Open, which is the last polo match of the season. The final is on the 18th September, at the start of April the polo season and start up tournaments will commence.
Next we enjoyed a drinks reception in the Clubhouse, followed by a traditional asado lunch. Asado is an Argentinian barbecue, traditionally served at polo games. The meat was cooked to perfection and accompanied by a tasty chimichurri sauce.
Now it was time for the main event, the Land Rover Duke of Cornwall Trophy Final. The 16-goal tournament was extremely fast paced. Its one of the rare sports where players change ends every time that a goal is scored.
For the first seven minutes, there were no goals as the teams were so evenly matched. At half time, we had fun stomping the divots, as tradition dictates. In the end, Aron Hariela’s team claimed a 6-5 victory over Kola Karim’s Shoreline team.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how much of a family sport polo is – whilst Andrew Robb, a Director of Jaguar Land Rover, presented the trophies, many of the players were accompanied by their children. Another polo tradition is the awarding of a prize to Best Playing Pony, scooped by Julieta, a nine year old mare. It was a charming end to an exhilarating day learning how to play polo. I really enjoyed getting back in the saddle although I won’t be outplaying the professionals anytime soon ;-).
Have you ever ridden a horse or learnt how to play polo?