Yes, you read that right! I took a polo lesson on a posh polo ranch about an hour’s drive south of Buenos Aires. Cos you know, when in Argentina…
We arrived at the gates of Puesto Viejo Estancia & Polo Club to be cleared by the gateman before winding our way past the stables where horses were being groomed for the tournament being played here that afternoon. Looking across the flat fields we drove past a summer house with an infinity pool. Guests can stay here for polo lessons or matches and in between thundering around the paddock they can recline by the pool.
Finally we arrived at the 10-room hotel and restaurant where coffee was served and we learned about the world of polo playing.
Julio, our instructor with the foppish hair that seems to be the uniform for polo players, passed around our waivers to sign declaring that any injury, lesion (!) or death was my responsibility.
Then off we went to the stables for a look around at some of the 300 horses and ponies being attended to by their grooms.
And therein lay my first lesson: the difference between a horse and pony is height. The latter being under 14.2 hands, or 147cm.
But before we could mount our mounts, we needed a lesson on how to use the polo mallet (not stick, fyi). Of course they are long, so one must stand on a plastic stool with the strap looped over the thumb and around the back of the hand to create a strong grip, then whack! I mastered it surprisingly well (anyone who knows my sporting prowess will recoil at this). Keep your eye on the ball is really the only thing you need to remember.
Then we were off to watch the pros in their training game before the afternoon’s tournament. It was quite an eye opener as horses thundered past and shrieks punctured the air as goals were narrowly missed and shouts of jubilation and other instructions in Spanish were flung across the paddock.
And now it’s time.
Our ponies have been trotted over and our gear is laid out on the ground. This includes a helmet, chaps to be strapped around the calves, a whip (which was merely a prop I think) and the mallet.
I stood on a tree stump and one of Julio’s helpers gave me an extra push to get me into the saddle. First hurdle crossed.
My girl is grey and shakes her head quite a lot at my arrival. She has no mane, all the ponies have been clipped and her tail is in a plait. She’s very patient with me. These animals have been in the game for at least seven years before they take to the field. They need patience and the right attitude to become polo players. A bit like me.
Julio throws some of the plastic balls into the field and we practice our coordination. Reins and whip in the left hand, held in the centre above the mane, and mallet in the right.
So sensitive are these beauties that the slightest lean either side with my rein hand and I was turning. Whether I intended to or not. Invariably it was not. Mastering the turning was actually the hardest part for me! My poor girl would have me pull her head one way but put my knee in and give her a gentle kick the other. I confused her so often she would just stop and wait for me to pull myself, and her, together.
The next difficulty was not so much eye/ball coordination, but knowing how far to lean over while keeping the reins centred to continue straight and actually the hit the ball. This involves swing timing too of course.
Finally Julio says it’s time for a quick game. The rain had been passing over and the skies looked ominous.
He created a short field and divided us into two teams of four each (we had one of his grooms as our leader) and off we went!
It was hilarious. Mostly because our ponies knew exactly who we were and just ambled about the field with no speed. They know the rules better than we do though and I got into the front with the ball and was dribbling it towards the goal. None of my opponents were in sight. Probably still trying to turn around.
Learning to play polo in Argentina was a Bucket List event that I didn’t even realise should have been on there. It was fabulous fun, easy to pick up and I’d thoroughly recommend it.
Puesto Viejo Estancia and Polo Club offers training for novices through to professionals. They even have a live-in training program for the guys who keep their horses here year round.
Come out for a polo day or just a few hours like we did, watch a game, have a ride and end with lunch.
Air New Zealand will fly direct from Auckland to Buenos Aires from December 2015. Tickets go on sale end of March/early April and the flight will be about 12 hours.