Quick and agile, polo ponies can gallop at 35mph and turn on a sixpence. At least that’s what I’m told. First, I need to master riding with one hand and hitting the blasted ball with the other, if I’m ever to progress beyond walking speed.
I miss the ball yet again, even though my mare is barely moving. Feeling sorry for myself, I dismount and skulk off to the Polo Bar for a consolation cocktail.
“Beginner’s luck!” I shout, as I watch my husband wallop the ball halfway down the pitch. Tomorrow’s another day, I decide, while watching the ‘real’ players galloping up and down.
I’ve come to Desert Palm PER AQUUM, a 160-acre estate in Dubai, to learn the so-called ‘sport of kings’ — but so far it’s been an exercise in frustration. However, my hotel’s facilities are a suitable compensation: it’s a boutique spa resort. It’s hard to believe I’m only 20 minutes from those famous desert skyscrapers, when the view from my suite is one of the three manicured grass pitches, flanked by palm trees and bougainvillea in full bloom. Nearby, 200 horses graze in lush paddocks, sleep in air-conditioned stables and snack on hay imported from Holland, tended to by a team of grooms.
Desert Palm is home to the Dubai Polo Club, and its accommodation was built to host players during the polo season, from October to May. The resort attracts all manner of tourists and expats, and while some are skilled equestrians, you don’t need to know how to ride to give polo a go. Just book a week-long course to learn to ride one-handed and swing a mallet, or take individual lessons or instructional ‘chukkas’.
Coach Matias is a former pro Argentinian player who has a handicap of four (that’s good). He’s adamant I must master the correct technique at a walk before we move up to a canter, so I patiently weave up and down the 270-metre pitch until I can perfect a fluid, straight swing and loft and dribble my ball a feeble 10-20 metres.
The top players can whack it up to a hundred, but Matias is drilling us on consistency over power. We’re taught to stand up in the saddle and lean down to hit the ball, and by the second lesson we’re miraculously cantering, albeit at a speed of around 5-10mph.
My mare, Milonga, is a seasoned polo player, and I’m told she won’t mind if I ride her into an opponent to gain the ball (unlikely), or hang precariously out of the saddle to strike an offside shot (if only). However, after a lot off loping around, things begin to click, and I manage to hit the ball the length of the pitch into an undefended goal.
With lessons over, we watch a game with several pros. The intensity is such that horses are changed for fresh ones after each seven-minute chukka; players need a string of ponies to compete. And while it’s good to know you needn’t be a prince to learn to play, with polo ponies costing between £11,500 and £115,000, it’s certainly not a game for paupers.
Pitch: Typically, a 270-metre-long field
Goals: Scored when a white ball is hit through posts at each end of the pitch. Ends are changed after every goal
Timings: Matches are divided into ‘chukkas’, each lasting up to seven minutes. A match can consist of four to eight chukkas
Right of way: An imaginary line along which the ball travels, established by the player who hits the ball. No opponent may cross that line, or a penalty is given
Getting the ball: Players can get the ball off of their opponent by using their horse to push them out of the way. They can also hook their opponent’s mallet
Dubai’s Desert Palm Per Aquum resort offers lessons and instructional chukkas from October to May. Rooms from £190 a night, polo from £160 per class with better value week-long packages available. minorhotels.com poloclubdubai.com
More info: The Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA)
Published in Experiences 2017, published with the Jul/Aug 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)