People often talk about bucket lists – that is, things we want to do before we’re, well, dead. Yours might be to climb Machu Picchu, restore an MGB or go on a cattle drive a la Billy Crystal in City Slickers. My own bucket list includes learning to surf and playing polo.
In truth, surfing might be beyond me because, despite swimming lessons (twice) and earning my open-water PADI scuba-diving certification, I remain terrified of the power of the ocean. The very idea of “shooting the curl” makes my head feel like it’s kind of lifting off. That hasn’t prevented me from dreamily rewatching The Endless Summer and Blue Crush many times.
Recently, however, playing polo did get checked off my list.
Did you know that the Houston Polo Club offers polo-playing lessons? The full-out deal is every Tuesday evening and Saturday morning for eight weeks and costs $3500 (which includes $1300 for the horse rental). Kids ages 10 to 17 have their own school for $3250.
If the eight-week school is too much of a time commitment, do as I did and take a Saturday morning polo clinic: two hours of learning to swing a mallet and handle a horse in a covered corral with deep soft sand. There’s even a practice cage for perfecting your swing.
Last Saturday morning five other wannabe polo players and I met at the polo club office, signed off on the personal-injury waivers and were divided into two groups according to our horsemanship. Viggi, Carlos and I were assigned to the B group under the direction of instructor Jorge Estrada.
The clinic began with us learning to swing a 34-inch “foot mallet,” which is a short mallet used for practicing your swing on the ground (or “on foot”) and loosening up. Here’s the first lesson: You don’t use the blunt end of the mallet to strike the ball as you would in croquet. Rather, you strike the ball with the broad side of the mallet.
At the top of the mallet is a handle strap that is wrapped around the hand, presumably so the mallet doesn’t go flying should it slip from your grasp. Jorge patiently explained and repeatedly demonstrated how the strap wraps around the hand and the hand wraps around the handle: fingers snugly set, thumb relaxed.
When it’s time to swing, the whole body turns to the right – polo may be played only with the right hand, sorry lefties – and forms a plane that you swing along. You strike the ball with a slight upswing, which makes it less like swinging at a baseball with a bat and more like driving a golf ball. Viggi, the golfer in our trio, instantly understood how to swing his mallet.
After a few minutes of hitting balls with the foot mallet, we were ready to take our turn on a metal “horse” in the practice cage. Bravely, Jorge entered the cage as each of us took our respective turn swinging a 54-inch mallet at high-impact fiberglass balls, resetting balls to be within our reach. The airborne balls hit the metal fencing and fell down into a clever wooden trough that sent the balls rolling back down to us, kind of like the baseball pitch game at a carnival.
After a dozen or so swings each, we were deemed ready for real horses and walked to the nearby tin-roofed corral where our mounts were waiting for us and senior polo instructor Mark Prinsloo took over our education. We were each given a helmet and assigned a horse.
Polo ponies are technically horses, not true ponies; they are usually Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred/quarter horse crosses. There is no height limitation, but most are 15 to 15.3 hands. Little Red was not the tallest horse I’ve ever been on, but she seemed tall as an elephant as we were instructed to lift out of the saddle, brace our core, twist to the right (to create our plane) and lean far out and over to swing at the ball. Oh, and guide the horse with the left hand and knees.
This time we were swinging at larger, lighter balls, something like a wiffle ball. This was obviously for the safety of our fellow students and instructors, though none of us managed to do much more than skim the ball across the ground several feet. Or, in my case, miss the ball entirely and bash poor Little Red with my mallet. On subsequent attempts, I did finally manage to nudge the ball across the goal line. It was slow and ugly, but I believe that, technically, yes, it was polo.
I have attended many polo matches over the years – we have our own box at the club – and I’ve always loved this horsey sport that is played at terrifying speed. I love everything about it: the fearless athleticism of the players, the muscled horses with their plaited tails, sheared manes and glossy coats. I would never say it looked easy, but I can tell you that it is 100 times harder than it looks. I’ll never sniff at a missed swing again.
And, just maybe, there is still a surfboard in my future. If I can hit a polo ball – albeit at a slow amble — perhaps I can yet hang 10.
* Although the word “club” is in its name, the Houston Polo Club is open to the public for Sunday matches during the spring and fall seasons. For more information about attending a polo clinic or arranging a private clinic for your group, call 713-681-8571 ext 101, or visit houstonpoloclub.com.