- When I was traveling in Argentina last month I thought it would be great to try my hand at the game of polo. I knew very little about the game except that Argentina has dominated the world in the sport for years.
Polo is arguably the oldest team sport dating back 2500 years in Persia. It was played in Central Asia and was picked up as a training method for the King’s elite cavalry. The game that was once a training exercise that evolved into the game we see today once the British picked it up in 1862. Having seen the sport in Manipur, India, the British brought the sport to the Western World. Rules have changed but the basics remain the same as when the game was invented in Persia 2500 years ago.
“The king of games is still the game of kings”
Learning the Basics
I have almost no experience riding a horse with the exception of horseback riding almost 20 years ago in grade school. Luckily Ruben, from the El Camino Polo Club, was there to teach us how to play. With a full day of polo ahead of me I paid close attention.
We started with some basic rules and exercises that any golfer would be comfortable with. Simply playing the game on the ground with a partner. This gave me a sense of confidence that would hopefully translate to when I was on the horse later that afternoon.
Watching My First Polo Match
Finally the action began as club members divided up into teams and began a full match. The first thing I noticed was how fast paced the game was. Of course, I had no expectations, having never watched a full game on TV or in person I did not know what to expect. I have only seen highlights and interviews of the best in the sport.
Watching the fast paced game is exciting in itself before even having the chance to get involved. We watched a full match and practiced in between periods, called chukkers, on the field without a horse.
The best part about polo is all skill levels can participate together, which is similar to golf. Every player is given a handicap. A 10 handicap is the highest skilled player in the match. Of course, Argentina has the most 10 handicap players in the world and they are consistently the best country in the world.
How Polo Handicap works
There are four players to a side numbered 1-4. Each player carries their own handicap. To make the game competitive you must add up the total of all four players handicaps. This number could be as high as 40, which is very rare. If one team totals 15 and the other 20, then the weaker team is given a five goal advantage. It is a simple as that and levels the playing field.
My Turn to Play
Finally, it was time to get in on the action. That day there were about 10 people learning to play along with me. Anyone with riding experience had the advantage but luckily we were all on the same skill level. I opted for one of the faster horses which I later regretted.
We split up into two teams of five and each team had a couple of set-up men to help keep the action moving. Ruben, the owner, and the trainers were in on the action as well. The game slowed to a much easier pace but it seemed quick to me. After about 20 minutes I got a feel for the horse and was able to maneuver with relative ease.
These guys are some serious athletes. Already hunched over and tired after about 20 minutes it was clear that I was not in shape for this sport. The players are up on their toes at all times and always ready for the next move. They are turning, striking the ball, and galloping at full speed. I had a new found respect for the sport these players made look so easy.
Any chance to actually fire a shot on goal was exciting. If you think golf is difficult, try playing it on the back of a speeding horse. It took a few swings and misses but eventually I was connecting with little effort. The key was to let the horse do most of the work and just focus on making contact with the ball.
The Fast Horse
I said I regretted taking the “fast” horse when they asked what type of horse I wanted. Well my first horse had a its own plans. After about 30 minutes with no issues and complete control he took off in a dead sprint for the stable. I used every bit of knowledge I had but there was no stopping him. He bolted straight off the field and took me for a ride. Luckily, I was comfortable being on a horse at this point and managed to hang on. He arrived at the stable and just stopped. I got off and swapped horses and that was that. For all I know it was probably something I did to piss him off.
Later I learned how much these horses run in a real polo match. They switch horses after every period of play. I assumed players had their favorite horse and road it for the entire match but that is not the case. The home team provides all of the horses for the match and they switch horses after every period. The fresh legs give a big advantage to the best players. The home team provides all of the horses to be sure everything is equal among the two teams.
Back in the action my new horse was great. I scored a few goals and attempted to take some photos riding him in.
Overall this was a great experience. This might sound like Argentina Polo Day offered this to me for a review, but that is not the case. This was simply an awesome experience. If there were more opportunities to play polo in the States I certainly would. It is a beautiful part of the country and a wonderful way to spend a day in Argentina.
Besides polo, the club cooks a full meal, offers bottomless wine, and amazing empanadas hot off the grill. Ruben is a one of a kind host and I recommend this to anyone regardless of experience. You will have a great time. They even offer spots for non-riders who just want to eat, drink, and watch polo which is not a bad way to spend the day.
For more info check out Argentina Polo Day.
And check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.