x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Not easy to swing like a king

It took all of just one hour, instead of the usual three weeks, to get a proper hang of a royal pastime known as polo.

It is important to first learn how to use the mallet and strike the ball so the horse does not get hit in the head or rear, writes our columnist. Pawan Singh / The National
It is important to first learn how to use the mallet and strike the ball so the horse does not get hit in the head or rear, writes our columnist. Pawan Singh / The National

I was sceptical to say the least. Learn polo, the invite said. In one afternoon. For someone whose knowledge of horses extended no further than attending the Dubai World Cup, this sounded too good to be true.

But there I was, standing on the lush front lawns of Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, where next week the inaugural Coutts Polo at the Palace will take place, about to be fast-tracked into becoming a polo player.

"It usually takes three weeks to learn," said our instructor of polo's basics. "We'll try and do it in an hour."

Morale suitably raised by that misplaced vote of confidence, I was handed a disclaimer form which I assumed stated that I knew what I was getting myself into. I didn't. Still, this was no time to nitpick, so without giving it a proper read, I duly signed on.

For level of competency on a horse, I awarded myself, somewhat generously I thought, a solid zero out of 10.

The first step was to learn the proper technique on how to strike the ball. Before going anywhere near a horse, and using the wooden mallets – they are mallets, not sticks – we were instructed on the "pendulum motion" needed to hit the ball cleanly.

This is vital for two reasons. First, to actually be able to make contact with the ball and hence qualify as a polo player. Second, and perhaps far more importantly in my humble opinion, to ensure that the horse does not get whacked in the head or rear, actions we were told would not be taken to kindly by our equine friends. With varying degrees of incompetence, this stage was completed.

Next, still with no horse in sight, came a brief explanation of formations and tactical manoeuvres. This struck me as an ambitious, possibly futile, exercise from our admittedly excellent and friendly instructors.

Then came the big moment; our introduction to the polo ponies.

A caution to those whose grasp of polo vernacular is not strong; these magnificent – I think I am legally required to use this adjective – creatures are no ponies. At least not in the traditional "daddy, can I please have a pony" sense that popular culture has perpetuated. They are fully grown, lean-looking thoroughbreds.

The folly of not reading the small print became apparent, as it invariably does, too late.

Putting on my protective helmet I could not help think, inspired by a succinct Jerry Seinfeld observation, that should I go flying off this falsely advertised "pony", it would be the helmet wearing me for protection rather than the reverse.

It is only fair to point out that Jasmine, my polo pony for the afternoon, did not look overly pleased to see me, either. The awkward introduction over, I mounted the gorgeous-looking horse.

Despite the instructor's efforts to play down the role of the horses in polo ("This is not a horse riding sport"), for those of us experiencing the saddle for the very first time, this was what it is all about.

Wariness had long given way to excitement. We were assured that the horses were some of the best trained around, and short of being hit by a reckless swing, are unlikely to go rogue and gallop off into town.

Sure enough, the instructions were impeccable. A lean forward and a gentle kick, and Jasmine marched ahead. A lean back and a pull on the reins, and she stopped in her tracks. Several stronger kicks and we broke into a trot. This was wonderful.

As we alternated between "stand" and "sit" positions, spirits were further raised by the encouraging words of the experts.

Finally, it was time to marry our swinging and our riding skills. The results were mixed, and thanks to a lack of time, skill and, let's not be coy here, courage, Jasmine was spared any genuine harm.

Having heard one instructor's shout of "very good", my work was done. It was time to bid Jasmine farewell.

On November 23 and 24, she, along with some of the world's best polo players, will be strutting her stuff in front of no more than 1,000 lucky spectators on the West Lawn in the Palace Gardens of Emirates Palace.

The sport of kings, the Persians, who introduced polo to the world, called it.

We may not have mastered it in an afternoon, but at least we got a small glimpse into what it feels like to play one of the most exclusive and exciting sports around. A royal treat, indeed.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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