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Polo on a boot string

The absolute essentials for entering the game of Polo
Article by Peter J. Rizzo reprinted courtesy of POLO Players' Edition magazine

Not everyone who desires to play polo can go out and buy a trailer load of well-made ponies and begin competing with a couple of 10-goal players in the 26-goal U.S. Open Championship.  For some, polo may seem like a great idea until it starts costing money.  Where does the eager polo novice start?

The first thing any beginning player needs is a desire to ride a horse.  A desire to ride must be transformed by acquiring the requisite skills to control even the most gentle and willing horse.  Without rudimentary riding skills, it is impossible to progress to learning the rules and mastering the mallet.  A desire to ride may mean sacrificing other pleasures and doing without some of the necessities of life.  Once a prospective player knows how to control a horse, then he or she is ready to move on to mounting up and trying to hit the little plastic ball.  The best investment anyone can make in learning to play polo is getting professional riding and polo lessons.  A non-polo player with riding experience in other equitation disciplines can make an excellent pre-polo teacher because  just about all basic equitation is a great starting point.  Once the polo lessons begin, the nuances of the polo seat will have to be learned.  A few polo instructors are excellent riding coaches, but most polo instructors will not give polo lessons until the aspiring player learn to ride.  Even after riding lessons, the first polo lessons will more than likely be astride a wooden horse.  For those fortunate to own a horse, use that horse during the time spent with the polo instructor.  For those who do not have a horse (yet), the purchase of a foot mallet may be an inexpensive way to continue to practice holding and swinging the mallet.  A foot mallet is a shortened mallet that can be used by walking or running around on foot while hitting a ball, preferably a regulation polo ball.  The rudiments of the game can be explained and explored just as well on foot as on hoof, so finding a few other foot mallet owners may lead to s spirited game of foot polo.

What is some of the basic equipment needed to begin a regular regime of riding and taking lessons?  The first accouterment a rider needs is a pair of boots, preferably the tall brown variety that not only protects the leg from errant balls and crashing bumps, but allow the best rider to better grip the sides of the mount.  Boots come in all standards of quality, but the best rule of thumb for buying boots is finding a pair that is comfortable, particularly around the ankle area.  Sometimes it may take weeks of use and leather care to break-in the leather of the boots, so get keep the Band-aids handy.  A pair of gloves may also be necessary, especially for hands not roughed by using leather reins or calloused by handling a mallet grip.  Any type of soft leather gloves will do, and a big favorite with high-goal players are leather baseball batting gloves - no not a catcher's mitt.  Some instructors advise not using a glove for the rein hand, as this will make the hands less sensitive to the horse's mouth.  A left-handed glove may come in handy if the rein leather is not properly cared for, leaving it razor sharp.  Almost all instructors will advise the use of a right-handed glove to ensure a better grip on the handle of the mallet.  A mallet and helmet will be the next items needed, however, do not rush out and buy them until advise by a polo instructor or mentor as to what brands may be preferred.  There are several brands of helmets that offer different standards of safety.  The United States Polo Association can provide, at request, published research on how the various brands did on a variety of safety tests.  A facemask attached to the helmet is recommended by most players, especially during the beginning stages of learning to play polo.  Many players new to the sport may not be aware of all that goes on in a match, so face and head protection is a priority.  Another recommendation is the use of safety goggles for at least a modicum of eye protection.

Mallets range in size, usually from 49-54 inches in length.  The length of the mallet is generally printed on the head of the mallet.  Mallet heads come in a variety of weights and shapes.  Certain head shapes allow the player to hit the ball in different ways.  Heads come in different weights, and most experienced players know their preferred weight down to the single gram.  A mallet too heavy for a particular person will make a sore arm or wrist happen real fast, so it is better to borrow different types of mallets until an informed preference can be made.  Mallet whippiness means the relative flexibility of the cane.  Varying degrees of shaft flexibility will give the player better control of the mallet.  A player will eventually prefer a certain degree of whippiness that will be factored into that particular player's approach and timing crucial to hitting a polo ball.  Rounding out the list of personal equipment are knee guards and, only for hose who know how and why to use them, a whip and a pair of spurs.  Remember, a whip and spurs are tools, just like an electric drill and a power saw.  Use them incorrectly or negligently, and unpleasant things will more than likely happen.

Now for the hard part.  The next step separates those with a desire to play and those with the desire and wherewithal to play.  In order to play polo, a player needs access to at least one horse.  Lots of desire and lots of wherewithal can means lots of horses and maybe even lots of expensive well-made ponies.  However, for most, polo only truly starts with the acquisition of a horse.  There are basically three (legal) ways to acquire a horse: borrow one from a friend, lease one for a period of time or go all out and make the big commitment to buy one.  Borrowing one from a friend is the best way to begin.  To start off with, a true friend is one who will lend his polo pony to a beginner.  Learning to play on someone else's horse is a great way to determine if polo is the best way to spend the recreational dollars.  After a while, it will be time to move on to getting your own horses, especially if the polo friend wants to play his or her horses.

Very few polo ponies are leased or rented these days, mainly because of liability concerns and because any decent polo pony will cease to be decent if played by too many beginners over too long a period.  Some polo schools will lease horses on a short-term basis, and perhaps one of the larger polo clubs may have a rental string for lease.  By an large, the horses available for lease are being leased for a reason, and beginning players may find that playing leased horses may become frustrating and a waste of time and money.  Buying the first polo pony truly means becoming a polo player.  The commitment to love, honor and obey the needs of the horse resembles the other commitment with the similar, like sounding vows.  Buying the first horse is the subject of another story, but a few words to the wise - do not buy anything untrained, no matter how pretty the horse may be.  Novice players and untrained horses cannot learn to play the game together.  Buy a seasoned, veteran pony and then take the time establish a relationship with horse.  Take care of that horse in the barn and it will take care of your on the polo field.  Good luck, beginning polo player.  Watch what you spend because the sky is the limit.