Polo: the sport of kings, a British institution, the sporting symbol of upper-class England. But, believe it or not, the game was actually invented right here in the Middle East region. It was the ancient Persians who were first to saddle up for the sport more than 2,500 years ago as a way of training their elite king’s guard.
As interesting as this history lesson is, it’s not the dominant thought in my mind as I gaze at the powerful animal being led towards me by a smiling groom ahead of my lesson at Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club. It’s my first time on a horse, and I’m expected to combine it with whacking a tiny ball with a long wooden hammer. What could possibly go wrong?
I clumsily clamber onto my trusty gelding, Cappuccino, and give him a pat; before I know it, I’m being carried towards the field (at this point, ‘riding’ seems an inaccurate description). ‘Don’t worry – these animals are totally obedient,’ says Steve Thompson, the club’s managing director and my polo coach for the day. He points to Cappuccino – who, as if to answer, is stamping a hoof menacingly on the ground – and adds, ‘This one is practically dead.’
He doesn’t look dead. In fact, he looks very lively, and quite a lot like a creature capable of reaching speeds of 60kph. Cappuccino measures 15.2 hands (that’s 1.5m from the floor to his shoulders) – he’s like a huge motorbike, only with free will. ‘Let’s try to get him into a canter,’ says Steve with a grin that suggest he knows how this will end. ‘Lean forward and give him a gentle tap.’ Suddenly, I’m holding on for dear life as my new friend hurtles forward across the pitch.
The next step is to learn to make him stop, then turn, and I’m soon riding the great beast with confidence (if not skill). Steve then shows me how to swing the polo mallet and make contact with the ball, which is not unlike using a golf club with one hand. Putting together all my skills, I soon find myself playing in a match – an actual polo match. Granted, it’s only two a side, rather than the usual four, but it still seems remarkable after barely more than an hour of tuition.
The local polo season began in October and runs until May, although Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club is open all year round. The busiest social day is Friday, when hundreds of picnickers line the pitch to support their chosen team. The venue hosts some of the world’s top polo tournaments, including the highly prized Silver and Gold Cups in February and March.
‘It goes without saying that where there is polo, there is generally a party to follow,’ explains polo academy coordinator Adriana de Koeyer. ‘It is around this time that the cream of Dubai society will be out in force, taking advantage of the weather or, more realistically, a sponsor’s hospitality.’
The academy’s aim is to make polo accessible to everyone. Anyone aged over 16 and weighing less than 100kg can have a lesson. ‘All the horses used are exceptionally obedient,’ adds Adriana. ‘This is guaranteed to give much-needed confidence to even the most hesitant of riders. We teach all abilities and specialise in complete novices, to allow first timers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Polo is a fantastic way to improve fitness – very few sports require the core strength needed to play polo at a serious level. Even after an initial lesson, you will feel toned and you’ll discover muscles you never knew you had.’
But when it is too late to start? Can someone start polo in their 30s or 40s? ‘Sure!’ says Adriana. ‘As with all sports, the earlier you start the better. But there are many examples of people having started later in life – our oldest client is 67 – who are now accomplished players. Money obviously helps, but time and commitment are equal contributes to success on the polo field.’
What about those who have ridden a horse before? ‘Interestingly, it almost helps if you have no previous riding experience at all. That way, we have the opportunity to teach all the riding ability polo-style, from the very start. Riding a polo pony is more a case of balance and technique than traditional equestrian horsemanship.’
I’ve always thought of the sport as being reserved for posh sorts, but Adriana is quick to debunk this myth. ‘Yes, polo is often exclusive and elite, especially at the top level, but it can be directly compared to motor racing: you can throw millions at Formula 1, or have just as much fun go-karting at a fraction of the price – they are, in effect, the same sport.’
And what of the safety aspect? ‘Polo is no more dangerous than any other equestrian pursuit,’ Adriana reassures me. ‘Polo ponies are exceptionally obedient, so as long as you know how to control them, you’re safe.’
Polo lessons are Dhs770 for individual tuition or Dhs550 per person for group lessons. Mon-Sat 6am-10am, 3pm-6pm. Watch matches every Wed, Fri and Sat at 3.30pm; free entry (Wed and Sat), Dhs50 (Fri). Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, Arabian Ranches (050 887 9847)