According to the late, great Winston Churchill, ‘a polo handicap is a passport to the world’. Well, quite, Winston. The only problem is, said travel document is rather hard to get your hands on. Not only is polo a costly pastime, but it’s pretty exclusive, too; to join a club you must be recommended by some suitably influential horsey type, and even then you still have to part with a pretty penny for membership and an expensive tie and blazer-badge combination.
Here in Dubai – a pretty exclusive place at the best of times – polo is being brought to the masses courtesy of the Dubai Polo Academy, which begins its season on October 8. ‘Dubai is a great place to come and play polo,’ enthuses Dubai Polo Academy MD Steve Thompson. ‘You can virtually guarantee a game’s not going to be cancelled because of rain, and it’s very accessible here – you can book a slot, pay a green fee and play based on your handicap.’ Steve explains that Dubai boasts a great polo infrastructure that facilitates polo bootcamps, as well as offering established players a place to train at an advance level and play in tournaments and games – fitting, since the sport was thought to have originated in the Middle East.
However, most of us aren’t quite ready to saddle up alongside the Windsors, so can we really expect to just turn up, jump on a pony and start playing? Apparently, yes. Unlike learning any other equestrian sport, polo lessons don’t feature a tether or lunging – instead, you have to get on and get going. Steve makes no secret that beginners will be forced out of their comfort zone, but says it isn’t as frightening as it sounds. All the academy’s polo ponies are imported from the UK or Argentina and spend three months in Dubai being voice trained before they’re ridden. This isn’t to say that they’ll be able to hold a tune, but they will be responsive to voice commands. ‘I can’t tell you how safe this is,’ assures Steve. ‘These horses are circus horses. If they don’t do what you tell them, they do what I tell them.’
As well as being surprisingly easy to pick up, the satisfaction of learning the basics is accentuated by being able to master and control an animal – a combination that reaps an immeasurable sense of reward. ‘It’s
a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ says Steve. ‘Even if you don’t want to take up polo as a hobby, at least you’ll know what’s going on at a game.’ It sounds too good to be true, but Time Out’s scepticism is confidently dismissed. ‘In four hours we’ll teach people how to play polo,’ concludes Steve, without a glimmer of irony. ‘We’re not professing that we’ll make you a champion polo player, but you won’t ride around looking like Fraggle Rock on drugs.’ Now there’s a thought.
A one-and-a-half-hour introduction to polo costs Dhs800; a 40-minute group lesson starts at Dhs600 per person (groups consist of six players). Dubai Polo Academy, Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club, near Arabian Ranches. www.dubaipoloacademy.com
Talk the talk
A polo pony is always a pony, never a horse. Never.
Polo teams are referred to as a quartet. ‘Why not just call it a team?’ you cry. Because this is polo, that’s why.
A period of play in a polo game.
In between chukkas, lady spectators (brandishing a requisite flute of bubbly) walk out onto the field and stamp down chunks of turf that have come dislodged during play. Divot stomping becomes a lot less thorough as the match progresses, thanks to the aforementioned bubbly.
Polo in numbers
Number of players on each quartet (team)
Length of a polo field in yards (274.3 metres)
Number of chukkas in a match
Length of chukka in minutes
Worst handicap (handicaps are measured in ‘goals’)
Cost of a good polo pony – more expensive than a new Toyota Prado