I quite often get funny looks when I say I’d like to get into polo. People, rightly or wrongly, associate the sport with tally-hos and Eton; with jodhpurs and gin-fuelled histrionics on the veranda. Not the place, it would seem to many, for an unkempt North of England sort such as I.
But ever since I cantered and struggled around a morning’s polo lesson at the stables near Arabian Ranches, there’s been something about the sport that has grabbed my imagination. Charging down the field and nudging oncoming riders out of the way, hanging on for dear life in the hope that, just maybe, the next swing of the mallet will connect and send the ball skating across the green. It’s a thrill that’s hard to explain, and even harder, sadly, to come by. Polo is notoriously expensive and it’s this,
I think, that has kept the sport in the realms of exclusivity.
So when Time Out heard about the shockingly cheap weekly polo nights in the deserts out near Al Dhaid City, we were straight out there. Swapping jodhpurs and leather boots for shorts and scruffy trainers, Phillipa and Andy at the Al Waida stables have come up with a laidback alternative to any possible polo pomp.
What’s even more anarchically un-polo is the variant of the game that they teach and play. Polocrosse does exactly what it says – arms players with a lacrosse stick and lets them loose in teams of three to get the ball to the other side of the field. Simple, fast and quite rough, both Andy and Phillipa chant, ‘It’s poor man’s polo’, like a slogan. ‘You play at the same speed as polo but on a field two-thirds of the size.
The horses move a lot quicker but stop a lot quicker too,’ says Andy, a Zimbabwean polocrosse player who has represented Zambia before in international competitions. ‘People call it rugby on horse back, which is fairly accurate because there’s a lot of pushing. You’re trying to get that ball out of a person’s net so there’s a lot more focus on contact than a typical game of polo.’
Having explained that I’m fairly inept at horse riding and even more so at polo, they’re unfazed. ‘If you’ve done polo before then you’re at an advantage because you’ll know a bit about how to rise out of the saddle when you need to lean down to pick up the ball.’ I give Phillipa a willing, if slightly uncomprehending, look. ‘We get complete beginners,’ she says. ‘It’s not just people who come for the desert riding; some have never been on a horse before.’
Once a month, the stable hosts a theme night where all are welcome to come down, play a few chuckers then tuck into a barbecue before camping in the grounds behind. The next morning everyone is up for a few games before heading home. ‘Polo is a professional sport, whereas Polocrosse is a very warm, family-friendly environment,’ Andy explains.
As people arrive, we wander down towards the polocrosse fields, which are covered in a reassuringly soft layer of sand. There’s a bit of practice with the lacrosse stick before we’re led to our horses and prepared for an eight-minute chucker. The focus of a game like this is on Marking. We’re assigned an opposing partner and told to stay close to them and make sure we get that ball off their lacrosse stick whenever they are in possession. Rather than charging down and furiously swinging to steal the balls, as in polo, the ball is instead held on the lacrosse stick and brought up to saddle height with the rider – ready to be aggressively bashed out by a opponent. It’s rougher, faster and I’m excited.
Just as I’m getting comfortable back on a horse, a sudden line-up is formed and the ball is flung over our heads. All the horses spring into action. Fortunately I’m teamed up with someone who knows what they’re doing so, while she’s stealing the ball, tearing down the field and generally doing pretty well, I’m free to haphazardly trot off in all directions, doing lots of shouting and waving around of my stick.
But the game very quickly opens up. There’s a sudden misplaced throw and the ball lands just at my horse’s front hoof. As two riders come tearing towards me, I leap up in the saddle, lean over and hack away at the sand in a desperate attempt to pick up the ball with my stick. A healthy bit of over-enthusiasm later and my left leg is up near my chin, my poor horse thinks that my heaving attempts to stay in the saddle are an encouragement to set off at speed and, hoping to save everyone from the sight of me tumbling backside first into the sand, I let myself slide off and roll painlessly onto the sand.
There’s mild applause and Andy runs over to help me back onto the horse. ‘It’s good,’ he says. ‘It means you want that ball and we like that.’ A minute in and the whistle goes on the chucker. Dusted with sand and grinning, I’m sold – this is easygoing polo that’s raucous and relaxed enough to get me coming back.
Saturdays from 6.30pm, Dhs150 pers session. Camping is once a month, Dhs300 with evening buffet. Call 050 976 9666; www.alawadistables.com