Polo is undisputedly the most complex and often dangerous sport in the world requiring the highest accuracy, decision making and precision for the polo player as well as handling the polo pony. Imagine 8 polo players chasing a ball sitting on large, heavy and very fast horses that also need to be controlled, while keeping your eye ever on the polo ball. A professional polo player always refers to the legs of your polo pony as “your legs”. Keep in mind, “your legs” are not your own so you better get them in shape if you want to be in any way competitive and capable of playing well with others in the sport of polo.
The first thing a beginner needs to accomplish is to learn how to properly sit on their polo pony, or “get a proper seat” and also to understand the various gaits of your polo pony. Further down the line as you advance in your polo training and experience and have also mastered riding, you will need to master working polo ponies with only one hand (the left) and holding the polo mallet with the other hand (your right hand) at all times. When you reach this point, you must learn how to block all fear from your mind which will make your playing more smooth and aggressive and is also better for the horse as they sense and mimic your comfort level while on the polo field. It’s also extremely important to learn how to land properly if thrown or knocked off of your polo pony and how to shy off the pony quickly when you hit the ground, all the while ready to hop right back on the horse and continue playing with your chin up and comfort level as intact as possible, barring any serious injuries.
Most importantly, start by walking your pony keeping your heels down, back straight, chin up, work the “two points” (ie only points of contact are interior of knees). Elbows down , hands down, and “flapping” of elbows or hands. I can not stress how important ot keep you back stright , chest out and your chin up (the pony must feel your weight without interfering with the movement of her spine). Walk your pony sitting and trot and lope posting. The walk is the closest gait to the canter. Hence, master the walk and you’ll in turn be a top rider.
Now let’s discuss hitting polo balls with a polo mallet. The best way to practice and get a good foundation and feeling for hitting is to begin using a “foot mallet”, which is used while on the field and off the horse. From your local tack store, make sure to get foot mallets that properly fit your height, as they come in varying lengths by the inch. The sales person at the tack store will fit you with the polo mallet that is the right height for you. You can practice hitting polo balls on the field in a variety of ways, on your own or with one or more other players hitting with you. Learning to hit on a wooden horse or animal is ridiculous. The absolute best way to learn how to use a polo mallet and hit balls well, is to get the foundation strokes with a foot mallet and ball, then move to a mallet that is over fifty inches long, while still being on foot on the polo field. Build the proper foundation strokes and your hand/ forearm strength first until you feel thoroughly experienced and comfortable with a polo mallet, and only then think of hitting a ball on a polo pony. Most beginner polo players are eager to jump on a pony and hit balls. Not only will you develop the worst strokes possible, you almost certainly will injure the pony’s right fore tendons/ankles, hence encouraging yourself to get depressed about the situation and miss the whole point of the beauty of properly and consistently hitting a polo ball on a fine polo pony.
When beginning, you must get the basics strokes of hitting a proper offside (right side), nearside, neck shot, back offside and finally, a back nearside shot. Practice until you can hit a polo ball with a blindfold on; it’s not necessarily strength but precision and accuracy that is the key. Pick a spot and hit the spot ten out of ten times. Polo is a team sport and hitting accurately to your teammate is the high goal way to play. Carrying the ball down the field all on your own only wears your polo pony down and accomplishes very little. If you remember one thing, it is to hit the ball with the utmost precision to your team mate. Always try to keep the ball on the ground when passing as opposed to hitting up in the air, for easier pick up and precision. Work out with a friend and pass the ball to each other starting at a close distance and moving away with time. Practice hitting and your partner stopping the ball then hitting back to you immediately. Do not hit the ball while in motion coming towards you as you will not be building a good stroke foundation. So, now that I have emphasized the extreme importance of the ground work, let’s hop on the horse.
The first thing and most important thing is that you at all times know where your pony’s legs are. What separates a professional polo player from an amateur is the ability of the player to rate, swiftly turn and stop the pony. It is very simple to do this when working the pony alone; to be able to do properly rate your pony in the middle of a “chukker” (one of six time-periods in a polo match), is a totally different matter. The best way to begin is to hit a polo ball at a “walk” gait with your polo pony, while walking around the perimeter of the field and hitting only on the offside and hitting to a distance predetermined. With time, you want to tighten the circle and change the gait to a slow lope. I will never hit a ball at a trot. Once you are comfortable with the offside, then it is time to work on the near side. The nearside requires the polo player to have a very strong wrist and forearm. The nearside stroke is best practiced as a shadow stroke with a foot mallet then moving on to a regular size polo mallet.
The most important while beginning polo training with your horse, is to always work your pony at the slowest lope possible and to concentrate on accuracy. The rider must have minimal movement and must flow with the movement of the pony. Take a few balls with you and drop them in the perimeter of your circle on the polo field. It is important that if you miss, do not stop or turn the pony as this is the fastest way get the pony “sour”. Practice loping with the cane resting on your right collarbone with the head in the air. Once you drop the head keep it on the ground and practice tapping the polo ball five to ten feet while keeping in the circle. Practice this on the right lead hitting offside and then on the left
lead hitting nearside. After a few months of daily polo practice, you will build the strength you and the polo pony need to be able to control the hit in a game and not hit or give up the ball as if it was a hot potato. Remember, it is better not to hit it if you are going to miss the goal or hit to an opponent.
Lastly, I think it is advantageous to use a mallet head that is not too light and to pay special attention to the grip as it is part of the mallet often overlooked. I like a large grip and with a new rubber. Before using a mallet make sure the cane is not broken by holding the head and twisting the grip – the head should not twist or move at all or it needs to be repaired / replaced. This article is really just a brief lesson and description of the basics of beginning to play polo, but should give you some of the best advice and most important points to work with enabling you to start out on the best foot possible in your beginner polo training.