Travel Story Learning polo in Argentina: what could possibly go wrong?

Action from a professional polo match at Puesto Viejo Estancia near Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Photo of Mogens Johansen

Never ridden a horse before? That need not stop you taking part in one of Argentina's great sporting experiences — a game of polo.

It is with some trepidation that I sit on my polo pony, ready for my first-ever try at both riding a horse and playing polo. I ask myself, what could possibly go wrong?

I am at Puesto Viejo Estancia, a ranch and polo club about an hour’s drive outside Buenos Aires. I have come here on a day tour to learn how to play polo and to watch a professional match.

Julio, a former professional polo-player-turned-instructor, greets our group of eight with tea and cakes at the estate’s clubhouse. After morning tea, he takes us on a tour of the stables where many of the club members keep their polo ponies. Stablehands are busy exercising, washing and grooming the horses and while Julio shows us through the spotless stable area he explains the basics rules of polo.

The sport is one of the world’s oldest and is played by two teams with four players on each side. The aim is similar to football or hockey, with the objective of scoring a goal by hitting the ball between two goal posts at each end of the pitch. It is an extremely fast and dangerous game that requires a great deal of skill from both the riders and the horses. Matches are divided into six chukkas, each lasting seven minutes, there is a three-minute break between each chukka and 15 minutes at half time. Because of the pace and physical nature of the game, players have four to six ponies and each is allowed to play only two non-consecutive chukkas per match.

At the end of the tour, we see eight plastic stools placed in a semicircle on a lawn. This is where our polo lessons start. Julio hands each of us a mallet and instructs us to stand on the stool. He shows us the correct way to hold it and how to execute a few basic shots without injuring the horse, fellow players and ourselves.

After a few practice swings and small adjustments to our technique, he is happy that we have mastered stage one. I wonder how we will go when we are in the saddle of a moving horse, but before we get to that we have to learn how to ride a horse.

Julio starts with the basics. He asks us to sit astride the stools while he demonstrates how to hold the reins and how to steer the horse, before asking us to have a go. I feel rather silly sitting astride a stool holding on to pretend reins and kicking my heels into its sides, but it is good for a few laughs before we move on to the real thing.

Kitted out with helmets and gaiters, we’re led to our mounts. I’m relieved to see eight relaxed-looking ponies; I pick out a white friendly looking one and hoist myself aboard. I gently nudge her flanks with my heels but she doesn’t move — she’s more interested in eating the lush grass underfoot. I try again with the same result; she continues to graze, oblivious to my commands and that I’m even on her back.

“You have to be more firm and show her you’re in charge, ” Julio says. “Pull up the reins so she can’t eat the grass and give her a firm kick with your heels — she’s a big animal and your kick was like a fly’s kick.” I do as I’m told and magically about 500kg of horse starts to move underneath me. It’s a strange sensation as her powerful body slowly moves forward.

Our mounts are retired polo ponies that earn their keep taking novices out for a game of polo and are not exactly champing at the bit to get going — it’s more a gentle walk towards the ball. This is a good thing, because it’s one thing hitting a ball with the mallet while standing on a stool and another hitting it while leaning over the side of a moving horse. We practise our new-found skills and familiarise ourselves with our ponies for about half an hour before retiring for lunch.

Back at the clubhouse, the staff have prepared a magnificent Argentine asado, an assortment of barbecued meats, salads and breads accompanied by wine and soft drinks. As we eat in the gardens, we watch as some professional polo players warm up for a game on a nearby field. They make it look effortless as they hit the ball while their ponies gallop along.

Inspired by their speed and style, we head back to the stables to prepare for a game of our own. What follows is about an hour with some hilarious moments as we try to entice our docile mounts into action.

The ponies’ lack of enthusiasm falls short of the competitive nature of the humans on their backs but that is perhaps a good thing. My mount seems more interested in following one of the other ponies than the ball and it takes all of my newly learned horsemanship to keep her on the right track. In any case, we have a lot of fun and, thanks to Julio’s machinations, the game ends in a satisfying draw.

We finish off the afternoon by watching a real game of polo.

It is truly exciting to watch experts at this game. The speed, skill, trust and teamwork displayed by the riders and their ponies is something to behold, and having just tried it for the first time I can fully appreciate the experience.

Mogens Johansen was a guest of Air New Zealand.

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