Polo is an intriguing game. It's a perfect example of how well humans and horses can work together and offers fast-paced action that's fun to watch. Over the years, polo has been associated with aristocracy and it's often referred to as the "Sport of Kings" because of its popularity amongst royalty in different countries.
Watching the game has also become more like a celebration. You'll find high-society polo parties in different parts of the world, and it's common to see people dressed to impress at these events.
With such a rich culture around the game, it's a little odd that when you search for the word 'Polo' on the internet, the Ralph Lauren brand dominates the results. It's an amazing branding story that overshadows the game. Apparently, polo shirts are more relevant than the game itself.
I've always been curious about polo, and I finally got the opportunity to get on the field, seated on the saddle of a priced polo pony, mallet in hand, and dressed in the full outfit, like I was about to take on a few chukkers. It happened in the rolling, green pastures outside Seattle, Washington, where you will find the polo club named after the city. That's where my dream of playing this famous sport became a reality.
The Seattle Polo Club
The polo season varies widely due to the different variations of the sport and the fact that it's popular in many countries across the planet. In the Pacific Northwest, the season runs from June through September, with an average temperature of 85 degrees most days, which is considered ideal for the game.
The hour-long drive to the Seattle Polo Club was a beautiful, scenic, undulating journey through the tony suburbs southeast of Seattle to the quaint little town of Enumclaw. The city is considered to be "The Gateway to Mount Rainier," or Mount Tacoma, as it is referred to by Native Americans. It's one of the state's most famous mountains with its three major peaks, Liberty Cap, Point Success, and Columbia Crest. The 68-acre polo ground offers a breathtaking view of the mountain. If you're unfamiliar with Mount Rainier, the close-up view alone is worth traveling to Seattle to experience. It's like having a front-row seat at a ball game, and it feels like you could almost reach out and touch the mountain peak.
It's no wonder that the spot was chosen as the club's location. The snow-capped mountain and seemingly endless woods can easily keep you spellbound all day.
Background of the game
The history of polo is quite fascinating, as it can be traced back to ancient Persia (Present-day Iran). The game was called "chogan" and was played by soldiers on horseback. In the 8th century, Persian conquerors introduced it to India and it became popular among the aristocrats.
Centuries later, the first polo club in the world was established in northeast India's Assam region, famous for its rich black teas. British Army officers stationed in India loved the sport, and ten years later, the first recorded polo match in England took place in Hurlingham Park, London. The game quickly caught fire among the British upper class, and the birth of a polo club was the start of a new trend. In no time, clubs began to spring up all over England as the sport's popularity grew.
When you think about polo in America, Seattle isn't likely to be the first place you'll associate with the game. In fact, before 2012, there was no polo club close to the city. The Seattle Polo Club is the brainchild of award-winning furniture designer Cameron Smith. The land he acquired to start the club came with stables for 60 horses that could roam in the nearby pasture. He also hired a group of expert Argentine trainers, giving the new club all the hallmarks of polo greatness. The club introduced the high society allure of the game that's more associated with places like Greenwich, Connecticut, and Wellington, Florida, to the Pacific Northwest.
I started my journey by talking with the club's instructors and was fortunate enough to be instructed by the Seattle Polo Club owner & founder. Cameron and his crew were very friendly and eager to give me the guidance I needed to start playing. They showed me the ins and outs of the sport, teaching me its basic rules, techniques, and strategies.
I practiced my technique on foot until I felt like I had gotten a handle on the basics. Next, it was time to meet my polo partner; a sixteen-hand chestnut with a white blaze - a polo veteran.
I wasn't a first-time horse rider. I had tried it during the Oregon State Fair at the Portland Meadows Racetrack and at the Miami International Riding Club in Florida. But I had never experienced riding like this.
I could have opted to learn from a wooden horse, but I just couldn't resist the real thing. Being shown the proper mounting and dismounting techniques, swinging the long mallet, and how to take aim while cantering across the field wasn't something I was about to forego. At first, it seemed impossible to ride and properly use the mallet simultaneously, but like anything in life, there's a knack to it. It also helped that I was in the company of experienced players and instructors. That put me at ease as I tried to master these fundamentals.
Finally, it was time to go onto the field and practice. Here, I was able to fully apply the techniques that I had been taught. Practicing my aim was very challenging but the instructors' encouragement took out the frustration and made it fun.
Would I recommend it?
I would absolutely recommend it. And after plenty of practice, the technique gets much easier, especially with the guidance and support of the instructors at the Seattle Polo Club. In fact, they almost made me an entry-level player. Almost, but not quite. I needed a few more lessons to get comfortable with the game. Nevertheless, at the end of the afternoon, when I dismounted the horse without getting my foot caught in the stirrup, I was glad to be back on two feet with no injuries. I also understood more than ever before how endlessly skilled real polo players are.
There's no denying the fact that this is an incredibly complicated game to master, and I have a newly found respect for both the player and horse's ability to coordinate so well. Learning to play at a high level will undoubtedly take more than one afternoon on a field with an awe-inspiring vista of cascading mountains.