It’s the sport of kings, a playing field for the super rich, a game where the world’s most proficient horse riders get to show off their skills. Polo is surely not for any old day-tripping horse botherer. Or is it?
Around Buenos Aires, an increasing number of estancias are offering “polo days”, where even novices can get in the saddle and start swinging a mallet.
One such place is Puesto Viejo, set amid the sprawling countryside in Cañuelas and about one hour from the capital. Part polo club, part ‘boutique’ tourist estancia, part family home, it opened its doors to newcomers to the sport earlier this year. Complete beginners are now invited to have a lesson, with certified teacher Gaston Carrozzo, followed by a full-on asado lunch and a dip in the infinity pool, so you can get the full “polo lifestyle” experience – at least for a day.
Having learnt the very basics of horse riding since moving to South America, I’m game to give it a go. My friend signs up too – despite only ever having ridden a horse once, nearly ten years ago. Yet not once do we have our limited abilities questioned. There’s an unspoken “can do” attitude here, which is instantly reassuring.
After a brief introduction to the sport’s rules and traditions, we strap up with shin protectors, don our helmets and get on our horses. For me, the first revelation is that you hit the ball with the side of the mallet and not the round end, like in croquet. The idea is to start with your mallet pointing straight, then twist it to the side just before making contact. If you take elegance out of the equation and are happy enough just to hit the ball, it is not as hard as it sounds.
Vicky and friend Dave gear up; photo courtesy of Vicky Baker.
Before long, we’re heading off around the field, chasing balls. Or, in my case, quite often returning to missed balls following misjudged swings. This really is a hit-and-miss experience, but over the course of the first hour, we all start to improve. Every time you hear that hollow clonk on contact, it’s highly satisfying.
Of course, none of this happens at high speed. At some points my horse is practically stationary as I line myself up. This means even the most nervous beginner could do it. Gaston, a natural teacher, remains constantly reassuring and encouraging. Before we finish, he gets us all to take some shots on goal. We cheer as each one goes between the posts – despite having absolutely no challengers – and leave the field on a high note.
Unlike Prince Harry, Puesto Viejo guests didn’t fall off or have a tantrum.
Like all good tourist-friendly estancias, Puesto Viejo combines a sense of luxury with down-to-earth country stylings. The 250-acre ranch is owned and run by a Brit, Jeremy Baker, with his Argentine wife. So how did he become such a committed polo fanatic? “When I moved here with my wife, I soon realised that either I had to get a hobby or I would have to spend all my time with my mother-in-law,” he jokes. Jeremy now takes to the field multiple times a week and has done a quite fabulous job of turning the original house – part of an old cattle farm – into high-quality accommodation. (If you can, stay the night.)
Our luck is in because today Jeremy and friends are playing a game, so we get to watch how it should be done. This brings things into perspective. You see the sheer speed the experts reach as they hurtle from one side of the field to the other, hoofs thundering along on the turf. It’s power and grace in equal measures, and it’s an impressive sight.
The pros at Puesto Viejo make it look easy; photo courtesy of Puesto Viejo.
Despite seeing how the experts do it, I still like to think I “played polo”. On returning to Buenos Aires, I told a polo-playing friend about my lesson. “Ah, yes, a bit of stick and ball can be fun sometimes.” Stick and ball? Ok, that may be the official terminology for a practice session, but let’s not call it that. It’s polo. I have played polo in Argentina. And, if you so desire, you can too.
Polo days at Puesto Viejo – including transport, tuition, an asado lunch and access to the infinity pool – cost US$150 (approx GBP £94) per person. Note that the full-day package incorporates a mini match, not just stick-and-ball practice. Packages for more experienced players are available too. See also Guapa Polo and Argentina Polo Day.
Or, if you don’t like horses, try bike polo:
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