Hockey by horseback

Written by Jaclyn Law

Anne Evamy loves everything polo, but the moments she savours the most are the breakaways — the electric crack of mallet against ball and her horse lunging forward in pursuit, running fast and straight, ears laid back so that she can get another shot and send the ball soaring between the goalposts. “It’s exhilarating, fast and a little bit dangerous,” says the president and co-founder of Identity Marketing Group Inc., a promotional products company in Calgary. “Polo is like a game of chess. There’s lots of strategy, but when things work together, it’s extremely exciting.”

No longer just a game of kings, polo is attracting a growing number of men and women, smitten with the idea of playing “hockey on horseback.” And there are more than a dozen polo clubs across the country where you can learn to join the fun.

Evamy first picked up polo in 1995. In her youth, she had been an equestrian and field hockey player, and was thrilled to find a sport combining the two activities. After several clinics and lessons, she joined the Calgary Polo Club, and today she’s out on the field three or four times a week. In her first season, she rode an injured player’s ponies. Now, like most serious players, she has several of her own.

While anyone can learn to play, Evamy says polo is especially great for “somebody who likes a real challenge, who’s quite fearless, who likes speed, teamwork and intense competition.” There’s also a significant financial and time commitment, and the risk of injury is high. Evamy has suffered numerous bumps and bruises, including a mind-numbing hit to her chin from a mallet in mid-swing.

But once you’ve played, says Evamy, “it’s addictive. You’re always pushing yourself to do something a little better, whether it’s your riding or hitting, your strategy or positioning.” She also enjoys the sense of community. “Usually, you don’t play in the rain, so it’s always great weather, with lots of tailgate picnics. And people bring their families and dogs. It’s an absolutely fabulous way to spend a weekend.”

Did you know?

Horse polo is thought to be the oldest team sport in history, with the first matches being played in Persia (now Iran) 2,500 years ago. Initially a training game for cavalry units such as the king’s guard or other elite troops, it later became a Persian national sport played exclusively by nobility, and thus dubbed THE GAME OF KINGS.

Lefties aren’t welcome. For safety reasons, the Federation of International Polo BANNED LEFT-HANDED POLO PLAYING in 1975.

Persians knew the game of polo as Chaughan, meaning mallet. But it was also known as Da-Kyu in Japan, Khis-Kouhou in Russia and Djerid in Turkey. Modern-day polo TAKES ITS NAME FROM THE WORD PULU, which means ball in Tibetan.

The oldest polo club in the world still in existence is the Calcutta Polo Club, which was FOUNDED BY TWO BRITISH SOLDIERS IN 1862.

Ask the expert

We asked George Bezak, president of the Augusta Polo Club in Oxford Station, Ont., and Brian O’Leary, founder of Polo Management Services in King City, Ont., how to hit the field:

What’s the best way to get started?

Start with a one-day clinic, which typically includes a riding lesson. Never been on a horse? Don’t worry. “Seventy-five per cent of people we work with have never ridden a horse,” says O’Leary. You can then move on to polo school and, if you’re serious about the game, private lessons.

What equipment do I need, and what will it cost?

Basic gear includes boots, kneepads, a helmet and a mallet, which costs a minimum of $750. Some polo clubs lease horses. If that’s not available, you’ll need to buy your own pony — typically $8,000 and up — plus the cost of tack and boarding. There’s also the club fee of $500 to $750.

What level of physical fitness is required?

Players should be in reasonable shape and under 240 pounds — the maximum a pony can carry. “Polo is very physically demanding,” says Bezak. “There’s a lot of physical contact between riders.” How long will it take to become proficient? “It takes four to eight weeks to be able to get on a horse and hit a ball,” says Bezak. “To be able to play in a game and play it well, that’s a different story. [You’ll] probably need at least two summers.”

What’s the risk factor?

“There’s a certain risk involved when you have individuals running at a gallop hitting a ball,” says Bezak. “It’s not like you’re playing tennis. If you fall at a full gallop, you could be talking broken bones.” You can mitigate the risk with proper training and the right equipment.

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