I’m gonna be straight with you guys—until very recently, I legitimately did not believe that polo was a real sport. I had only ever seen it in movies and TV shows, and had always thought to myself, “There’s no way that this is an actual competition.” I mean, obviously people ride horses, but hitting a tiny ball with a preposterously long mallet just seems fundamentally implausible. Obviously it’s way more likely for the entire sport to be a conspiracy propagated by British elites to reinforce their posh lifestyles in popular culture. Yet last Saturday I found myself in the British countryside about 20 miles outside of Oxford watching students on horseback do the impossible: actually play polo.
In my travails at the Bing Overseas Oxford program, I’ve been visiting Oxford sports teams and seeing how they stack up to the competitions we host back on the Farm. This week I was graciously carpooled out to a different type of farm by the Oxford University Polo Club, an incredibly popular Oxford fixture. By the approximations I was given, there are almost 100 total members in the organization, some who are there to hit balls on horses and others who are simply involved for the social events that the group provides.
From a sheer learning perspective, this experience had the most information to soak up out of all my previous adventures. Luckily, I had two knowledgeable guides at my service: card carrying members of the Oxford University Polo Club, James Coates and Jack Bowen, both Oxford students. They provided great assistance in discovering the ins and outs of the sport, and everything associated with it.
For example, I learned that the polo stick is held in the right hand so that it wouldn’t bang against the swords of military officers playing the game, with their swords hung on the left side of their belt. I learned that there are a great deal of rules and guidelines in place for the safety of the horses and the riders, rules one wouldn’t normally even notice because they’re so universally followed. I learned that one of the most prestigious polo locations in the world is located in Palm Beach, Florida. I learned that in the winter, most polo is played on dirt arenas closed in by wooden fences. And I learned that Stanford has a polo club. They had to tell me that!
At its core, polo is a game like soccer; get the ball from one end of the field to the other and into the goal, However, dribbling and passing are far harder than in soccer, in fact, they’re almost impossible and not a recommended strategy. Instead, long strokes knock the ball to various parts of the field and the horses take off on runs to get to the new ball location. It’s a head-to-head match to get to the ball first, and most of the game takes place in these man-on-man situations, like marking someone in basketball. Jack explained it in the following way: “Ideally what you want to do is just match up with people on the opposite team and get them out of the way. You can screen them and clear someone on your team to take possession of the ball. They always say ‘go for the man, not the ball.’”
While racing against another horse, you’re trying to control their ability to maneuver and obstruct their shot, while also clearing the ball toward your own objective. Teammates come in behind to pick up the ball if the first pair there happen to miss their swings, which happens more than you’d think. As James put it, “It’s the only sport I know where you almost anticipate somebody missing a swing. That’s why we mark the man, because the ball really goes unpredictable.”
All of those facts and rules are well and good, but I still have a MASSIVE hang-up about having enough hand eye coordination and awareness to play a sport while riding on a massive animal. The entire concept simply blows my mind; I feel like no matter how hard I applied myself I would never be able to ever hit the ball. As James so eloquently put it, “It’s like playing golf on an earthquake.”
But according to the members of the Oxford University Polo Club, once you are able to get a hang of the basics, the game becomes incredibly rewarding. Being in sync with your teammates and your horse allows you to achieve a sort of polo nirvana. As James put it: “There’s one point where you can tap the ball quite lightly and if you’re at a steady pace with your horse it feels like you’re on there with a golf club, floating, as you’re passing at 20, 30, 40 kilometers per hour. It’s quite a remarkable feeling, unique.”
Seeing the players in the arena, striding across the ground on their horses, was an incredible experience. The speed the horses reach, and the contact they make with each other is thrilling to witness as a spectator, and as the angles of shots and placements of bodies on the pitch come together, it’s truly spectacular to see. I only saw them in the wintertime fenced arena, but from what James and Jack said, playing on an open field is an entirely different beast. The two wore GoPro cameras on top of their polo helmets, and footage from their matches can be found on their youtube page, “OxJames.”
My trip to the farm was an exceptional learning experience, except for one sobering fact that cast a shadow over the entire day. I learned about ten minutes into my visit that I am tragically allergic to horses. Watching from the sidelines with handfuls of tissues, destroyed sinuses, a slowly closing throat and runny eyes, I cheered on my new friends, lamenting the fact that I will never be a professional polo player. And as I returned home with a sore throat and the sniffles, I realized I had just put my own life on the line for the sake of quality journalism. You’re all welcome.
Until next week, enjoy Stanford baseball’s hot start and long upcoming home stand!
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada “at” stanford.edu