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“Remember you’re on a horse, Michael!” a friendly Irishman yells from a nearby mount.

A couple of hours ago I was doing well to stay on my steed, Destiny, but now I’m at full stretch, hooked horizontal into the stirrups as I try to scoop an orange ball out of a crowd with a big cane stick.

To say it’s a technically questionable move wouldn’t be harsh, but it’s my first time and it’s hard to not get carried away with this “sport of kings”.

The royalness of polo’s nickname condemns it for many as a sport for the uber-rich. It also looks bloody hard. Players ride a horse one-handed and hit a ball with a 50-inch long mallet.

At Cool Hooves Polo, part of the Royal County Of Berkshire Polo Club, they’re keen to expel the elitist myth.

I’m here for a masterclass with England polo captain Jamie Morrison, also club chairman, and Eddie Kennedy, the Irish gent soon to advise me of my idiocy.


TNT's Michael happy to stay on the back of Destiny

I take some comfort in Morrison telling me “80 per cent of the game is the horse”, but I wasn’t worried about the horse.It’s safety first as we’re kitted out with helmets and Kennedy runs us through what our morning holds.

He’ll teach us to ride with double reins in our left hand. On a ‘wooden horse’ we’ll hit balls – a specific technique is required to not clock the horse. Then we’ll put it together at the end in a game.

Instead of a traditional polo playing area the size of nine football fields, we’ll be learning in the Cool Hooves Arena Polo space.

This format is the Twenty20 cricket of polo, a condensed area that shows off the traditional skills of the sport but is a faster, more spectator-friendly format, as will be on show May 21 when England play Argentina in the third HPA Gaucho International Polo event at The O2 Arena.

“For the layman, you go to a normal summer polo match on the grass and it’s all so far away,” Morrison explains. “When it goes to the other side of the field, spectators have a drink and wait for it to come back. In the arena, the crowd feels the game, feels the power of the horses and what they can do. It’s a bit like going to an ice hockey match.”

Before we even begin, there’s a casualty – my jeans crotch is even less flexible than me as I blunder onto Destiny. Four reins in my left hand, we’re walking around a circle. So far, so good. Polo ponies (as they’re called, but they’re full-grown horses) are incredibly well-trained, especially schooling ones like my new best friend.

“If you do nothing, she’ll do nothing,” Kennedy says. A gentle lift of the reins finds first gear, a little higher is second, or a trot. My right hand is lost, though. “What are you grabbing?” Kennedy asks, as I clutch the front of my saddle or wave it like Destiny’s a bucking bronco.

Within what seems minutes he tells Destiny and I to do U-turns, first at a walk and soon at a canter (third gear).

Thankfully, Destiny’s on board. To prove the skill of the horse, he asks us to trot across the playing area and stop at the wall when Destiny’s nose touches it. Easy, no thanks to me. 

Confidence isn’t high, and plummets when I’m asked to stand while riding. Not only is polo riding a one-handed pursuit, it’s an on-your-toes, arse in the air, quad and calf-hammering thing, too. Willing away cramps in muscles I didn’t know existed, crash-course one is over.

I’m more comfortable hitting balls – can’t be that different to hitting red ones with a bat.

“It’s all about timing,” Morrison explains. I’m screwed, then. “Don’t try to hit it too hard,” Kennedy adds, when I try to hit it too hard.


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Horse polo, how hard can it be? As England's polo team prepares to play Argentina, TNT finds out firsthand
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