Watching a polo match will give anyone who loves riding an urge to try it for themselves — Octavia Pollock went to the Cowdray Estate to give it a go.
For anyone who thrills to the speed, skill and spectacle of polo — or just those who like to sip champagne among scores of men in Panama hats and girls in swish summer frocks — then Cowdray Park in West Sussex is the place to be on Sunday for the final of polo’s King Power Gold Cup.
It’s the culmination of a month of mouthwatering polo; the Midhurst Town Cup, won by Dubai after a terrific contest against La Indiana on June 30, was a particular highlight. Dubai are in Sunday’s final, against VS King Power, which is sure to be a terrific match — and an emotional one, too. The patron of the VS King Power team, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, plays in memory of his father, Vichai, killed last year in the helicopter crash at Leicester City football stadium last year.
Those who are inspired to give it a go themselves will be delighted to learn that the polo experience on this hallowed estate is by no means confined to watching. It may be far beyond the dreams of most of us to emulate Dubai’s astonishing Argentinian brothers Camilo (16) and Bartolomé Jr Castagnola (18), both already playing off a six-goal handicap, but a lesson with Guy Verdon at the Cowdray Park Polo Club Academy will give you a taste.
Guy has taught polo all over the world, in New Zealand, America, Dubai and, of course, Argentina, and his fellow coach Alan Kent is a former eight-goal England International player. They teach budding players at Alan’s Madam’s Farm, its extensive lawns hidden in the woods north of Midhurst.
Guy aims to take beginners to a point at which they can play an instructional chukka in just 10 lessons — and after an hour with him, I can believe it. I confess I’m not a complete beginner — I played once with the Dundee and Perthshire Polo Club a few years back — but it’s a long time since I picked up a polo stick.
We set off at walk across one of the Madam’s Farm pitches, practicing the forehand swing. The trick is to forget the ordinary riding position and keep calves away from the pony’s side — my Thoroughbred was so responsive that I kept pushing her over the ball without meaning to. To take the shot, you stand slightly in the stirrups and twist your shoulders over the ball, releasing the stick in a smooth arc, letting the weight of the head create the swing and striking the ball in the centre of the head.
To get a decent hit, timing is key — more so than strength — but the positioning of the pony is important too. On that score you’ll have some help from your steed itself: polo ponies are so attuned to the game that they will read the match as well as any human and are a joy to ride. Responsive and quick, they’re the Ferraris of the horse world.
Ironically, once we moved up to canter, I improved a good deal, possibly due to not having so much time to think about the shot and also to the easy rhythm of the canter. The moments when I hit the ball cleanly down the pitch were intoxicating and we spent a happy session cantering up and down, Guy hitting the ball past me when I missed it and my horse changing legs and direction smoothly with the merest of signals from me.
When you’re playing polo, you don’t consciously think about riding; instead, the pony seems to read your mind. The session reminded me why it’s such a brilliant sport, to play as well as to watch, and there is no better place to learn than at the acknowledged home of British polo.
A one-hour private lesson at Cowdray Park Polo Club Academy, Madam’s Farm, Midhurst, West Sussex, is £120; one-hour joint lessons are £95. A block booking of five one-hour private lessons is £575 and instructional chukkas (15 minutes) are £90. Visit www.poloschool.uk for more details of lessons and www.cowdraypolo.co.uk for details of tournaments and watching polo.
Selham House is the perfect house for entertaining, with a pool for the summer, large rooms for the winter and