Polo: Defying the stereotype

James Marshall, Polo Novice at Cambridge University Polo Club

One of the great appeals of polo is the excitement of it. With eight players on a pitch all barging each other, going for the ball, galloping at break-neck speed, it’s a boisterous sport and more exciting and energetic than eventing. Before I arrived in Cambridge I’d only ever seen clips of polo being played on YouTube. I’d catch bits of information from horse magazines and sports news but otherwise, it was completely alien to me, something fast and exciting but beyond my world, just a blur of pixels on a computer.

Charlie Troman for CAM

I suppose I’m not a stereotypical polo type. I used to ride when I was younger, and competed in eventing at novice level until my early teens, when my parents could no longer afford my lessons. I had to give up at the critical moment. So when I arrived in Cambridge, I didn’t sign up at the Freshers’ Fair or contact the club: if I’m being honest, I was put off by the stereotypes surrounding the polo scene, which I don’t naturally fit into. But I met some members of the polo club by accident on a night out in my first week of term. They were great, really encouraging and not at all patronising, and persuaded me to come along and give it a try.

My first few times back in the saddle were enormously painful. I was using muscles that hadn’t been exercised for years and trying to walk after the first couple of sessions was extremely difficult! My competence has slowly come back, but it’s taken a while. It isn’t completely necessary for members to be able to ride to learn polo, but it has certainly been an advantage to have a basic, if latent, level of skill. My big issue was more a question of getting the pony to do what I wanted – I knew how riding should feel, the skills just needed to return, which they gradually did.

At the club, there is no messing around with the boring stuff: we are put straight onto ponies, handed a stick, and taught to hit a ball. I was surprised how quickly I picked it up, initially just remembering how to sit in the saddle correctly but then learning different shots and skills. I didn’t notice the transition from being a total beginner to being vaguely competent, but it didn’t seem to take very long at all.

I haven’t played a full ‘real’ game yet, but we’ve been practicing chukkas in lessons and for me it’s been the highlight. In the arena we play three a side, we’re each given a position but without a total grasp of the rules it’s a bit confusing at first. The idea is that we get used to the feel of a game, we’ll be taught to specialise and play specific positions later.

Despite being such a highly charged sport, perhaps surprisingly when you’re playing it doesn’t feel that dangerous. Yes, it’s aggressive, competing directly against someone for the ball, barging their pony out of the way, taking the shot – the fast pace is electrifying, but at my stage we’re using soft, inflatable balls in a sandy arena, not hard balls on grass, so it’s a comfortable situation to build up our basic skills. I’m hoping to play in my first full match in February, when there’s a national competition between universities with a beginners’ section. There will be a selection procedure so there’s no guarantee I’ll be up to the standard, we’ll see. It would be fantastic to play.

I hope I will be able to keep playing post-Cambridge. I’m on a six-year veterinary science course, so there’s plenty of time to make the most of the opportunities here before leaving. In the shorter term I’d like to improve as much as possible and eventually become a member of one of the proper University teams, ideally competing against and beating Oxford. There’s also an annual trip to Argentina that I’d love to go on, but as always it’s a question of funding. But so far so good, and with the support of the club and the excellent teaching I’ve been getting from the more senior members it feels like the sky’s the limit.

For more information about the Cambridge University Polo Club, visit www.cambridgeuniversitypoloclub.com

This originally appeared in the 58th edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)