Polo is not what you probably think it is. The long mallets evoke games of croquet on a lawn; the well-groomed horses seem ready to prance in circles in a show ring. The only part of polo that has made it into popular culture, the polo shirt, is a symbol of preppiness.
That impression will vanish from your mind about two seconds into your first arena polo match at Twilight Polo at Great Meadow in The Plains.
A half-ton animal tries to ram another at high speed on a field of mud, while the riders wildly swing wooden hammers over their heads.
Polo is the fastest ball sport in the world, according to John Cole, a professional polo player and an announcer for Twilight Polo. You’re riding a 1,000-pound horse that can run 25 miles per hour, faster than any person, trying to hit a ball that’s capable of traveling at over 100 miles per hour.
Arena polo is played between two teams of three people on horseback, all using long cane mallets to smack a smaller version of a soccer ball into broad wooden goals on each side of the court. Controlling the ball while riding full speed and leaning half out of the saddle is hard, and it’s made harder by the opposing players, who do their best to hook the mallets of opposing players with their own.
Hooking isn’t the only way to distract opposing players; there’s also riding off, which is really a nice way to describe ramming into someone with a galloping horse.
The horses like to hit … you can feel them go for it, said Maryanne Choby, of Oakton. Mine play ‘polo’ in their field without me some times, added Choby, who has been playing polo for 10 years.
Unlike most other sports, in polo there are no distinctions made for gender, and men and women play together.
In arena polo, all that hooking and riding off takes place inside a wooden arena about the size of a roller skating rink, putting the many spectators close enough to the action that they could literally reach out and pet a horse, or get petted themselves by a stray mallet.
Watch your eyes! bellows one polo player to the crowd, as he rides straight into a scrum of horses shoving each other against one arena wall.
Polo is the most intense game there is, said Maria Moran, 18, who won MVP of her Destination Polo team in the first match of June.
Destination Polo is a polo school in The Plains where people who don’t know how to play polo or even how to ride a horse can learn the game. Moran has been riding all her life, but her teammate, Joe Warren, came to polo knowing nothing about horses.
It looked like a lot of fun, so I gave it a try, said Warren, who believes his background in other sports helped him learn polo. Hitting the ball is not the problem. … Riding full speed into someone seems a little crazy at first.
Anyone can learn polo, people come to it from all over, said Doug Barnes, head of Destination Polo, and Warren’s teacher and teammate. Barnes believes that many people overlook polo because they don’t know about it or are intimidated by the difficulty.
A main reason polo is only popular among a select group is the expense. While it isn’t cheap, the price of polo may not be as high as some think.
Lessons with Barnes, a professional polo player, cost around $90 a session. To actually play polo, you’ll need at least two horses, which you can rent.
A polo match consists of four seven-and-a-half-minute periods called chukkers, and most players use a different horse for each chukker because the horses quickly become exhausted at the furious pace of the match. Destination Polo rents out horses to players, at $75 a chukker.
Interested students who aren’t swimming in money can still find ways to play the game. Seth Obed, an elementary school teacher, is still learning the game.
You can find a lot of nice people in polo who will help if you really want to learn, Obed said.
For those more comfortable in the spectator stands, watching Twilight Polo at Great Meadow costs $20 per car, and spectators can bring their own refreshments, leading to some impressive spreads.
McLean resident Stephen Golsch brought homemade pigs in a blanket.
It’s just really great, you meet a lot of people, and you end up really paying attention to the polo, Golsch said.
It’s a great family event, like a picnic, we sit and watch the polo while the kids play, said Karen Moore of Fauquier.
It’s addictive,” said Arlington resident Cheryl Gamboney, who has been watching polo at Great Meadow for over 10 years. It’s speed and competition and love of horses.
The 2008 Twilight Polo season began May 31 and continues every Saturday until Sept. 6. Games begin at 7 p.m. at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., just off Interstate 66, about 30 miles west of Fairfax. For more information about Twilight Polo, visit www.greatmeadow.org. For more information about Destination Polo, visit Destination Polo online at www.destinationpolo.com