Polo has a reputation for being enjoyed by the upper crust or the filthy rich. But a new tournament is opening it up to all-comers. Alison Jones reports
If horse racing is the sport of kings then polo is the pasttime of princes, at least as far as our royals are concerned.
It has always had the image of a hobby enjoyed by the wealthy, with stables full of horses and personal helicopters to get them to the chukka on time, like the mud-spattered multimillionaires of Jilly Cooper's fevered imaginings in Polo.
But you don't have to be rich to play polo. You don't even have to be able to ride, or at least you don't in order to apply for a Pro-Am project being organised in Leamington this summer.
It follows in the hoof-steps of other successful Pro-Am projects which have been run in Scotland for the last four years and Yorkshire for the last two.
It will run alongside the Polo in the Park event at the Royal Leamington Spa Polo Club on the Stoneythorpe Estate in Southam, in September.
David Dunbar of Polo in the Park explained: "During our past two years in Scotland we have had three non-riders go through the Pro-Am project, including Gillian, a carpark manager from Paisley whose closest encounter to the equine world prior to that was riding a donkey at Blackpool when she was 10.
"The opportunity is open to all-comers, from plumbers to housewives. If they are willing to put the effort in then we're more than willing to put their hat in the ring."
Rosie Brawley, who is 38, is a housewife and mother of three from Glasgow who was inspired to sign up after seeing a game in Scotland.
She was one of three amateurs and one professional who were pitted against another team consisting of three amateurs and one pro.
"I had ridden as a child, on holidays and I had a few lessons but I wasn't an accomplished rider," she says.
"I just saw other people doing it and I thought 'I could do that'.
"You just need to have the balls to do it. If you are nervous in the first place you are not going to get far."
Polo is a sport that has been described as, with apologies to our Chinese readers, "like playing golf in an earthquake".
Certainly an activity that requires you to try and whack a small ball with a mallet while simultaneously trying to control half aton of horse flesh and avoid being bodychecked by another half ton of over-excited equine, is not for the faint-hearted.
And years spent winning rosettes down at the local pony club might not necessarily work to your advantage either.
"You don't need to be a good rider. You just need to have confidence," says Rosie. "The style of riding is unique. Everyone comes to the table with a clean sheet because it is very freestyle. You have to unlearn other styles of riding."
Rosie and her fellow polo novices were actually not allowed near the horses for the first couple of months. Instead they worked on their fitness training as the sport is very cardiovascular.
Once they did mount up they practised learning to swing the stick while the horse was walking, improving their hand-eye co-ordination, then building up speed as training progressed.
Rosie learnt a painful lesson about the proper way to sit on a polo horse - when she fell off.
"I wasn't balanced. The horse stumbled and I went over its shoulder and landed on my face, breaking my nose and tearing a ligament in my thumb. It wouldn't have happened if I had been sitting further back.
"It was my son's first communion the next day. I had to wear sunglasses to church as I had two black eyes. I looked like Posh Spice.
However, she wasn't put off by her undignified face plant because by then she was hooked.
"Within two weeks I was back playing with a cast on. It really is that addictive and I didn't want to let the team down.
"It is a dangerous sport. Riding off is part of the game so there is that contact where the other horses will try and push yours off the ball."
Another important component for the participants, apart from nerves of steel, is an understanding family. Rosie had to train four or five times aweek for two and ahalf months "I was totally focused but my husband, Brendan, was on board with me. He knew I was working towards a goal. And the kids (their sons, are six, seven and nine) would come down with me and run around. They would love to be involved but are still a bit young."
Rosie discovered the sport was surprisingly democratic.
"I thought I would stick out like a sore thumb but I didn't find that at all. All the others who were playing were very normal and down to earth. The few people who did have marbles in their mouths were very nice, it was just their accents that were different. They didn't look down their noses at you."
Unfortunately Rosie was on the losing side on the actual day of the tournament "We think some of them on the other team had more experience than they were letting on," she says "But it is a memory I'll never forget. I remember at one point absolutely tanking down the pitch chasing somebody with the ball."
She is so passionate about polo that she has joined a club, bought a horse, called Snip, and plays a couple of chukkas twice a week.
"I had wanted to learn more about horses and this gave me the confidence to buy one. My handicap is minus two but he has played at a higher level so he is more experienced.
"I don't think it is any more expensive having a horse for polo than it is having one just for riding but if you are playing four chukkas you really need two. Then you are getting really serious.
"I think it is just a great way for the family to spend a lot of time outdoors and it is a great environment for children."
The closing date for applications to join the Polo in the Park Pro-Am project at Leamington is Monday, May 19. For details look up rlspoloclub.com.