Lessons in Playing Polo

Learning to Hit a Ball from Horseback at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club

The author receives instruction from Jeff Scheraga
Photo Credit: Paul Wellman (file)
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Editor's Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances, the second annual Santa Barbara Polo & Wine Festival is cancelled. Find more information here.

Polo is thrilling to watch — horses and riders charging up and down the field, stopping and starting on a dime in pursuit of a small plastic ball.

Originated by nomads in Central Asia, the game of polo really took root between 600 BCE and 100 CE in Persia, where it became the national sport, played by royals and the military. Over the centuries, the rules of the game were formalized, and its popularity spread west to Constantinople and east to Tibet, Japan, and India. By the turn of the 20th century, it had become the de rigueur recreation of the upper crust on four continents, earning the moniker “the sport of kings.”

It’s easy to see why polo, which is played by a wider swath of folks these days, remains popular: The athleticism and skill of the riders and horses is stunning to witness and, from the look of it, to experience. I got a taste of the physicality and mental acuity the sport requires when I took a lesson at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club on a balmy July day.

“Anyone can learn, whether you’ve ridden or not,” said Polo Academy Director Jeff Scheraga when I showed up for my lesson. I had ridden a horse before and taken a dozen or so riding lessons a few years back. Still, I expected learning even the basics of polo was going to be challenging.

My horse partner for the day was Rocky, a 23-year-old Thoroughbred. Once I was in the arena and on the saddle, Scheraga, who has played polo since childhood, had me do some arm and torso twisting and stretching to loosen up my core. Next, Rocky and I trotted around the arena while I continued rotating my shoulders and midsection, all in preparation for the maneuvers it takes to swing a mallet. Scheraga shouted out instructions and encouragement as I flexed every muscle to maintain balance atop the bouncy horse.

After a half hour of warm-ups and basics, Scheraga decided I was ready to try hitting a ball. He tossed a few around the arena and verbally guided me into the extreme side-leaning position required to actually reach the ball with the mallet from horseback. As Rocky walked toward a ball — there’d be no trotting for this difficult task — I drew the mallet back then swung it toward the ground. To my delight I made contact, sending the orb dribbling across the dirt. This went on for a bit, me hitting some balls and missing others until my leg muscles were shaking with fatigue.

Polo ponies are highly trained and seem intuitively responsive to their rider. With the slightest shift of body weight, leg pressure, or even sight line, the horses adjust their speed and direction. But learning the subtle communication between rider and equine takes practice and strength.

By the 45-minute mark of my hour-long lesson, I was mentally and physically tired, so the signals I was giving Rocky were ham-fisted and often contradictory. At one point, I gave my poor steed such confusing instructions that he just walked up to the arena wall, stopping only when his nose was touching — and perpendicular to — the fence boards. “Squeeze the toothpaste,” Scheraga reminded me, referring to the leg motion used to get the horse to move. I got Rocky going again and did a few more rounds of ball hitting before the lesson ended.

I dismounted exhausted but also giddy with excitement. I couldn’t believe that, in one hour with Scheraga, I had learned enough to actually hit a polo ball from a horse’s back without falling off. “I have a pretty routine way of training from the ground up,” he said of his instruction technique. “I do it in stages. I teach some basic skills at first, and they combine and become more complex as you rise through the levels.”

And that’s exactly what happens: Folks come for a lesson and then continue with it until they’ve mastered the sport. “Our facility is really unique in that it can handle beginners all the way up to the highest level of polo on the West Coast,” explained Scheraga. “We are equipped for anyone to go as far as they want to go.”

To see the pros play, check out the 8 Goal Series, which includes the USPA President’s Cup on September 16 and 23 and the USPA Wickenden Cup on September 30 and October 7. For a full schedule of events, see sbpolo.com. For information about polo lessons, call Jeff Scheraga at (315) 256-5797, email him at jeff@sbpolo.com, or see sbpolo.com.

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