What do you get when you cross strength, stamina and coordination with acres of unstable surface?
In eastern Sarasota County, you get polo. That is, if you’re galloping full speed on a horse, hanging on for dear life, while performing a modified squat, swinging a wooden mallet and trying to hit a small ball.
But wait! Is that a woman’s long, flowing mane cascading from under that helmet? Your eyes are not deceiving you. Once considered the sport of kings, polo may now be considered the sport of queens and princesses.
Don’t be intimidated by the details of the sport. Start with the chukker. It’s simply a seven-minute time period. At speed, the ball is typically clocked at more than 90 mph. Polo ponies aren’t ponies; they’re full-size horses, mostly mares and often thoroughbreds. A polo field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, which is the largest field in organized sport.
Instructor Megan Flynn of the Sarasota Polo Club said the stats tell an evolving story. “The number of women entering the sport. At the Sarasota Polo Club, it’s about four women to one man taking lessons. But, in the matches, men still outnumber the women -- at least for now. Flynn likes how the playing field is leveled in polo. “I think it’s really attractive for women and men to be able to compete on a level playing field,“ she said. “There are very few sports where you are judged by your skill and not categorized by your gender.”
Flynn said women have to play differently than men because they have less upper body strength. Instead, women concentrate on strategy and staying in good shape.
Sarasota resident and polo player Tammy Wyman, 50, is about as fit as can be. She works out at the gym four days a week, walks the beach, runs with her dogs, lifts weights and has a horse. But now, riding has taken on a whole new meaning. “When you’re out of the saddle and hitting the ball, you are leaning to the right or left, which requires balance and coordination,” she explained. “You have to use core strength because you are on a moving horse. You really feel it in your upper abs and in your arms, because you are holding a mallet in one hand and guiding the horse with the other.”
“We ask of the horses rather than tell them,” said Flynn, “You play the game differently if you are a woman, using different muscles and your mind.” But she adds, “We (women) have the lower body strength advantage.”
Flynn said polo is a great way to stay fit. “Once the game is in session, I’m out of the saddle. I’m in my hitting position, either leaning out to hook another player, like in hockey, or to hit the ball on the right or left. It takes a lot of strength to steer, stop and guide your horse. Beginners have to train their muscles so that they are able to hold the mallet and swing it properly.” Flynn added first-timers often say, “I’m gonna be really sore tomorrow.”
Emily Pountney, 15, has been taking polo lessons for two years. She plays in the kids league and said polo has taught her what it takes to be a team player. “When you are riding next to your teammates, you have to know not only where the ball is, but where they are as well.“
She described the feeling while playing: “You have an adrenalin rush. Your body is tired, but your mind is still racing and it’s competitive.”
And, what is it like to play against adults? “When you are a younger woman you are really underestimated, so they usually put me up against the weakest person, I catch them off guard and then I can surprise them.”
Pountney said although polo looks intimidating, the lesson ponies are so well trained that students barely have to do anything.
“If you have some basic riding skills, are looking for an exciting challenge and want to meet new friends that love horses, you should try a polo lesson.” She said if you try it you will be hooked.
As some of you know, I’m not the best when it comes to hand-eye coordination. Even though I ride, I was a little nervous at attempting to hit a small ball with a wooden mallet more than 4-feet long all the while riding the polo pony. Still, I mustered up the courage and took a lesson at the Sarasota Polo Club. Emily Pountney nailed the feeling. It is a rush!
Courtesy of Herald-Tribune Media Group
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