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A beginner's guide to polo: How a chukka can get you hooked

updated 1:01 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Facundo Pieres (right) has won every major championship in polo and is one of a handful of players in the world to hold the maximum 10-goal handicap. Facundo Pieres (right) has won every major championship in polo and is one of a handful of players in the world to hold the maximum 10-goal handicap.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Polo is often considered a past time of the rich and famous
  • CNN's Alysen Miller gets a lesson from a polo master
  • Argentina has produced some of the world's finest polo players

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(CNN) -- A polo handicap, it has been said, is a passport to the world -- and this has certainly proved true in my case.

I first took up polo eight years ago on a trip to Argentina. It has long been my philosophy that no hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle, and I have dabbled in equestrian sports ranging from eventing to flat racing.

But few sports can match the all-consuming thrill of galloping up and down a 300 by 160 yard field waving a big stick. From my very first chukka I was, as the pun goes, 'hooked'.

Argentina has been polo's spiritual home since British and Irish engineers introduced the sport in the late 19th century. There, it found fertile soil among the gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) and their brave, nimble horses.

Read: Facundo Pieres - The emperor of polo

Polo glossary

Chukka (UK) or chukker (U.S.): A seven-and-a-half period of play. High-goal matches are typically played over six chukkas

Handicap: A player's rating, based on their ability. Players are rating on a scale of -2 to 10, with 10 being the highest

Hook: Catching an opponent's mallet in the act of a swing, stopping him from striking the ball

Pony: Any horse used for polo. Historically, the height for polo ponies was limited to 14.2 hands, but this limit was abolished in 1919

Ride-off: Pushing another player off the ball by using your horse to barge theirs out of the way

Today, several estancia (private estates) throughout Argentina offer fully-immersive polo holidays, to which new entrants to the sport flock like pilgrims to the holy land. There, beginners can learn how to ride one-handed, swing a mallet and swear in Spanish.

The attraction of polo is easy to understand. From Jilly Cooper to Pretty Woman, polo has been used as shorthand to suggest a glamorous, dangerous world of sleek horses and brooding players.

Traveling at speeds of up to 60 kilometers-per-hour (37 mph), teams of four aim to drive the ball through a set of vertical posts to score a goal.

Like all equestrian sports, men and women compete side-by-side, making it the only mixed sport which is also a contact sport: players can 'ride off' opponents by using their mount to barge the other player out of the way.

Around 3,000 people in the UK currently play polo, of which fewer than 10% are professionals, according to the Hurlingham Polo Association, the governing body for polo in the UK. I am firmly in the amateur camp, brandishing a -1 handicap which has shown no signs of budging off its mark for several years.

Polo players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 according to their skill, where 10 is the highest rating possible.

Although expressed in 'goals', a player's handicap is not an estimate of the number of goals a player might score in a given match, but rather an overall measure of his or her horsemanship, skill and strategy.

It is so difficult to reach 10 there have never been more than a dozen or so 10-goalers in the world at any time. Almost all 10-goalers, past and present, have hailed from Argentina.

One of these highly acclaimed individuals is 28-year-old Facundo Pieres.

Having held the ultimate ranking since the age of 19, Pieres is now ranked inside the top two in the world (he disputes the number one spot with fellow Argentinian Adolfo Cambiaso).

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During the English high-goal season, Pieres plays for the all-conquering Zacara team (which won the coveted Queen's Cup this weekend). He gamely agreed to coach me and give me some pointers.

The venue is Zacara's private training facility, on a pitch so immaculate it would not look out of place at the Chelsea Flower Show. As I prepare to take to the field I ask Pieres what he thinks is the most important quality in a player.

Unsurprisingly, he cites horsemanship: "It's all about feeling comfortable," he says. "If you don't feel comfortable on the horse you will not be able to hit the ball."

So far, so good.

Magnifica, the 8-year-old mare Pieres has lent me, is a dream to ride, with a canter as smooth as silk and the ability to turn on a sixpence.

"She is one of the best ponies I have," says Pieres. "Anyone can play her." Subtext: even me! (Polo horses are still referred to as ponies, an alliterative hangover from the days when height limits applied).

"The next most important thing to have is a straight, fluid swing," continues Pieres. He can loft the ball in excess of 100 yards while traveling at a flat-out gallop.

My shots have a tendency to dribble weakly for 10 or so yards before coming to rest in a divot. Pieres and I do have something in common, however. We both like to play in attack. "My first instinct is always to attack and not to defend," he explains.

Polo teams are divided into four positions on the field, designated by numbers. Players 1 and 2 are attackers, 3 is a playmaker and 4, or Back, is a defender. Pieres and I both play at Number 1.

"I play forward. I am always working out how to get the ball and attack all the time." Here the similarities end, because my strategy is usually to hang out by the goal and wait for the ball to land in front of me.

The final piece of the puzzle is, of course, practice. "When you practice, you will get better and you will feel more confident with every shot.," he explains.

As a plucky amateur, finding time to practice is certainly my biggest challenge, even without the English weather conspiring against me.

So how does my instructor rate my performance? "You're a -1 but you're getting close to 0," he enthuses, almost convincingly. Pieres is, of course, being far too generous.

We both know that I won't be pulling on the famous black and white of Zacara any time soon. But I have polished my boots just in case.

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