An Event Rider’s Crash Course in Playing Polo

Whitney Ross and Pistol on the left, with Jenni Autry and Bodie on the right. Photo by Kira Topeka.

North America’s only FEI Nations Cup Eventing will take place July 6-8 at the Brook Ledge Great Meadow International, presented by Adequan, and the event is rolling out some exciting changes this year in The Plains, Virginia.

Admission is free on Friday, July 6 for spectactors, and the evening bareback puissance has been replaced by a polo exhibition in the main arena. Top event riders will play in an arena polo match against members of the Great Meadow Polo Club in what is sure to be a thrilling evening of sport.

With that in mind, Great Meadow asked me to take a polo lesson to help spread the word about the Friday night polo exhibition. A quick evaluation of my sporting skillsets reveals me as woefully ill-suited to playing polo. Prowess at playing baseball, pool, lacrosse or really any activity involving hand-eye coordination would have benefited me greatly.

Thankfully, the instructors at the Great Meadow Polo School are well versed in teaching polo players of all experience levels and abilities. The school was established by John Gobin and Whitney Ross alongside the Great Meadow Polo Club to build future generations of players in the Northern Virginia area.

Students have the unique opportunity to play in their home arena at Saturday night’s Twilight Polo, which hosts matches each Saturday from May through September at Great Meadow. Polo school lessons also take place in the arena, which is where I found myself for a crash course in this fast-paced sport.

Learning to hit the ball. Photo by Kira Topeka.

Polo vs. Eventing

Whitney Ross, assistant manager for the polo school, took me under her wing for my lesson. Rebekah Pizana of the Greenhill Winery & Vineyards Polo Team kindly offered to let us use her polo ponies, Pistol and Bodie. Both are pint-sized Argentinian-bred geldings who generously tolerated my lack of hand-eye coordination during the lesson.

The first concept I had to wrap my brain around is that contact is completely different in eventing and polo. Contact is sacred for event riders — we devote an inordinate amount of time to developing feel and correctly using contact across all three phases.

In polo, you only use contact when you absolutely need it, essentially to turn, slow down or stop. At all other times your reins should be looped and your hand should be shoved well up your pony’s neck. Accidentally touching his mouth can mean slowing down your pony inadvertently, which is not at all what you want when chasing the ball.

Once I had the correct contact (or lack thereof), we moved on to hitting the ball. Like with contact, success with hitting the ball required me to totally override my instincts as to how event riders are supposed to sit in the saddle and maintain our upper body position.

The proper technique for hitting the ball. Photo by Chris Weber.

To hit the ball, polo riders have to get low — bend forward at the hips, rotate through the body, and swing. If event riders are ever leaning that far forward and low with our upper bodies, it means something has gone terribly wrong and you need to sit up immediately lest you find yourself on the floor.

Needless to say, every warning signal in my brain was going off as I practiced getting low enough with my upper body to hit the ball. After practicing at the walk and trot, Whitney seemed confident enough that I wouldn’t fall face first between the goal posts, and I had a crack at cantering around and trying to score.

The key word here is trying — I definitely missed the ball more than I managed to hit it, but when I did get a good shot I couldn’t stop smiling. Polo is definitely a blast to play. Many thanks to Great Meadow, Kira Topeka, John Gobin, Whitney Ross, Rebekah Pizana, Bodie and Pistol for a fun afternoon.

You can take a polo lesson, too! The Great Meadow Polo School provides top notch instruction from international professional polo players and has taught countless riders to play in the Northern Virginia area and beyond. Click here to learn more and sign up for a lesson.

Would I play polo again? Absolutely! Photo by Kira Topeka.

Twilight Polo

If you’d rather enjoy the thrill of polo with both feet firmly on the ground, Twilight Polo is a fantastic way to spend a Saturday night. Now in its 25th year, Twilight Polo has brought thousands of members of the Northern Virginia community together to enjoy fast-paced arena polo with friends and family.

Every Saturday from May through September, Twilight Polo features three matches with halftime games for both children and adults. Following the final match, the evenings conclude with music and dancing in the pavilion. You can bring a picnic to enjoy on the grass hill overlooking the arena, or book reserved seating.

A rotating list of local food trucks are always on site for Twilight Polo. Glasses and bottles of wine from Greenhill Winery and Vineyards, sponsor of the 25th Silver Anniversary year, are available for purchase at the wine bar. Old Bust Head Brewery also sells pints of craft beer. Click here to view the Twilight Polo schedule.

Great Meadow International

Be sure to attend Great Meadow International on Friday, July 6 for the arena polo exhibition featuring top event riders. Admission is free all day. The Meadow Market Trade Show will be open with special opening night deals, so it’s also a great opportunity to go shopping.

Riders will be signing autographs in the Meadow Market Beer Garden at 5:30 p.m., where Old Bust Head Brewery will be serving up craft beers. The polo exhibition will take place at 6 p.m. Any riders interested in playing in the exhibition match should email Kira Topeka ASAP to reserve a spot.

If you missed the announcement on the star-studded entry list that will be competing in the Nations Cup, click here to get caught up on the latest news from Great Meadow.

Click here to view the full event schedule. Be sure to follow the Brook Ledge Great Meadow International, presented by Adequan, on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Visit the event website to lean more.

Great Meadow Links: WebsiteEntriesScheduleTicketsVendors

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