I had been hoping to visit Leadenham Polo Club since January, where a mix of my very poor geography skills (Lincolnshire is practically Norfolk right?) and a revamped website and Facebook campaign drew my attention to the Lincolnshire club.
The idea of chilled Country House polo, weekends where you could party with friends, stay, play polo and have fun appealed deeply to me and tied in with the extensive string of ponies on offer for lessons and chukkas, it seemed like a no brainer and thus I made contact with Lydia regarding visiting Leadenham, both in terms of The First Chukka and more importantly, that of my own polo ambitions. Of course then the shit hit the fan…
It was with some trepidation that I made the trip last weekend. After all I had only been back in the saddle and regularly playing since January, and I had only played on the grass once this season, and that was in very slow chukkas. The prospect of taking unfamiliar ponies into chukkas was slightly terrifying, but I also knew that this weekend would be a bit make or break for me when it came to my confidence and ambitions.
Arriving at Grantham station, just five minutes out of town and we were travelling through idyllic picture postcard countryside, the picture of pastoral tranquillity as the petrol stations and housing estates turned into sleepy villages and open fields.
Arriving slightly dishevelled and laden with luggage as apparently I still am unable to pack light; I was met at the door by the James, the driving force behind Leadenham and host for the weekend. Finally able to put down my suitcases, I made my way to the kitchen to be greeted by James’ lovely sister, Ellie, and Lydia, the club secretary whom had very kindly offered me her spare room.
I had timed my arrival quite well in the respect that all of the other clients, a large group of regular clients visiting from Sweden were currently out on the beautiful grass pitch enjoying a group lesson with Jack.
Settling down in the sitting room, the windows through which the polo field could just about be seen, I had a chat with James about the future of the club, plans for the future and what they were hoping to create. With such a unique set up and major potential, I was seriously impressed, and the ethos did speak to me.
Very conscious of the slightly temperamental nature of the rail system, I used major caution and therefore arrived well in time for chukkas and did feel slightly annoyed that I hadn’t booked in for Saturday, I guess sod’s law though, if I had done I probably wouldn’t have left Kings Cross until 11 let alone arrived. Thus I had arranged to start my polo weekend with an hours group lesson/stick and ball and then to play chukkas on Sunday.
Settling down to watch the 12.30pm chukkas, I was slightly struck by the speed of them, especially as I had been promised very slow, ‘chilled’ chukkas when arranging my weekend! I did have some idea that this wouldn’t be the case but it was a little bit daunting…I had definitely arrived….
As chukkas on Saturday kicked off at 12.30pm, after a cup of very good coffee, I settled down to watch what was in actuality Leadenham’s first chukkas on the grass of the 2017 season. A mix of club members and members of the visiting group, the chukkas were fast and exciting to watch. Considering I had just come out of three months of relatively civilised arena polo and had only played once on the grass, I did have a moment of ‘eek’ but more than anything, just wanted to get stuck in. I felt a bit envious watching the players cantering across the beautiful grass field in the sun, with a backdrop of sheep and rolling hills.
There was just time for another quick coffee and then it was time to saddle up. Being the proud owner of new kneepads and goggles, I thought that the lesson would be the perfect opportunity to test out the new kit prior to chukkas the following day.
My first mount of the weekend was the uber safe and very sweet ‘Pimmie’. Not the most forward of beings, she was to be the pony on which my riding would be assessed (photographs can hide a multitude of sins). As soon as I had gotten on my pony and in my eyes ‘sorted’ my stirrups, I received the ‘look’ from Jack and my stirrups were duly lengthened by about three holes. No more jumping style stirrups for me…
The session itself started in the manege and in all honesty, could have descended into chaos! I have never seen such a group of well-schooled, beautifully mannered horses able to canter together in such an enclosed space without it descending into utter chaos. As the group spanned from competent players, to those who hadn’t ridden prior to the weekend, the warm up consisted of cantering , turning and steering in the arena before being let loose onto the grass. Despite being a group of twelve, the ponies didn’t get strong or fizzy, which in itself was rather miraculous.
Then it was off out onto the grass to stick and ball. As I allegedly am supposed to know what I am doing (yes, I’m shocked too) and I was in essence, a late addition to the group, I was left pretty much to my own devices, although my swing was definitely given some major side eye….oops! This was perfect for me to get to grips with Pimmie.
Coming from a different polo background and very conscious that I was to play chukkas the following day that would probably be quite fast, changing my style at this point wasn’t really on the agenda, so tasked with ‘having fun’, I cantered off to do just that. After all, a well established style is better than an insecure one, particularly when speed is involved.
It was then time to play a bit of a game, taking the ball down the field in groups of four, each of us allowed a maximum of two shots at the ball before we had to peel off to the back and allow the person cantering behind to hit the ball. The purpose of this activity was to encourage team sympatico, the ‘train’ if you will as well as accuracy. Obviously my team were brilliant and I think we possibly won…
A secure seat and the stamina to maintain the canter is vital within polo and so on that note it was time to go for a canter around the outside boundaries of the polo field, to deepen the seat and to allow the ponies to have a bit of a run. Pimmie had one of the smoothest canters that I had ever experienced and finding a burst of enthusiasm, we soon found ourselves up front. I sat a few back for a few strides but that competitive instinct kicked in and I may have overtaken Jack…..the temptation was too great….
After a good blast and with a newly enthused Pimmie, it was time to play some mini chukkas. A field of 12 led to the teams being fielded in a round robin arrangement. Sadly my team lost however I was just happy to be playing anything remotely resembling a chukka at this point.
The session finished with another canter around the field, Pimmie’s enthusiasm had waned again and at that point I was slightly feeling the burn on my thighs and so we had a bit of a steadier trip around the feel, although I was still unable to resist putting on a burst of speed at the end.
I then had time to spare before we all headed out for supper at a local pub. As Lydia had very kindly invited me to stay, whilst the rest of the group took to the tennis court, ably finished by James in the nick of time, my luggage and I took the short trip to Lydia’s cottage to get ready for the evening ahead.
Dismounting, I then had time to spare before we all headed out for supper at a local pub. As I had been very kindly accommodated by Lydia, whilst the rest of the group took to the tennis court (ably finished by James in the nick of time), my luggage and I took the short trip to Lydia’s cottage to get ready for the evening ahead.
After a very jolly supper at the Hare and Hounds at Fulbeck with the whole group, we made our way back to the polo club where the party continued and the famous hot tub was unveiled. As travelling through London had caught up with me, and the prospect of chukkas the following morning was looming, I sadly didn’t partake and went to bed at a rather restrained 11.30pm. I must do better next time.
Goodness I was grateful I did though. Waking up at 7am with the sunlight filtering through my window, I was relieved to find that despite imbibing rather a lot of red wine (I am rather a lightweight at the moment) the previous evening, a hangover was miraculously absent.
Making the short journey to the club at 9am, I was greeted by the wonderful smells that only come from a breakfast cooking. I spent a lovely morning in the kitchen drinking strong coffee (ok my head was a little fuzzy), chatting and eating bacon and sausage sandwiches- perfection.
The equestrian in me however was getting antsy and so when Lydia invited me across to see the stables, ‘behind the scenes’ as it were, I jumped at the chance. Laden with bacon sandwiches for the team, I was handed the lead of ‘Milo’, Lydia’s absolutely gorgeous dog and a complete (but wonderful) distraction to me all morning.
As the first group were set to take to the field for a session, I was soon tasked with helping to lead ponies from the stables to the pony lines. The ponies themselves lead beautifully and it felt good to be getting involved, albeit in such a small way.
As the group headed out for their lesson on the grass, I was asked whether I could help to bring in some of the horses that had come to Leadenham from Spain. As I wasn’t doing anything and eager to get stuck in, I spent a lovely 10 minutes with the wonderful chestnut Charlotta who I am now slightly in love with. It was then down to the field to assist with pony catching. I say assist, Charlotta and I were basically pony bait. Making my way back to the pony lines, all too soon it was 12.30 and time to saddle up for chukkas.
Now I’m not sure why I decided that an unfamiliar polo club would be the perfect place for me to double my chukka intake however I couldn’t resist, I could ache when I was safely on the train home.
My ponies for chukkas were Baby and Martina. I was to play Martina in the first and third, and Baby in the second and fourth. Martina was similar to Pimmie, except had a more elevated movement. Baby was slightly bouncier however refused to look enthusiastic in any of the photographs!
The first chukka of a session is always a bit of a baptism of fire, and did I mention that this was only the second time that these ponies had played chukkas on the grass this season?! Filled with enthusiasm, we all set off at quite a pace however my desire to stay in the saddle outweighed my desire to be a speed demon, particularly on a new pony! By the end of the first chukka, the overwhelming feeling was relief! I had survived, I was intact, my pony was intact and I had enjoyed myself!
However there was no time to think, it was straight off to change ponies and back out to warm up ‘Baby’ before the second. Testing out riding with longer stirrups (I decided to do this during chukkas, either I am dedicated or stupid, I shall leave that one up to you), I think I took this too far and did part company with one of my stirrups. Quickly rectifying this, there was just enough time to give Baby another quick canter before it was time to line up, and the ball was thrown in by the lovely Laura, who was our ‘thrower-inner’ (is that a word?). The second was probably the most difficult chukka for me, the speed had increased and turns needed to be tighter, however during the second half of the chukka, things improved and I began to relax enough to actually get on with it!
At the club I currently play at, I only play two chukkas per session and so I was a little nervous heading into the third whether I would have the stamina to cope with it. Reunited with Martina, the drama started at the very first throw in where in the melee one of my opponents’ horses somehow got their head caught in between me and my stick. The stick ended up on the floor but no ponies or riders did so I felt that was a fair trade off! The chukka itself ended uneventfully and I rode back to the pony lines to get to mount Baby for what would be my last chukka of the weekend at Leadenham Polo Club.
As it was the last chukka and I had survived thus far, this chukka I made a concerted effort to put some more speed on and to get rather more ‘on it’. I was definitely growing a lot stronger throughout the fourth and I think if we had played six I would have been very on it! As the bell rang out, I rode off the field, happy that I had survived, thrilled with Leadenham and their ponies that chukka-d in such a well-mannered way, a pony that will stay in a decent canter when the rest of the field is galloping past without becoming too strong is an absolutely wonderful thing (even if I was being an utter wimp).
I was actually very disappointed with how I played in chukkas as even for me I wasn’t quite ‘on it’ however I did try to put it to the back of my mind rather than to sulk too much. Polo is what I want to do and I did feel that chukkas were a test of my mettle and ability of sorts that I may not have passed as well as I wished to. The weekend confirmed that what I need is total immersion, lots of chukkas, lots of training and to learn everything, the schooling side particularly appealing.
Returning to the clubhouse, there was time to have a glass of water and regroup before I headed to pick up my luggage in preparation for my taxi arriving at 4, and to change out of my now very non-white, polo whites!
All packed up and changed, I returned to the club to watch the group have their afternoon session on the grass and was struck by how much they had improved since I had first seen them riding on Saturday morning!
All too soon though my taxi drew up at the gates and it was time to say goodbye to Leadenham. Freshly filled with enthusiasm and with polo plans in the making, I knew I would return soon to this very special club that felt so like a home away from home already…..
Thank you to James, Lydia, Emma, Jack and Ellie for such a wonderful weekend.