The Polo Diaries: 5th June 2017

The Polo Diaries: 5th June 2017

So the secret is finally out. I will be spending the summer season at Leadenham Polo Club in Lincolnshire immersing myself in all things polo.


After a couple of false starts, I finally made it to Leadenham as the heavens opened and after a rather naughty stop for emergency chips at McDonalds in Sleaford. I am deeply ashamed. If my booker is reading this, fear not, it was a small portion.

Driving through the bijou and picturesque village, so reminiscent of The Cotswolds and villages such as Sapperton, you could be mistaken for thinking that we were in the heart of ‘Polo Country’, with numerous clubs dotted around the area.

In typical polo style, my accommodation for the summer was not yet ready. Fortunately, I had the sense, or luck, to arrive on a Monday afternoon, when the ‘clubhouse’ itself wasn’t booked. Therefore the lovely Lydia (club secretary) managed to find me a beautiful room within the club’s guest accommodation, a large, high ceilinged room with peach walls and a beautiful view out onto the polo field.

Although technically I was now homeless, the idea of spending a few nights in such a beautiful building was by no means a hardship, although I was now faced with the task of moving my kit twice, which is a rather daunting prospect indeed- considering I had packed nearly everything but the kitchen sink so as to be prepared for all potential eventualities this summer.

As the weather took a turn for the cold and wet, plans to explore the village were shelved until the evening, where we all headed to the local pub, The George for a late supper of Steak and Chips, washed down with a gin and tonic or two, much needed comfort food in the distinctly inclement weather.

I had arrived.

The Polo Diaries: Leadenham

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.

 

The Polo Diaries: The First (Fast) Chukka

The Polo Diaries: The First (Fast) Chukka

The Polo Diaries: Upping My Game

 

The sun was shining last Saturday as I turned up to Carlton House Polo Club for what would be the first club chukkas of the season. Unable to resist when it comes to polo, and wanting to give my brand new whites an airing prior to my match the following Friday (I figured any Fenella Maxwell moments were best had on a quiet morning in rural Suffolk as opposed to in front of any number of people) when word got out, I simply had to put my name down to play, hoping that my fitness levels would be up to it.

Reunited with Mini Obi, my regular ride at the moment and a pocket rocket of a polo pony, not thinking too much of it, I prepared for the first. I think I had an slight inkling of what was to come as I was rather more thorough in my warm up than usual. Whilst cantering around, getting my eye in, I did cast my eye across at the professionals, on utterly beautiful ponies and wonder what exactly I was letting myself in for.

Teamed up with Harriet, plus the club’s resident 2 goal professional, it was quickly time for the throw in and into my first fast chukka of 2017. I am still not sure how I did it, however I managed to score within the first two or three minutes with only one mishap, a minor collision with Harriet (who did forgive me, probably because I scored two further goals in the fourth and we won…but I digress). As the chukka ended far too quickly for my liking, I made my way out of the arena and up to the viewing gallery, I was double chukka-ing Mini Obi and as polo ponies cannot be played in two consecutive chukkas, I had two chukkas in which to rest and watch before I was on again in the fourth.

Having worked off quite a bit of enthusiasm in the first, the fourth was a bit more civilised however my (lack of) fitness was conspiring against me and my core muscles did begin to ache rather a lot by the time the fourth chukka came to a close. Filled with enthusiasm and relieved that it went as well as it did, it was then time for a coffee…a much needed coffee…

The Polo Diaries: Not Another First Lesson?

The Polo Diaries: Not Another First Lesson?

The Polo Diaries: Lesson Time

 

On my return to polo, my goals were simply to raise my confidence again, and to have some fun. A couple of months of playing fun polo in the arena at Carlton House and stick and balling almost every other day brought me on leaps and bounds and soon it was time to think about the future again, my polo future. I was once again in the frame of mind to want to be playing, learning and stick and balling as much as I possibly could. That in mind, the return of Coco (2) and Alice (0) from Argentina spurred me on to book a lesson.

Arriving at the club, I was admittedly slightly nervous; the first lesson with a new coach always does take some time to get into the swing of things…no pun intended…however united with Mini Obi again and with a pretty good inkling as to what we would be working on, I was excited to begin to get those bad habits unpicked and take the next steps toward an eventual career.

Straight into the arena, it was time to take a look at and analyse my swing, at a standstill and at the walk. My issues were not getting out of the saddle enough, not gripping with my knees and hitting the ball late. Fortunately I did begin to get my eye back in, although gripping with my knees is still not natural and whenever my focus slipped I looked down and had the dreaded ‘flappy’ knees. Weirdly enough it is a lot better when wearing kneepads, I think there is something about having a physical reminder when it comes to retraining muscles.

Warmed up, it was then straight into canter work to deepen my seat and to work on keeping my knees and toes in the correct positions when moving at speed. After what seemed like an inordinately long time, I was finally allowed to take a breather (again, unfit), with Mini Obi putting in a perfect polo stop…even I couldn’t quite believe it.

It was then straight back into canter and off to hit some balls. I cantered around the arena whilst my new coach hit the balls up to me if I missed and I got my eye in. This impromptu work also helped me to improve my confidence when making tight turns, and my awareness of where the ball was at all times. It was then onto more canter circles around the arena, really focusing on my fitness, seat and keeping my weight in my heels on both reins.

Exhausted, with core muscles protesting, we ended the lesson with more hitting practice at a walk, focusing on getting out of the saddle more, keeping my knees tight to the saddle and starting my swing earlier. One thing I realised that I have never noticed before is that I wasn’t using the pony’s neck for stability when swinging, hence feeling more insecure (especially with my spectacularly unfit thigh and core muscles) and therefore starting my swing too late. Mind=blown.

Finishing with a beautiful shot to goal, it was then back to the yard and into the polo hub, aka tack room for some revision of the rules. Fortunately I wasn’t too rusty (that would be awkward), and the basics still are there the importance of being on your man and never stopping was also reiterated.

It was definitely a productive morning and with two chukkas tomorrow, I can’t wait to put some of what I learned today into action, after all I’m playing in my first match on Friday….

The Polo Diaries: Back On Track

The Polo Diaries: Back On Track

Total Immersion


At the beginning of my polo journey, I had a clear plan as to where I was going to go, what I wanted to do and how I was going to achieve it. Suffice to say, the best laid plans never come to fruition. For a long time, I have craved total immersion. Coming into polo as a late starter, relatively speaking, and an ambitious one at that, the desire to completely surround myself by all things polo has only grown stronger as I have returned to fitness.


It has been less than 12 weeks since I saddled up for chukkas at Carlton House Polo Club for the first time and over that period I have developed from a rather nervous, weekly player, to getting rather aggressive in the ride offs and stick and balling, alongside chukkas, at least twice a week. My love for the game has well and truly returned, and I am finally ready to return to my original goal. What I want isn’t to be a glamorous party girl, hanging on the arm of a rich man.. I turn up at the yard totally devoid of makeup and have only just invested in my first pair of whites, and the only men I am currently interested in hanging on to are the gelding variety.


As a model, sometimes I feel that I am judged before I even set foot into a polo yard. What a refreshing contrast that those at the yard I am currently based with didn’t discover my modelling credentials until I had turned up for weeks on end, looking like I had been through a hedge backwards and getting stuck in.

It is sometimes tempting to revert to the glamorous stereotype though as it is quite demoralising sometimes, the glossy models on the sidelines, effortlessly glamorous and seemingly perfect, when you’re at rock bottom, bruised and battered. Looking down at yourself and wondering what the fuck you are doing. Whether you have made the right decision in making all those sacrifices, choosing a freelance career over job security in order to get those hours in the saddle, choosing not to return to University even though your family has prided themselves on academia, due to your burgeoning career, in modelling and in writing, and in wanting time to focus oneself.


I am finally about to embark on my dream of total immersion, officially joining the polo club, playing club chukkas and spending as much time in the saddle as physically possible in a mix of lessons, chukkas and stick and ball sessions, and hopefully the matches and tournaments will turn up in due course, and not forgetting….pony shopping!

Last summer I remember looking down at myself as a friend described a mutual acquaintance as ‘very glamorous’. Sporting a bruised face and not feeling particularly happy as it was, I felt so hopeless and I think I may have cried. For so many years my career was based on my appearance, I had finally found something that spoke to me almost as modelling did, yet I felt not good enough, again.

But, I came to a realisation, as I converted the penalty of my season so far during chukkas last Tuesday.

Fuck being ‘glamorous.’

I want to be a bloody good polo player.

Bring it on.