Riding on tradition

Updated: 2011-08-26 12:02

By Mike Peters (China Daily European Weekly)

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Riding on tradition
Isabel Branch was a teen champion at England's Cowdray Park Polo Club, one the leading polo venues in the world. Mike Peters / China Daily 

Polo experts teach Chinese youngsters how to play a British sport steeped in history

Polo is well known as the sport of kings and equestrian clubs, but an affable Briton is giving ordinary youngsters in Tianjin the opportunity to get a closer look at the sport. The first lesson they're likely to hear from Isabel Branch, senior instructor at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club: It's not croquet on horseback.

"The mallets may look alike at first, but the polo mallet is longer with a very flexible handle," says Isabel Branch, senior instructor at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.

"So you hit the ball with the side of the mallet. Hitting with the mallet head requires exceptional skill from the back of a horse," she adds, laughing.

The next lesson: Get out on the field early, and drink lots of water.

It has been hitting 37C by about 11 am most mornings, and she wants the youngsters she's teaching to be back in the clubhouse, cleaning up and getting ready for lunch by then.

Polo is played on grass, with four players on horseback per side. They generally take the field in a diamond formation, and each has a specific role: No 1 at the top point is the powerhouse on offense, while No 4 is the key defender when the other side controls the ball.

Unlike in some other field sports, any player can be anywhere on the field at any time. In a fast-moving game (the horses can sprint at about 55 km/h in the heat of battle) No 1 can suddenly become No 4 if the other side gets the ball.

"Everybody plays right-handed," says Branch, "That keeps the right-of-way clear for the umpires, and it also helps prevent dangerous collisions between horses and tangles between players."

Branch was a teen champion at the Cowdray Park Polo Club, in West Sussex. The club is one of the leading polo venues in the UK.

Branch and her colleague Derek Reid have organized three residential equestrian programs in Tianjin this summer. The young would-be polo players are taught a complete skill set, with sessions in basic riding, mallet practice on a wooden horse, polo riding and playing polo. Young polo players from Britain are joining each group for polo and cultural exchanges.

But the summer-camp riders will start with a shovel - learning stable management and horse welfare from a crew that starts working with the animals soon after 5 am.

Polo is an ancient game, and it may be the oldest team sport in existence, says Reid, a cheerful Australian who is the club's head professional and the former captain of his country's national team. The first matches were probably played in Persia (today's Iran) more than 2,500 years ago, and polo-field scenes adorn paintings and other artworks from the region even today. Roland K. Wong, president of the club, says polo was "very popular in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907)".

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