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So you want to learn how to play polo?

Beginner polo players have the speed and thrill of the chukka to look forward to, and that, says professional player and trainer Mark Harris, is what hooks people to the game.

Learning polo
Mark Harris takes a student through her swing.
"You've got half-tonne animals running at 25 to 30 mph trying to hit a little white ball," the Tuahiwi (Canterbury) trainer says.

"It's fast and glamorous, but the glamour wears off the more you're around polo. You soon realise it's hard work, and time consuming. You're putting in all that time and effort and money so you can go out there and play your chukkas," he says.

Learners shouldn't expect to jump straight on and blat down the field -- there are a few basics to hone first.

First, Harris takes learners to his hitting cage, where he starts riders on the basics. Then comes hitting down the beach, and then on to practice chukkas.

"It's got to be fun for the person. I go through things fairly in-depth, depending on who the person is, stage by stage. I give a lot of information, and tell them to go away and write it down and think about it.

"My idea is not to give lots of lessons, it's to give as few as possible and get the person started. The other main thing is to make sure they're safe and doing everything properly. I make them fully aware of the dangers."

Harris likes to start prospective mounts young, and often buys ex-racehorses already broken in.

"Normally I buy on type, a nice 15.1hh, with a pretty head, long neck, deep girth, good legs, a short back, and huge hindquarters. You really need a thoroughbred that can run all the time. They've also got to be calm.

"I buy them as yearlings, break them in when they're two and ride them for about six weeks."

He looks for horses with the ability to be sold overseas, or to ride himself, in order to keep his handicap up. As a professional, "there's a direct relationship between your handicap and what you get paid."

Player ratings start at minus two, and the world's best players are up on 10 goals. The ratings are a measure of ability, similar to golf. For an 18-goal tournament, for example, the players' handicaps must all add up to 18. Harris is a six-goal player, and at that ranking has been hired to play around the world.

He started the sport at 22 and has been playing for nearly 20 years. Players can go up a goal a year, but after one or two-goal ratings, top horses, and ability, are needed to go on.

Polo is no longer an elite sport reserved for royalty or the extremely rich. Playing one of the world's oldest games is within reach of most riders, whether by owning, renting, or leasing horses.



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