A game at Cowdray Park. A game at Cowdray Park. Photo courtesy of Cowdray Park.

Sport of Kings

Ride high through the British summer and try your hand at the world’s oldest team sport.

by Victoria Gill 22 June 2018

That defining photograph of a young Charles and Camilla exchanging that look of being powerless-against-the-great-incapacitating-depths-of-love. Meghan and Harry kissing at Cowarth Park, attending their inaugural society outing together.

Get lost behind an oak tree or catch eyes across the field, play footsies while stomping divots then exchange numbers after dark. The rush and clamour of the cantering on the field foil to intimacy and, as the great bonkbuster writer Jilly Cooper captured it, lust. Chukkas and crops; polo shirts and plus fours (if you’re game for shooting afterwards); black tie or die at auctions after dark. Bid on a polo safari for two; his and hers racehorses and priceless works of art. Then it is carriages at dusk or Bentleys back for bedtime, before sinking into the four-poster, flirting with the crystal decanter en route.

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Equestrians at British Polo Day, photo courtesy of Rolex.

Dashing and dexterous, polo may be the sport of kings, but it’s the princes who bring the dazzle to polo today. The scene is classic: noble colts who work the fields with the same verve and panache they present at the palaces, inviting their fellow Hired Assassins to compete from around the world, exchanging millionaire shots and tall shots from the half baker’s dozen of handsome steads required for each and every match.

“Concentration, balance and passion are all key as it's a sport that goes at a million miles an hour,” explains Zero handicap player and aristocrat, George Spencer-Churchill. “If you are not fully focused, a game can slip away in a minute. Commitment, as well as lots of practice, is the key to improving your game.” The sport dates back three millennia and matches gallop through the British summer to this day, sponsored by the veteran names in luxury - Cartier, Laurent Perrier and Veuve Cliquot et al – and there are a plethora of places to learn to or perfect play.

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An equestrian at British Polo Day, photo courtesy of Rolex.

Related: Polo in Madrid: a guide 

Finesse your game at The London Polo Club, or join a team of enthusiasts with Polo Experiences at the Olympic Park. Outside London, in polo’s familiar Home Counties stomping ground, is Cowarth Park, where Meghan and Harry indelibly debuted; it is Britain’s first and only five star polo hotel, while purists can opt for a masterclass with veteran royal polo club guards. When I accepted a very special, personal invitation to learn to play at Cowdray Park - ‘Home of Polo’ and host to The Gold Cup - it was not without trepidation.

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Polo lessons at Cowdray Estate, photo courtesy of Cowdray. 

However, it seemed that those nascent trots and years spent shivering on hockey fields were not, as it turned out, completely pointless after all. First, let’s talk about the ponies: the most gamine of creatures, peerlessly pedigreed and impossibly glossy, their skittishness foil to sensitivity and unerring obedience after being trained by some of the most exacting hands and crops. You feel as though the beast is simultaneously at one and one’s own. Athletic and noble, dexterous and deft, intelligent and instinctual - it is said that 80% of success on the field is down to the horse.

Soon enough, the wind was rushing through my hair and momentum was building. A dozen colts and students were trotting their elegant prance against a backdrop of oak forests and rolling pristine fields melding a peppermint patchwork, and the great stately home behind us, and I was steering my mare through a gentle pull of the reins when I saw the instructors frantically waving their arms in the air. We had been cantering! More remarkably still, I’d stayed on.

Afterwards we luxuriated in the classic country pile experience of roaring fires and fountained views from our four posters, meandering from the bowling alley in the basement to the panelled dining room, roaming the battlements and luxuriating over a 4-course supper by The Game Bird restaurant, of game snared on the grounds.

Game Bird

The Game Bird restaurant.

As the sky shifts from turquoise to cerulean to midnight blue, and the stars twinkle over the frosted air of the rolled lawns and forests thickets, we and the fillies rest up ahead of tomorrow’s pursuits. As Nacho Figueras puts it, “Polo is the most inviting sport I’ve ever seen,” and it is primed to host you in the saddle this summer.

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