Soccer on Horses

Today was an action packed day. We had two very Argentinian things on the agenda, a polo day and a closed door restaurant dinner. Polo, while it began in England, is a sport dominated in every way possible by Argentina.  They don’t even consider the world cup competition and instead look at their own tournaments between private teams as more exciting. Since polo season is October through December, instead of catching a game, we would instead be participating in a complete polo day including watching a game at a local polo club and then learning to play ourselves.

We had our earliest morning yet, and headed downstairs at 10 am to be picked up.  Of course we should have known the pickup would be late but it still made us nervous. Our van drove us to a larger mini bus that would be taking us out of the city to the polo grounds.  It was here that we met the ridiculous cast of characters that would make up the rest of our day.  It seems polo draws some very interesting people to participate.

There was the very flamboyant group of Dutch KLM flight attendants who would all be very sunburned by the end of the day. A pair of California girls were on their way to an Antarctic cruise and were very concerned about properly documenting everything through Instagram. Two guys about our age were very concerned with one upping each other as well as not looking like they’ve never played polo before, which they hadn’t. Finally there was a retired woman who bicycles around the world and her college age daughter who is triple majoring at Georgetown. Lynn and I mostly spent the hour long bus ride listening to the ridiculous conversations these people all had with each other.  Our favorite was a very overly concerned reaction to a random piece of trivia.

DC Guy while reading a book: Did you know that in market crash of 1873 over a quarter of New Yorkers lost their job in one month.

Other DC Guy: Jesus! Wow…just…wow.

Thoroughly entertained our whole way out, we arrived at a beautiful horse farm well outside the city and gathered in an open area kitchen/dining area for some welcome empanadas and wine. It was here that we learned our host and instructor or the day, Pablo, does not take no for an answer when he asks if you would like any more of anything.  “I has a problem. I don’t like hands or wine glasses empty,” he admits.

From here we were instructed to follow over to a polo field where Pablo explained the history of polo and rules of the game.  We then started watching the first chukka (period) of an exhibition match at the polo club. It was quite fascinating and a bit terrifying how fast these horses run at each other with mallets swinging.  The rules were quite simple as well.  It’s basically soccer on a horse and with no goalie.

Pablo teaching us about polo while players warm up in the background.
Pablo teaching us about polo while players warm up in the background.
A picture of Pablo that we found on Instagram so you know he's legit.
A picture of Pablo that we found on Instagram so you know he’s legit.

After the first chukka, it was our turn to start practicing.  We made our way out onto the field with shorter mallets and started hitting the hard plastic ball to each other. It was a bit harder than it first looked but we all got the hang of it before too long.  Lynn had some bad habits from field hockey she had to shake but I was luckily unburdened by any of that and instead had no excuse for hitting the ball nowhere near where I intended it to go.

The second chukka came and went, with Pablo keeping our wine glasses quite full, before we headed over to the Pony Line, to see all of the horses resting in the shade, either recovering from their 7 minutes of game play or waiting for theirs to come.  We saw the players saddling up their horses and we got to pet them a bit. Some were absolutely drenched in sweat, which made sense, but was something I had never thought of.  They had just been sprinting for 7 minutes straight with a person on top of them in the Argentinian summer.

Lynn throwing in the ball to start a chukka.
Lynn throwing in the ball to start a chukka.
The players fighting for the ball after a throw in. It really is just like soccer.
The players fighting for the ball after a throw in. It really is just like soccer.
They are clearly way more talented than we will be.
They are clearly way more talented than we will be.
They gave moves really fast, on a field five times the size of a football field.
They move really fast, on a field five times the size of a football field.
Saddling up the next pony.
Saddling up the next pony.

After the third chukka we had more hitting practice before we watched the end of the game and posed for pictures with the players. Then it was time for lunch! We had indeed worked up an appetite watching all that polo. Lunch was served al fresco, under some beautiful shade trees with two dogs, Negro and Dog, for company. A platter of grilled vegetables came out first, followed by all the meat you could eat.  Of course Pablo kept our glasses full of wine, the free flowing nature of which caused some us to worry about the safety of mounting a 1500 pound animal later but he assured us it was fine.

This is Dog.
This is Dog.
This is Negro. He has learned what to do when people come near.
This is Negro. He has learned what to do when people come near.
The polo crew at the lunch table. Lynn is distracted by the dogs.
The polo crew at the lunch table. Lynn is distracted by the dogs.

After lunch we got suited up in our polo gear and headed over the horses.  At this point we were a bit concerned about the lack of horse riding instruction, especially given the amount of horsemanship that seemed required while we were watching the earlier game. We need not have worried though as Pablo gave us a very extensive three minute lesson. We learned that a quarter million dollars buys some very good horses and they basically know how to play polo without you doing anything. Just hold on and here’s how you turn, stop, and go.

It's almost our turn. We don't have our chaps or jerseys on yet.
It’s almost our turn. We don’t have our chaps or jerseys on yet.  Also it was very hot out.  That’s why my pants are rolled up.
Polo helmets.
Polo helmets.

And with that, up on the horses we climbed and we strolled over to the field.  What followed was forty five minutes of us learning to hit the ball while significantly higher off the ground atop a moving horse. Most of the horses knew what was up and didn’t see much reason to hurry anywhere.  I later learned that they chase the ball and if you hit it far, they will run after it, slowing down as you get closer.  Sometimes they will even kick it like a soccer ball in the direction you want it to go.  It seems these are well trained horses indeed.

Feeling about as practiced as we were going to get it was time for a match.  We split up into two teams (with us on opposites) and played on a half sized field for the next forty five minutes. A hilarious congestion of horses ensued, with more mallets hitting each other than the ball. The whole thing resembled a little kids soccer game.  The ball would roll about twenty feet away somewhere and about 14 horses would walk (not run) over to where it had landed in one big pack only to repeat itself again.  Towards the end it got more exciting as people figured out their horses and the best places to be.  A photographer for Horse & Style magazine (have you ever heard of a magazine more geared towards rich people?) who had been shooting the game earlier in the day played with us and she was quite good though the she had never played polo before.  It seemed having horse skills was a lot more important than ball hitting skills.  Also, bonus, if you pick up the March copy of Horse & Style you might catch a picture of us, though not likely in our hand me down chaps and baggy scrimmage jerseys.

Lynn did quite well and had some nice passes and even an awesome block of a shot that would surely have been a goal. Maybe field hockey did come in handy. I didn’t fair as well, but was doing better towards the end after I figured out how to make my horse run, and I even managed to hook Tito (totally legal in Polo), one of the club players playing with us to help keep the game moving.

Obligatory team pictures.
Obligatory team pictures.
We both seem to have run past the ball.  Ooops.
We both seem to have run past the ball. Ooops.
Doug lining up his shot.
Doug lining up his shot.
Lynn taking a swing.
Lynn taking a swing.

By the end, despite Lynn’s best efforts, #TeamBlack eventually won in sudden death and we headed back for the shade and for our poor horses to rest and get some water.  We spent the next hour all talking about how sore our shoulders and wrists were on our right arm and relaxing by the pool while Pablo brought us Sangria.  Eventually it was time to head home, so we climbed back in the minibus back to the city, and almost everyone slept on the way back.  Polo had been surprisingly tiring despite looking like all you do is sit on a horse the whole time. As we got towards the city, the highway passed through some slums with half finished brick buildings on dirt roads and it was a very stark contract to the polo fields we had just been on.

Post game sangria by the pool.
Post game sangria by the pool.

We arrived back home and it was now 8.00 pm and there was no rest for the weary as we had dinner plans!  Buenos Aires has a thriving closed-door restaurant culture where a group of people will run a single seating per night restaurant out of their house.  The whole thing is illegal since there are no food permits, alcohol licenses, or health inspections, but you do get very good food and meet interesting people in a cool setting. Plus, it’s illegal in the way selling un-pasteurized milk is illegal. Technically it is, but likely no one cares, you’re going to be just fine, and probably get a better product.

Lynn had found Casa Felix in an in-flight magazine (go Air New Zealand!) and after making a reservation, we had the address of a town house on an unassuming residential street emailed to us. We headed over and arrived exactly on time only to find out they weren’t even done setting up yet.  We need to learn to show up late in Argentina for things I guess.  We waited in the entry room before being shown to the garden out back.  We made small talk with the host before other joined us.  Almost every single person was American and they were all wonderful people. We made our way into the dining courtyard and were all served a six course tasting menu with wine flight for an incredibly low price.

The whole dinner flew by (we didn’t even take any food pictures!) as we discussed travel and all sorts of other things with our fellow dinner guests.  Our favorites were an older couple from California who work for a climate change non-profit, and a Canadian girl who is a sports lawyer in London.  All three were very fascinating, though we are learning that polo days and closed door restaurants definitely attract a certain clientele.  Everyone is either from New York or California, and lawyer or non-profit work ranks pretty high among professions. They all also love Austin.  Every. single. person that we meet just loves Austin and we can’t really figure out why. Sure its a nice place to live, but we don’t really get the appeal of visiting there.

The dinner crew. Look at those law breakers!
The dinner crew. Look at those law breakers!

Around midnight our dinner was finally complete and we split a cab ride home with our new Canadian friend.  Or rather we rode together and then I just paid the cab fare.  Partly because it was only $6 and partly because I have no idea how to split a cab ride with someone who’s not going to the same destination as us. By this point we were exhausted and climbed in bed, satisfied that we had certainly gotten the most out of our day.

Daily Walking Miles : 6ish (estimate – the polo playing resulted in a lot of fake steps)

Fun Facts:

  • There are more polo fields around Buenos Aires than there are in the rest of the world combined.
  • To save their horses, a polo rider uses a new horse for every chukka.  With up to eight chukkas in a game, this means a polo team travels with roughly 40 horses, each costing $250,000 to $1,000,000.  This is indeed a rich person’s sport.
  • Polo was originally developed to train knights and horses. The mallet replaced the sword and the same swings that are used to hit the ball were used to slice down enemies in battle.

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