First Ride

27 08 2015

My friends who have known me since long before I started blogging know that my first passion (even before airplanes) was horses. When we lived in England and I was 9 years old, my father’s work colleague’s daughter introduced me to horses. By 13 I was riding in international junior tournaments, and placing among the top competitors.

Me and Carlos, December 1982

Carlos and me, December 1982.

I went to summer riding camp in 1984 and won all of the championship ribbons there. At my home barn I was one of the better juniors, and among the most ambitious on competition day. And of course I thought I would be doing this forever.

But the logistics of life have a way of intervening. I had to go to college at some point, learn something sensible and begin working on a career of some sort. Horse riding cost money, and the day would come when my generous parents turned off the faucet. Not to mention the time factor. So when I realized that I did not have the clout, wealth or connections to make it onto the professional circuit, riding slipped into the background.

As an adult I took on a horse-sharing arrangement, where I had one lesson per week and one free ride out on the trails. Then it was just one trail ride a week. And when the horse I was sharing moved away, it dropped to zero. My interests shifted to cheaper endeavors like flying airplanes and skating marathons.

So yesterday was a premiere of sorts… I probably haven’t sat in a saddle since about 2008, and haven’t had a real riding lesson since way way way before then. Maybe 15 years? The first thing I noticed about this sport was that everything is even more expensive than it was 15 years ago.

My mount was a huge beast called “Bear” – a gentle giant, with a massive, loping gait, and an easygoing personality. His life motto could be: “Sure, whatever.”

Everyone, meet Bear. Bear, meet everyone.

Everyone, meet Bear. Bear, meet everyone.

In the hour or so I was on board, I was reacquainted with muscle groups that I had not felt in years, and knee ligaments that began to ache even before the lesson was over. It was an assessment of sorts, so that I could get the feel of the saddle again and gain confidence in my instincts, and also so that the trainers could gauge what I know. I was told I have a “very European riding style”, and (bad) habits that I would need to work on if I want to raise my skill to the next level. It’s a lot harder work than it looks, trust me. By the end of the hour I was soaked from the effort, out of breath and dehydrated. Lesson learned: bring a bottle of water to the arena and take breaks when the trainer tells you to.

But in the couple of first hours I spent in their company, in the saddle and on the ground, I realized once again that horses are my people. I love the beauty of their movement, the warm velvet of their noses and their gentle, forgiving spirits. I love being in a working barn: the sawdust and the muck, mixed with the smell of saddle soap, fresh hay, and sweaty horse. I love getting my hands and my boots dirty.

Later in the day I started feeling like I had been hit by a truck. I considered taking a few Advil before bed but thought to myself… Nah… I’m tough, I can take this. I slept terribly.

My husband often likes to remind me that I am no longer 25. I often hate to admit that he is right. Nevertheless, I am getting back on a horse next Wednesday morning. The pain be damned.

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Polo at its Argentine best

16 12 2011

Once every couple of years, I travel to South America to visit my relatives – my father’s family – and last week it was time to drop in on them again. My aunt died suddenly just before Christmas last year, and I don’t know how long my 71-year-old uncle is going to be around.  I just wanted to see them, spend time with them and enjoy their company. It helps that they live in a pretty cool place: Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It is summer in Buenos Aires this time of year; the days get longer and the temperatures climb into tropical regions. And the annual Argentine Open Polo competition gets underway.

For those of you unfamiliar with polo the sport (as opposed to Polo the brand), it is, in a word, elitist. You have to be super-rich to be a part of it, and fearless and athletic to play. Each team consists of four human members, and anywhere between 32 and 64 equine ones, called “ponies”. You may recall, the Princes Charles, William and Harry play polo.

It is hockey on horseback, if you will. Equine golf at full gallop.  Soccer at superspeed… with a mallet… from six feet off the ground.

Geronimo!!!!!!!

The Argentine Open is to international polo what the World Series is to international baseball. In essence, it is the world championship because there is no question whatsoever as to which nation dominates the sport. And within polo, only a handful of families control the business.

Polo enthusiasts from around the world flock to the national polo grounds in Palermo, in the center of Buenos Aires, from late November, to watch their idols make magic. This year was the 118th in which the tournament has taken place.

Attending an Argentine Open polo match has been on my bucket list for a long, long time. So as soon as my travel dates to BA were set, I contacted a friend here who got me tickets to this year’s final, where the best of the very best duke it out in eight chukkas. (Actually learning how to play polo remains close to the top of that said list.)

The finalists were the same teams that have ruled the tournament, the sport, and the industry since 2007: Ellerstina and La Dolfina – neither of which meant squat to me before I set foot on the holy Palermo pitch. (But ladies, each one of those eight boys on horseback makes George Clooney look like a serious has-been. Trust me.)

The ponies are something else altogether, and most have pedigree parentage across several generations who have already played in Palermo finals.

Polo fans are a strange set for your average major sporting event… civilized, white, beautiful people, many showing off a whole bunch of bling and botox. They are respectful and unbelievably concentrated during the action on the field. Polo is the only sport in the world, my ticket-acquiring friend said, where the players make more noise than the spectators. There were moments in the grandstands where you could hear a pin drop. On grass.

Ellerstina making a "Hail Mary" play.

I was spellbound, despite slowly melting in the 32 degree C (100 degree F) heat. It was one of the most fascinating sporting events I have ever witnessed and I was very aware of what a high honor it was to actually be there to watch the final LIVE. However, according to one expert’s post-match analysis, it was a messy game. The teams were nervous and made a bunch of stupid mistakes that led to too many penalties, he added. A number of goals ensued from these penalty situations – not a very crowd-friendly way to entertain 16,000 paying fans.

In the end La Dolfina whipped Ellerstina 16 to 10, and polo’s posterboy, Adolfo Cambiaso, Dolfina’s number one player and owner, added another diamond to his already very full crown as the true king of international polo.

See how fast I have become a polo expert?  Took me a whole eight chukkas in the cheap seats under the hot sun.

The final score of this year's Argentine Open Final.