Holding reins in her left hand and a long bamboo mallet in her right, Zoe Anne Brown twists in her saddle.
“Where do I make contact with the ball – along the side or the tip?” She motions to the head of her mallet.
Standing on the ground beside her, Kyle Fargey, professional polo player and director of the Calgary Polo Riding Academy, grins.
“It’s not croquet,” he says. “Take as much surface area as you can get.”
Ms. Brown swings the mallet and connects with the ball. It’s a good hit, but her mount does not move. She is sitting on a wooden horse in a hitting cage – something akin to a baseball-batting cage. Her ball lands on the angled platform in front of her, settles into a gutter and rolls back to the artificial turf beneath her right stirrup, perfectly positioned for her next swing.
On this brisk May day, 10 students have come to the academy at the Calgary Polo Club, a sprawling 121 hectares 30 minutes south of downtown Calgary, for an introduction to a sport most of them have never seen. The academy provides almost everything they need for their lesson: a horse, a helmet, tack and a mallet.
Although it is not widely known, polo has been part of Alberta cowboy culture for longer than the Calgary Stampede. Alfred Ernest (A.E.) Cross, one of the ranchers who founded the Stampede in 1912, established the Calgary Polo Club two decades earlier, in 1890. Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, CPC is one of the oldest polo clubs in North America. Yet until recently, membership was dwindling.
“The club is battling misconceptions that it’s private, that polo is elitist or prohibitively expensive,” says Mr. Fargey, who learned to play at age seven in Winnipeg. “When you look at other equine disciplines, like rodeo or showjumping, it’s comparative in cost.”
Over the past five years, polo academy graduates have doubled the size of the club. In his 11 years managing the school, Mr. Fargey has taught people aged seven to 70. Previous riding experience is good, but not required.
“People who ride a certain discipline, whether Western or English or otherwise, have to overcome all that muscle memory. At least people with no riding experience have a clean slate and we can teach them exactly how they need to ride for polo.”
As fast-moving clouds allow a brief interlude of sun, assistant instructor Megan Kozminski demonstrates basic swings on the grass near the hitting cage. For safety, mallets are held in the right hand only – even lefties must abide by this rule. Using shorter ones called foot mallets, the students pass the ball to one another standing on firm ground.
Ms. Kozminski looks at University of Lethbridge student Nico Villamil. “Okay, Nico, you’re ready to graduate to riding.” She turns to the others. “You too. Everyone saddle up.”
Mr. Villamil and the rest of the students approach a line of 10 ponies, all tacked with matching blue saddle pads. Their manes are shorn to prevent tangles with mallets and reins. Their tails are tied up and out of the way.
After checking the length of their stirrups and donning helmets, the students mount their steeds. Following Mr. Fargey, they ride into a sand-filled arena, its sideboards similar to those of a hockey rink. He starts them off with drills, dribbling the ball at a walk, and circling back behind their teammates if they miss.
Mr. Villamil persuades his pony, Pumpkin, to speed up into a trot, bouncing a little, but managing a few solid hits.
Mr. Fargey decides the students are ready to play. “Everyone to the centre.”
The newbies face off along the centre line, mallet-heads on the ground. Mr. Fargey bowls in the ball, and a slow-motion game begins.
“Get in line. Tighten those reins. Keep your eye on the ball.” Mr. Fargey talks constantly, a hybrid of harassment and encouragement. A traffic jam of horses and students forms in front of him. “No stopping in polo.”
With a swing that proves he is a pro, Mr. Fargey hits the ball two-thirds of the way across the arena. The clump of players spreads out in pursuit. Some of the braver riders start cantering.
Ms. Brown reaches the ball first. She taps it and trots forward, pulling ahead of the pack. On the opposing side, Mr. Villamil tries to motivate Pumpkin, who has slowed to a doleful trudge. No one manages to catches Ms. Brown. She hits the ball again, and scores.
“Well done,” Mr. Fargey calls.
The game wraps in a sudden flurry of snowflakes, a wintry start to the polo school’s summer season. But the weather does not chill the group’s enthusiasm – everyone signs up for another lesson.