Playing Polo with Style
In a polo lesson with a pro, JENINNE LEE-ST. JOHN bucks her fear of horseback riding and embraces her inner—and outer—preppy.
Published on May 24, 2016
THE LAST TIME I WAS ON A HORSE, I nearly killed myself and a friend. A poorly chosen reverse maneuver erupted in five terrifying minutes of our two animals neighing and rearing and hating us and trying to toss us as we clung to their manes and reins while I made myself whisper soothing words instead of screaming, "I don't want to die!"
Needless to say, I was a little apprehensive about remounting a few months later, particularly in the immediate vicinity of other riders. But I had a lesson scheduled with famed American polo coach Rege Ludwig, who winters at the Thai Polo & Equestrian Club. I also had a closet full of polo shirts, so basically I was already an expert, right?
Ludwig is the consummate cheerleader. Courtesy of Thai Polo & Equestrian Club.
Well, at minimum, the goal was to turn me into an aficionado—a St. Regis Aficionado. This program curates cultural immersions that go far beyond your standard market tours to help guests engage with their destination in unexpected ways that suit their actual interests. Each hotel offers different things based on their locations, and they're often one-on-one with experts. When in Chengdu, take a baijiu-making class with a master and go home with an engraved bottle; in Kauai, sign up for surf lessons with wave-riding legend Bill Hamilton who will craft you a custom board. This is the stuff of true vacation bragging rights, not just because it is so exclusive but also because, as I found, it is incredibly fulfilling. It's in line with the trend of the increasingly competitive US$1 trillion luxury experiences industry; in a Boston Consulting Group study, wealthy travelers said they reap triple the emotional reward from having a cool experience as from buying a product for the same price. It was a great reason to get back in the saddle.
And so, one of the preppiest days of my life (and that is saying a lot) starts with a healthy lunch at St. Regis Bangkok and this property's take on the Bloody: a lemongrass-, ginger- and chili-spiced Siam Mary. Yes, it is certainly inadvisable to drink and ride, but the three of us in today's clinic have a two-hour car ride pre-ponies. "To not falling off!" we toast. The Thai Polo Club rolls across 240 emerald hectares in Pattaya. Friendly Argentine manager and vet Santiago Bachmann talks us through the basics of a polo match during our tour of the five fields, cross-country track, 250 stables, dressage arenas, jumping stadiums and, heartstring-tugger, the region's best horse hospital. Already it feels like a successful expedition to parts unknown but awesome.
The Thai Polo & Equestrian Club main field and clubhouse. Courtesy of Thai Polo & Equestrian Club.
Rege Ludwig is waiting for us at the cage. "I need to warn you about a couple of things: Don't blame me if you leave here addicted," says the Pennsylvania native with a wink and a drawl. "When I teach, I touch, no matter whether you're a woman or a man." Rege has been doing this for 40 years. If yoga teachers can fix my poses, have at it, horse whisperer.
The mallets are kind of elongated and tapered versions of croquet mallets, and you hit the ball with the broad side. During the swing, you rotate your wrist so that the palm, thus the mallet's head, goes from facing outward behind your body to inward in front of you. "Supinate… pronate… supinate… pronate…" Rege intones as we swing our right arms. The mallets, though not too heavy, are really tall, only about 20 centimeters shorter than me. I'm really short, and I have minimal upper-body strength, so practicing on the ground quickly starts to feel like some twisted white-collar torture. I try to ignore the fact that my arm wants to fall off even before I get atop the wooden horse. Rege is a great cheerleader, but he has coached countless high-scoring polo players and several championship teams. I don't want to disappoint him.
The polo stance is acrobatic. You perch far forward and high in the saddle, engaging the right thigh to grip against tipping over, and, while keeping your posture as erect as possible, you lean over and stretch your arm down til the mallet head grazes the ground.
Rege Ludwig teaches polo novices to supinate and pronate. Courtesy of Thai Polo & Equestrian Club.
Getting each muscle movement right is the only way to counteract gravity so Rege adjusts my leg, straightens my back, tugs my arm. "Great! That looks great! You're a natural," he encourages. I'm a kid again, bat above my shoulder, my dad's saying, "Keep your eye on the ball," before every softball he pitches. But once Rege helps me find my rhythm, I'm doing both the pitching and hitting. Being in the cage is like being in a giant Skee-Ball lane: hit the balls up the ramp and they come rolling back down. Hit them harder, they come back faster. Supinate! Whack! Pronate! "Now I'm guessing you were an athlete," Rege says to my increasingly inflated ego. Well, yeah, I used to play field hockey so, like, balls and sticks… shrug… Supinate! Whack! Pronate! This is so fun. It is addictive. Then Rege says, "Let's try a backhand," and my head promptly shrinks back to size. No, you don't use two hands and, no, you don't switch hands (you'd drop the reins at high speed). You lean your right arm over the left side of the horse, so, really far over, and then pronate and supinate in reverse. What? I try it, lose my mojo, and return to forehand so I can go out on a win. Rege, ever the confidence-booster, is down with this.
Finally it's time to get on the live horses and put all the moves together. It seems like an awful lot to remember at once, but when it clicks it feels rad, the ball goes shooting across the field. Like in baseball, making contact is all about hand-eye coordination and follow-through. Like in golf, a lighter touch paradoxically yields better results. Rege is able to monitor the three of us individually at the same time, correcting our form but mostly giving props—extremely generous since at this point I can barely heft my right arm above the horse's butt (which this time I manage not to walk into anyone else's). He's also able to read our exhaustion. "Five more minutes," he says and, sensing our reluctance, adds grinningly, "I told you you'd be addicted." It's true, I don’t want to dismount. The consultants are on to something—it's a triple crown of an experience.
Polo ponies, ready to play. Courtesy of Thai Polo & Equestrian Club.
stregisaficionado.com; Master the Sport of Kings with Rege Ludwig including two nights at St. Regis Bangkok in a Grand Deluxe room, round-trip transfer to the Thai Polo & Equestrian Club and a four-hour lesson for Bt47,340 for two people, available November through April.