The morning air is crisp as I ride toward the field with a mallet balanced on my shoulder, the smell of grass and the tranquil, rustic setting putting me at ease. I have come to La Eloisa estancia, an Argentine farm and polo estate in the village of Las Heras, located 50 miles from Buenos Aires, to immerse myself in the sport of polo. Argentina is the ideal place to learn; the country has produced more polo superstars than any other. To date, 33 Argentine players have earned 10-goal status, the highest rank conferred by the sport.
Improving in polo is a process that can take years, but I hope that this visit will accelerate my education. My pony is a lively black mare whose name, Motosierra, is Spanish for “chainsaw,” and she has much in common with her namesake: She is fast, efficient, and powerful, the qualities that every good polo pony must possess. She senses my trepidation but obeys a decisive pat on her mane with the back of the reins that tells her to line up and prepare for the shot.
The ball lies 15 feet ahead. My polo trainer, Brian Cleveland, stands at the sidelines, scrutinizing all. I whip Motosierra with the reins to propel her forward. My inner thigh muscles tense as I rise out of the saddle. I am concerned about maintaining balance—this movement can be disorienting—but Cleveland offers encouragement. “Keep it up,” he says. “Don’t sit back down in the saddle. You’re doing fine.” Rising, I turn to face the ball, gently lower my arm, and bring the mallet down. The ball surges ahead with a satisfying thwack. It rockets away at a slight angle, but I have still completed a respectable off-side forehand shot, which is a critical move for beginners to master. “Great, you did it,” Cleveland says. “Now for the next one.”
Cleveland, a tall, solidly built American who has competed in tournaments and at clubs in the United States and Argentina for the last six years, breeds and trains polo ponies on a farm outside of Dallas, and he writes regularly for Polo Players’ Edition magazine. Although he lives in the United States, he also hosts players—professionals and beginners alike—who come to Argentina seeking full-time access to the sport. Argentine estancias typically approach potential hosts and invite them to teach in residence. The estancias also supply students with the required sporting equipment, and the grooms who prepare and deliver the horses are usually excellent polo players themselves.
The education is not limited to drills and games on the estancias’ fields, however. Legendary polo clubs such as Ellerstina, Los Indios, and Hurlingham are often close enough to allow eager students to take a day trip to watch the masters play. These field trips provide a refreshing break from days of practice and stoke the desire to improve. If I hope to be even half as good as the pros, I must perfect that tricky off-side forehand shot. Cleveland tells me to line up again. Under his gaze, I approach the ball at a gallop, strike it, and send it clear to the other end of the field. It is not perfect, but it is better than my previous attempt, and this is heartening. I turn around, eager for the next shot.