Chukka Can…Chukka Can… Learn to Play Polo in Seven Days
“As soon as you get out of the taxi I know what sort of rider you are, I can tell,” said Kevin Begg, owner of Estancia Los Potreros, a 6,000-acre farm an hour outside Cordoba, Argentina’s second largest city.
“It sounds corny but as soon as my wife stepped out of the taxi I knew she would be the woman I would marry,” continues Kevin, talking about Hampshire-born Louisa who first visited Los Potreros as a guest seven years ago. “The fact I was here with my girlfriend of the time was a little inconvenient!”
Kevin and Lou run their Anglo-Argentine estancia in a no-nonsense, laid-back, family style. After all, this is the Begg estate and the well-worn armchairs, bookshelves full of thumbed novels and family photographs lining the walls remind guests that this has been the case for four generations.
Most guests come to Los Potreros to relax, eat good food, and hike or hack (there are no less than 120 horses) over the surrounding ‘Sierras Chicas’. I, however, have come for the ‘Learn to Play Polo’ week and the schedule is somewhat more intense.
After breakfast of poached eggs and homemade bread we trot down to the polo field for morning lessons with four-goal player, Juan Manuel Pizarro (known as Humi). Charming, handsome and sparkly-eyed, Humi has come straight from the pages of a Jilly Cooper novel. His shirt is even ‘duck egg blue’.
We begin with a team tactics prep-talk; Humi tells us to start with half swings and to make sure we pass to one another. The gauchos bring over our horses and the ‘stick and ball’ session begins.
If you have ever seen a polo match you may have noticed the speed at which players charge up and down the field; couple this with trying to make contact with the ball and trying not to foul and you will start to imagine how hard polo is.
However this week isn’t for professionals and Humi is endlessly encouraging. “Come on Gabriel!” he shouts as I take a huge swing and hit only grass. “Nice try, well done. Next time try to swing in a straight line!”
It helps if you can ride, but being a lifelong horseman is by no means a prerequisite. You may find that a keen golfer who has never ridden will outdo everyone on the polo field.
After a short break for drinks and biscuits, team shirts are handed out, new horses delivered and the practice chukka begins. There are four players aside and luckily Humi is on my team. Immediately the tempo changes, aggression is unleashed and we zoom from one end of the pitch to the other.
Being beginners, the ball goes out more often than through the goal and several fouls are called; one of the most frequent offences is crossing the path of the player with the ball. Yet, regardless of misdemeanours and false starts, the game is exhilarating and hugely addictive.
In what seems like no time at all Humi blows the whistle and we return home for lunch on the veranda. The food is hearty, homemade, Argentine fare with empanadas, milanesas and barbecued meat. Wine flows freely and being in wine country, Los Potreros has its own signature brand (either Malbec or Torrentes) which is produced in the local vineyard.
After a brief siesta, tea and cake is served and we hit the saddle again. The majority of the 120 horses are Criollos (a perfect breed for polo), but there are also some Peruvian Pasos. The latter is an Andean breed with an additional stride, which is like a very fast trot but so smooth that you seemingly glide across the rocky terrain.
Led by Julio, a beret-wearing gaucho, we round up cattle and move them to new pastures. Vultures, eagles and condors circle the sky above, and as lightning starts to crack on the horizon we decide it’s time to return.
Roughly six hours a day are spent on horseback and my aching muscles are glad of a hot bath (home comforts also include hot-water bottles, log fires and morning cups of tea). After cocktails and nibbles we go through to supper en famille, taking our places around the large dining room table.
Kevin reigns at the head, tapping his glass to deliver his farewell spiel to departing guests: “As Lou and I always say: we hope you had a great time, but if you didn’t… tough!” There are roars of laughter from (almost all) the guests and the chatter picks up again.
Days blend into each other, passing far too quickly, and the end of the week is marked with a tournament. To boost numbers ‘the plastics’ (easily distinguished by their pert chests) are brought in: these girls may look pretty but I soon learn that sport (football and polo) really is Argentina’s second religion.
Putting up a good fight we draw level in the last chukka before loosing in the last-minute. Muscles and egos a little bruised, we retire to the comfort of the estancia. Well and truly hooked, we sip cocktails and vow that next time we will win.