ave you ever tried something for the first time and loved it so much that you got kind of bummed that it took you so long to try it out? That was my experience with learning to play polo. I’ve always known about it and even have a good friend who plays regularly, yet I never gave it a shot, perhaps due to my fear that I might not be able to hit the ball. But then I traveled to the El Venado Polo School in Argentina to learn how to play (and take a killer vacation) and my inner polo star came out.
Located on 2,500 acres about two hours outside of Buenos Aires in Pila, El Venado is a polo school and retreat that provides guests with an authentic Argentinian experience, complete with homemade food, Gauchos, and expert polo instruction. Federico Cendoya, the school’s owner, is a 5-goal professional and has been hosting travelers for over 30 years at his Estancia El Venado.
My days in Argentina began with helping the Gauchos bring in the horses from the fields, and one day, we even herded cows. I ride show horses. This was about the furthest thing from what I used to, and I was so into it. After playing cowgirl, I went to the school to practice stick and ball - literally what it sounds like: hitting the ball with the stick (mallet) to practice your swing. Although I am an experienced hunter/jumper rider, I had never even touched a mallet prior to this trip. Luckily for me, having previous riding experience made it easier to pick up on polo basics, like staying on the horse. It goes a little something like this: the reins are held in your left hand while you swing the mallet with your right. Then, try to hit the ball without slamming the mallet into the grass and hurting your wrist. The instruction from Fede must have been good because by the end of my first lesson, I was already hitting the ball!
After stick and ball practice, guests enjoy a traditional Argentine lunch and a glass of wine on the patio. Argentina is big on wine, particularly Malbec. You can even order wine by the Penguino at most restaurants in and around Buenos Aires - a ceramic penguin, filled to the brim with the house Malbec. After lunch, you can take a siesta, swim in the beautiful pool, or hang out with the other guests and geek out over your newfound polo prowess. Later in the day, everyone meets up at the stables for the afternoon chukkas. I took it slow and spent the first couple of days learning the rules of the game. Teams are comprised of four riders, each with their assigned position. Each chukka goes by so fast and changes direction often, so the amount of galloping you do is really fun. Now I know why you need multiple ponies—it’s a big playing field. Somehow, I managed to hit four goals in two days and I found myself hooked on this totally awesome sport. One thing I appreciated as well was the amazing condition and wonderful lifestyle of the polo ponies here - fat, happy, shiny ponies who graze in green pastures and truly love their job. Argentina values its polo ponies as a national treasure and they are extremely well cared for.
As with all of the equestrian destinations I visit, meeting and getting to know the other horse-loving guests adds such a fun element to travel. I felt so at home during my stay at El Venado that I completely understood why so many of the guests return year after year. There’s nothing quite like galloping through tall grass and open fields on these well-bred, well-fed, happy horses. Fede and his wife, Ines, immediately felt like family and are very welcoming and generous. Maybe I’ll need to head back to Argentina and do some polo pony shopping? I could be easily convinced.
Photos courtesy of Jennifer Sims and Katrina Katt.