Argentina at a Gallop

Argentina at a Gallop

A polo novice discovers the elemental ties connecting the game, the land, and its people. (And learns how riding a polo pony is like dancing the tango.)

When I stumbled into Buenos Aires, half-drugged after 19 hours of travel, nothing had prepared me for the larger-than-life patrician men on horseback. On that first woozy day, I caught myself gaping at the polo-inspired fashion billboards (and not just for Ralph Lauren, though those were in evidence, too), at window displays of mannequins holding mallets, and at photographs of ruggedly handsome gents astride horses on the walls of cafés. To my surprise, I had landed in the center of the polo universe.

Argentina, I learned as I settled into the country, is indisputably the sport’s capital. Argentina’s teams have won three world championships. The most important club tournaments are held there. The Palermo stadium in Buenos Aires, known as the Cathedral of Polo, inspires reverence in players from around the world. Everyone who plays polo, novices and pros alike, has a goal rating—similar to a golfer’s handicap—from a beginner’s -2 to a godlike 10. There are 11 players in the world with 10-goal-ratings: All are Argentine.

But despite all the references to the idea of the sport, the game itself was invisible. After a month in the country, I had met no one who played or was even a fan. The mystery piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know why Argentina—with an outgoing cultural exuberance seemingly antithetical to the starched English manner I associated with polo—had proved to be the world’s most fertile ground for the sport. Perhaps it was due to my vulnerable state on that first jet-lagged day, but those initial impressions developed into a mild obsession, one that would lead me to posh country clubs, to polo matches, and—on one ill-fated excursion—into the saddle.

Authentic polo doesn’t advertise itself. I was frustrated in my attempts to learn more until, through a chain of personal connections, I got in touch with an amateur polo player named Alejandro Kohner. Alejandro explained that he raised a few horses on his family farm and played four times a week at a club north of Buenos Aires.

“You know,” I suggested, “I’d like to go to a match with a guide who could explain Argentine polo to me.”

“Bueno,” he said. “We’re going to the finals of the Tortugas Open next week. Can you come?”

The Tortugas Country Club is a 20-minute drive northwest of central Buenos Aires, surrounded by a high green wall. I followed a line of cars down a lane flanked by rows of red and white pennants. The club is in a gated community full of grand houses, towering trees, and immaculate gardens. Security guards waved me onto a vast lawn to park beneath a weeping willow. Alejandro was waiting outside the polo field; he introduced me to his friend Marcelo.

“Polo is very fun,” Alejandro said. “Fun, and risky. I have fallen many times. Once I landed on my head, and I was in the hospital for five days. Another time I cracked my rib.”

“And you still play?” I asked.

“I play more than ever,” he replied with swagger. “But not like these guys,” he inclined his head toward the field. “They are fast.” He whistled. “You will see it. You will feel it.”

The field was an immense green the size of nine football fields, with tall red wicker cones marking the goals at each end. Risers with white plastic armchairs stood on either side for the spectators. A military band marched up and down the grass, and grooms—the horses’ caretakers—brushed down a small cavalry of muscular steeds beneath the trees at one end of the field. (A player might use five horses per game.) We found our seats, and Marcelo and Alejandro began filling in the gaps in my polo education.

“Polo is not popular,” Marcelo said after I’d explained my initial failure to find matches. “Fútbol is popular. Racing cars.”

“Maradona,” the man sitting next to him chimed in, referring to Argentina’s beloved hot-tempered soccer star.

“Claro. Maradona is popular.”

“The people interested in polo have tradition,” Alejandro said. He spread his arms toward the crowd around him. “Everyone here probably plays, or comes with someone who plays. It’s a different class of people here, mid to high. It’s not the Bronx.”

I’d grown used to this sort of bluntness. Political correctness often fails to register in Argentina. Supermarkets are called “chinos,” except for the shops that are not run by Asian families—which are called “polacos.” There’s no internal check that keeps people from talking about class or race. Which meant that Alejandro didn’t flinch when I pressed him for more details about polo’s barriers to entry.

“Per year …” He paused, calculating, “I pay about $5,000 US in membership fees to my club—not counting the horses. Here, it’s cheap to have horses. About $1,000 a month.”

That total, more than $15,000, though, is a decent yearly salary in Argentina. Clearly the people paying to play have to be well-off, and generally the professional players are, too. For the most part, my new friends explained, the top players come from the upper levels of society, often from long lineages of players. They are wealthy, but these polo families are not necessarily oligarchs or aristocrats; they may simply be estate-owning farmers.

“The big difference with Argentine polo players,” Marcelo said, “is that they also come from the farm.”

Alejandro nodded. “My mother was born on the farm,” he said. “She rode horses to school every morning. I rode when I was young. The culture you see here is the culture of the farm.”

I’d been noting all the pin-striped shirts and opera glasses, but in fact, most of the people around us were wearing jeans. A few spectators had on the oversize floppy berets that were introduced to the country by Basque cattlemen and have become a signature of the Argentine polo fan’s uniform. Instead of blazers, the men wore sweaters, leather jackets, or fleece—which seemed casual until I noticed the Dior logo on a fleece vest. This was the gentleman farmer’s culture, not the culture of the laborer.

The match began. The players—four on each team—rode out to the middle of the field. The horses bulged and glistened. The game is like soccer or hockey, on horseback: One team tries to move the ball down the field and through the goal, and the other pushes back. Alejandro pointed out that I could follow each team by the color of its helmets.

“Because they move fast. Believe me, it’s hard to tell what is happening.”

Amazingly, all four members of Ellerstina, the club team clad in black, were players with 10-goal ratings. It wasn’t surprising, then, that they dominated the game. After some back-and-forth in the middle of the field, one of Ellerstina’s players hit a solid drive downfield and his horse leapt after it as if shot from a cannon. The horses in pursuit seemed to melt back. The player struck the ball through the upright stakes for a goal. The stands applauded politely—a far cry from the reaction of Argentine soccer fans, who are on their feet, singing, before players even take the field.

Alejandro raised an eyebrow at me. “They are fast, eh?”

They were. Half-ton horses thundered down the field at 30 miles an hour, pounding the ground with such force that the stands shook. The players rode as if they were attached by adhesive, leaning far off the saddle to lift their mallets skyward as they flew into a scrum, then arcing them down at just the right moment. They galloped into each other at full speed; they clattered against the wooden barrier around the field. It looked like a sport for Valhallans secure in their ability to reattach severed limbs at the end of the day. But it was also an incredibly delicate game: While riding at full gallop, one player, Facundo Pieres, juggled the ball in the air twice with the head of his mallet, then wound up and hit it a third time to the goal. That got the crowd on its feet.

“¡Vamos, Facundo!” Alejandro shouted. “Esto es fenomenal, ¿eh?”

Interestingly, Argentine polo is more accessible if you want to play—though after watching the match at Tortugas, it was with great trepidation that I agreed to try. Polo players from Abu Dhabi to Zurich come here to learn from the best. There is a network of schools set up to cater to them and, incidentally, to introduce people like me to the sport. Estani Puch, who runs the school El Rincón del Polo in the town of Open Door (yes, that’s the town’s real name), 40 minutes northwest of Buenos Aires, agreed to show me the ropes. Estani has a tanned, boyish face, with a twinkle of mischief in his eyes. During the Argentine winters he plays at a club in Boston; then he returns to teach polo, breed horses, and grow a few crops on his family’s estate.

Horseback riding is woven into the Argentine national DNA, Estani told me as we drove to his school. The country is essentially one giant pasture, and when the conquistadores left warhorses behind, the animals flourished. Europeans returned a century later to find the land thickly populated with the descendants of these horses, a breed now known as criollo. The Italian, Spanish, and Basque ranchers who followed tamed these horses, and they became an essential part of life.

“People naturally started looking for games to play with the horses,” Estani said. “The national sport is actually a game called pato. Now pato is played with a ball, but 400 years ago people would take a live duck by the neck and ride with it from town to town while everyone else tried to take it.” He shook his head and laughed. “Of course the duck would be dead after five minutes. They’d use bolos, lassos, whatever. People would get killed. It was terrible.”

In 1806 the British seized Buenos Aires and held it for 46 days; more peaceable English immigrants followed, who crossed the criollo horses with their thoroughbreds and planted the seeds of polo, which thrived on Argentine soil.

“To build a polo field here is very easy,” Estani said. “All you need to do is mow the grass.”

The landscape makes it easy, and so does the rural economy, made up of family ranches. Perhaps the sport is such a successful marketing device because polo embodies that immigrant farmer’s dream: carving an estancia out of the pampas and developing it, over the years, into a family seat. To excel at polo is to beat the old-world aristocracy at its own game.

Estani took a detour to show me the polo clubs that had sprung up around the town of Pilar, home to Ellerstina and many other clubs. There are fields, stables, and hotels for miles on end. Many of these were built after the 2001 financial crisis, when Argentine currency became nearly worthless. Middle-class Argentines lost their life savings, but foreigners and Argentines with money in foreign currency were able to take advantage of the sharply depressed prices. (Ellerstina, for instance, is owned by the family of the late Kerry Packer, an Australian media mogul.) Land for new polo fields was cheap, and foreigners with an interest in the sport could spend a week learning how to ride for a song. While the rest of Argentina was foundering, polo thrived.

It was midday by the time we reached El Rincón del Polo, and Estani suggested that we eat lunch before getting on the horses ourselves. “This way,” he explained helpfully, “if you die, at least you die full.” I am not exactly what you would call an accomplished horseman. I’d ridden only twice before, and on one of those occasions I had thrown up. Given the contrast between the plodding farm horses I’d ridden and the fire-snorting steeds I’d seen at Tortugas, I grew a bit shaky as my lesson approached. But if my confidence ebbed, it was more than refilled by the consumption of a piece of beef approximately the size of my head, served jugoso, or rare, without any sign of gristle. Thus fortified, we saddled up and rode out onto Estani’s field.

My horse moved almost intuitively, as if she knew what I was thinking. But once Estani handed me a mallet, things began to spiral downward. The problem with the mallet is that it fills one hand. The other hand is occupied with the reins, which leaves precisely zero hands for the all-important business of holding on. Though my horse was chosen for her placid manner, I began to suspect her of a hidden truculent streak. Perhaps sensing my uneasiness, she began more and more frequently to snort and shake her head downward, loosening the reins.

Riding the horse reminded me of my limited experience dancing tango with strangers, who, as soon as they felt the cringing nature of my lead, would begin showing the whites of their eyes and looking for a way to be rid of me. The communication of motion from one body to another can be accomplished only if it is clear who is leading. This didn’t seem to be a problem for Argentine men. They seemed to brazen through without hesitation. There’s a phrase you hear repeated in Argentina with pride: “sin vergüenza,” which literally means “without shame.” (One of my tango partners, sensing that I was unsure how close I should dance, helpfully pulled me into her ample bosom and bellowed, “¡Contacto!”)

As my polo lesson continued, we entered a vicious feedback loop in which my horse would interpret my hesitation as an indication that she should take liberties, and I, sensing that my mount was losing faith in me, would quail further. For a while I simply pretended that the random meandering was my idea, but after I had trotted off to a remote corner of the field, Estani suggested that I ride “a little closer to the ball.”

It wasn’t all humiliation. At a walk, I found I could hit the ball, then follow it and hit it again. Once, when I reached the ball a third time, I leaned out over my right stirrup, twisted into a windup, and brought the mallet arcing down. For a moment, I felt almost like a real polo player. The ball leapt forward with a satisfying thunk, and, filled with false confidence, I urged my horse forward. She went for it. The canter was smoother than I had expected, so I did not fall immediately. As we neared the ball, I swung manfully, and just as manfully missed completely, the mallet passing through empty space and carrying me forward. I caught myself, not with my legs as I should have, but with the reins, pulling on my poor horse’s head. She stopped, wheeled, and then to my utter horror, rose on her hind legs. Instinctively I yanked the reins again to keep myself from falling backward. I was calculating what form of descent would break the fewest bones when Estani appeared in front of me. “Bring down the reins,” he said calmly. “Lean back.” Although I did my best to accomplish these relatively simple tasks, I’d bet it was his presence that quieted my horse.

I asked Estani how I’d done. “I’ve definitely had people here who were worse,” he said.

Having seen a small slice of Argentina from the back of a polo pony, I still wasn’t sure I understood the game’s place in the country’s collective imagination. While Argentina defines polo, polo doesn’t define Argentina—in fact, when it comes to national culture, polo is in several ways the exception that proves the rule. The Britannic reserve and formality I saw at polo matches only made more obvious the Italianate expressiveness on constant display elsewhere. And while polo is inextricably entwined with money, most Argentines I had met seemed to have found a way to live without it—after the country’s series of monetary crises, many have come to a grudging acceptance that wealth is ephemeral.

Perhaps it’s the romantic otherness of the sport that explains the abundance of polo-influenced billboards I’d been seeing. Or maybe Argentines, no matter how urban and horseless they become, still thrill to that dream of the family estancia. Behind the complex psychology of aspiration and advertising, there’s a very concrete relationship between the country and the sport. If you reduce polo to its fundamentals—grass, horses, riders—you are left with the elemental tenets of life in rural Argentina.

Before I left the country, I met up with Estani to see his nephew play. The match felt both foreign and familiar: It reminded me of a suburban soccer game in the United States, except that each family had horses and a groom on hand. Once I got used to that, and the humbling speed at which the youngsters rode, the game grew legible. There were four fields back to back, and parents lounged and cheered on the sidelines, the more aggressive dads sometimes stepping onto the field to shout instructions. And when Estani’s nephew, his dark hair tousled from his helmet, came to receive kisses from his mother and a congratulatory handshake from his uncle, the game finally seemed not exotic but the inevitable product of the land. A

Photographs by Michael Turek. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.

Nathanael Johnson is a journalist who lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and two daughters. He is the senior writer for Gristand has written two books: All Natural and Unseen City. He’s written pieces for a bunch of fancy magazines and radio shows, which have won some awards that sound more important than they really are.