In the mist of the early morning I was on a rural road lined with trees and bales of hay to my left. Ahead was an incredible three-day polo clinic with Rege Ludwig at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The quiet of the morning soon changed as I walked into a room that resembled a suite, with a couch, a table with breakfast, and equipment bags with boots and mallets strung along the wall.
The students, my soon-to-be teammates, entered one after another as we hustled to keep the schedule that started at 7 a.m. I arrived on Wednesday in a clinic that started on Monday. Everyone was making his way around me, and I was intimidated feeling that I would have to catch up. I was relieved to understand that each morning Rege started with the basics to ensure repetition would allow us to fully understand what he is teaching. I also met John Gogol, who was from Switzerland, and with his schedule he was only able to attend half of the clinic from the previous week and half of the clinic I was in. Rege’s teaching method enables students to learn within a group despite the different skill levels of players or when they arrive.
Within the first hour it was evident that Rege Ludwig had really analyzed the game of polo and has the gift to explain it in terms that you can use if you’re willing to put in the work. He teaches that there are three aspects that you need to pay attention to: riding, hitting and strategy. The advantage of being a student under Rege is that he emphasizes the importance of pulling each aspect apart to perfect it. Then he gives you the opportunity to put it back together. Knowing why you do something helps you learn and replace bad habits with good ones.
The classroom door closed, and immediately Rege asked a question: “Why do you keep your rein hand above your navel when decreasing the speed of your horse?” There was silence in the room for a moment, and then Rege started to take off his belt. I thought, “Well somebody better come up with an answer or one of us is going to get a morning beating.” He looked at me, and I knew I was about to understand the teachings of Rege Ludwig first hand. I was asked to sit in a chair directly in front of him as he remained standing. He placed one end of the belt in my hand while he held on to the other, imitating the plane between the horse’s mouth and his rein hand. His hand kept the natural angle, and when he pulled on the belt his effort was barely noticeable and I was falling forward yielding to his tug. As his hand lowered, the energy he needed to pull me forward was greater and less effective as I remained still. He explained: keeping your rein hand above your navel gives you leverage, allowing the maximum degree of effectiveness with minimal effort when decreasing your horse’s speed.
At the time this tip seemed insignificant, but it changed the way I played later that day. Lowering my rein hand was something I never really paid attention to because I didn’t understood the effect it had on my control or lack of it. Later, when Rege called out, “Get in there, Judy” over the sound system during the 1:30 scrimmage, there was no hesitation. A part of me understood why I was not aggressive enough before: Who wants to go 30 mph riding off horses if you can’t stop?
Rege drew a diagram to illustrate body placement and its effect on decreasing speed rapidly. He emphasized shifting your hips forward, not pulling the horse back. You push the horse forward with your upper body and your legs coming back, then squeezing behind the girth. The squeezing pushes the horse up into your hands, Meanwhile the hands apply pressure on the rein hand. The horse can support its weight on the bit while you hold it and lean into it until he brings his hind end underneath himself. Otherwise he will fall forward and continue at the same speed.
The classroom may have only been an hour in the schedule, but every element of the day was a learning experience. We wasted no time getting to the next item on our schedule. The eight of us looked like we were in a race to see who could get ready the fastest. Outside, our horses were tacked and ready for us to start drills that refined our ability to control speed and timing. Our drill required us to line up in twos and position ourselves, as if we were covering our man and following the line of the ball. The students in front were to fluctuate the speed through turns and curves while the distance between each set was expected to remain a horse length. A turn to the left meant the rider on the outside had to increase speed, while the rider on the inside had to decrease speed. The goal: Send a clear signal to your horse to get the quickest response in a game. Improvements in our timing were obvious.
Then it was time to switch to practicing our swing on the wooden horses. We jumped off our live horses, and again I was shuffling to throw off my boots, put my sneakers back on and grab my 52. Rege had his foot mallet in hand and stood before us. As usual, he glanced around to see if anyone was missing, at which point one of us would always run into the arena and hastily throw a leg over the last empty saddle. Some of us took that moment to stuff Pop-Tarts left from breakfast into the barrel of the wooden horse’s belly. I smiled thinking I was looking at an X-Ray. Rege then asked the most basic question, “How are you supposed to hold the mallet?” Then he advanced to a more complex question: “Why?” I never thought I would fall off a wooden horse, but I came close when George answered, “You want to hold the mallet like you’re holding a bird because you don’t want to squish it.” My mallet dropped off my shoulder and I leaned forward and started to laugh. It was the perfect answer, and we all eventually understood what he meant.
Some people think a tight grip on the mallet handle is necessary. A tight grip, though, impedes the effectiveness of your swing. We learned that to use the mallet most effectively, grip lightly to allow the arm and shoulder to relax, creating a greater release of power. Ludwig told us the index finger should resemble a trigger and guide the mallet through the swing, using constant hand pressure. Keeping the pinkie and ring fingers soft allows the hand to be more responsive in the follow-through. As you begin your swing and drive the mallet down, you want to close your fingers to enable you to accelerate the mallet head. Then you can increase acceleration even more by supinating. In other words, the palm of your hand turns away from you. After the hitting phase is complete, pronate, or use the wrist to continue the acceleration again by turning the mallet hand toward your horse completely. When your swings come up from the point of contact, you should be pronating. It seems like a lot of work, but the quicker you turn the palm of your hand toward the horse, the more you accelerate the mallet head. Also, it allows you to finish off and be ready in position for the next swing.
As I watched Rege demonstrate with his foot mallet, I came to understand that the point of contact with the ball is not at the horse’s shoulder. In fact it is at the line of your shoulder to the ball, or, you could say, directly under the pivot point. If the ball is at the middle of the horse, hitting on the off side, your left shoulder needs to be brought toward the ball, allowing your shoulder, elbow or wrist to drop over it. Use whichever swing to give the fastest contact on a play; the shoulder swing being the longest, the wrist being the shortest. As long as the swing resembles a pendulum motion the mechanics will be accurate and you will have a higher percentage of contact.
Soon lunch was being served, and the horses were back in the stall resting. Being in a barn most of my life, I know that horses don’t wrap a towel around themselves and take their shower caddie after a game to wash up. The staff under Rege Ludwig’s direction was another element that made the clinic so efficient. The ease and flow of the program was accomplished by their dedication to running on schedule, making the most of our time. They went out of their way to help us get prepared. At various times one might see Dan Powell running for my whip, Dawson Ludwig taking photos for me, Jordan Blake riding behind me, coaching me to get in position, Mellissa Chan adjusting my stirrups, or Alexis walking my horse out for me in between chukkers. I had the chance to speak with them to find out how they got there, and each individual had his own unique path. The bond between Rege and his staff was obvious. He expressed pride in his staff for being responsible for their decisions in a very demanding position.
“They are different individuals after they are here,” Rege said. “They are exposed to situations that are going to make them be ready for life.” Rege brought to my attention that Leslie Schaeffer first came in as a student, then returned to help run the clinic. She now manages the program. She started playing polo at age 17, with some at the collegiate level, when she realized she enjoyed a less competitive approach to the sport.
The diversity of Rege’s staff was obvious when I spoke to Jordan. She will return to the University of Oklahoma to play on the collegiate level with prospects to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserves. She hopes to play on the Army polo team. Her ambition is to be rated 2 goals. Jordan was on my team the second day, and when the ball turned, an opponent rode into her leg. Joshua Decker, a student, rolled up Jordan’s jeans to see if there was any injury, and it was a good feeling to know that even though we just met, we all looked out for one another.
That was just the way it was, and realizing the camaraderie made the scrimmages more enjoyable. Still, we had our game faces on and I could count on Natalie Wilkinson to ride me off, and Julia Smith to clink irons with me as we lined up for the ball at the throw-in. The chukkers were challenging as we applied our lessons from that morning or the day before. On one occasion Joshua yelled out “Back the ball!” He took my pass and scored. After the play, he rode to me with his mallet in the air ready to tap mine as if to say, “Good job.” What an incentive to play better tomorrow.
I forgot to eat lunch, I forgot to take off my glove, even, and 30 minutes later we were back on schedule. Our group separated, and we split into teams of three. One group went into the hitting cage while the rest of us played foot polo to review the “line, man, line, ball” advice Rege gave us. This simple phrase told us the priorities in approaching a play. Rege explained it as the kaleidoscope effect—the same crystals fall into a different configuration when in motion.
Foot polo was very helpful. It gave me the chance to fully understand which man to pick up, as your man constantly changes in this sport. Eliminating the horse, and the time needed to set up the horse, made strategy much more comprehensible. As soon as the ball dropped and the play started, we ran the play for seconds to only start back and vary the possibilities a throw-in could bring. The drill was a perfect combination of learning strategy and pure fun. Our speed to the ball and picking up our man slowed with each successive pass.
As we caught our breath my team was called to the cage. Before my first swing I went through the checklist in my mind. Rege taught us that there are eight different components that ensure the maximum degree of efficiency and effectiveness. Rege reviews the checklist every morning, at the beginning of every riding drill, and we continue to repeat it to ourselves every 60 seconds. We had to focus on what we called the “nutcracker effect”: Your thighs hold your balance on the horse. You have a greater hold with less energy than if you were to use your lower leg. In riding for polo your lower leg needs to be free to slide behind the girth to increase speed or increase your mobility as you prepare to hit the ball. Soon my inside left hip held me in form as my hips rotated through the swing. My foot on my hitting side slid back to keep my upper body balanced. My movement became more fluid when I realized that getting over the pommel of the saddle was a must. One swing after another my contact with the ball was accurate, for the most part. By isolating the swing itself, and only concentrating on that, I could feel that not bringing my hip to the correct place hindered my movement. The difference between hitting the ball in the cage and in a game is considerable. Diverting attention from hitting to correct your horse or balance takes away from the swing, sometimes making it less accurate. Therefore, make every swing in the cage count to help perfect form.
One common habit that I overcame in practicing in the cage was using the horse’s neck as a third leg for balance. The tripod effect, to use Rege’s term, sends the horse the wrong signal. Placing your rein hand on the horse’s neck for more stability works against you. The decreased pressure on the horse’s mouth is interpreted as a signal to increase speed. This may leave you in a play where your swing is rushed and you are off balance. As Rege says, always keep contact with the mouth because you’re always asking the horse for something, even if it is just to maintain speed.
I looked out of the cage to see the horses were tacked up again. I changed back into my boots as fast as possible so as not to be late. I thought, “If only this could be my worry every day!” I checked the board to see the teams and grabbed my red 3. We each played two chukkers, and I was amazed with my ability to apply Rege’s instruction to my game. It was one of those, “Hey! This really works!” moments. It all started coming together. I realized how to collect my horse’s potential energy by pushing the horse into my hands, allowing my horse to be ready to go full speed when I ask. Rege calls this compression collection. By holding the horse’s front end while sliding my legs back behind the girth, I am pushing the horse forward. The building momentum is released by the subtle movement of the rein hand forward, acting like an accelerator. This strategy gives an edge over the opponent. This process works well if the rider can balance the two, the hand and the leg. Otherwise you may release the energy too soon, requiring you to pull back, making your horse look like a bucking car. Or to the other extreme, too much pressure will reverse your horse.
My time with Rege Ludwig was rewarding in many ways and a life experience I will never forget. As Rege Ludwig celebrates his 20th year of instruction, I realized why these clinics have been so successful. Not only will you become better at polo, if you’re lucky you will even have a group with you that plays Marco Polo back at the hotel pool.
Reprinted from POLO Players' Edition