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Giving polo a shot: 'If you can sit on a horse, you can play.'

Published: Friday, May 16, 2014 2:31 p.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, May 18, 2014 12:11 a.m. CDT
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(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Instructor Nadir Khan (right), of Fox River Grove, shows his students how to tie a halter on a horse at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda. The school is one of the only schools in the area catering to beginners and is open to all ages, genders and levels of riding ability.
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(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Aria Pounaki (left), 23, of Gurnee, gets some pointers from John Rosene, of Barrington Hills, while learning to play polo at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda.
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(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Aria Pounaki (left), 23, of Gurnee, watches as Tommy Bitsiaras, of Mount Prospect, practices putting a halter on a horse while learning to play polo at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda.
Caption
(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Lauren Potempa, of Deerfield, hits the ball while learning to play polo at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda.
Caption
(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Tommy Bitsiaras, of Mount Prospect, warms up at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda.
Caption
(Sarah Nader- snader@shawmedia.com)
Aria Pounaki, 23, of Gurnee, practices hitting the ball while learning to play polo at the Barrington Hills Polo Club's annual spring school for beginners at Fox Creek Stables in Wauconda.

WAUCONDA — Nadir Khan held a small plastic toy horse in each hand, a scale model of a polo arena before him.

“This is a great tactic in polo,” he said, taking one of the toys and prancing it along the arena wall. “A lot of good collegiate players play along the wall.”

Khan, 40, of Fox River Grove, was leading a class for about 15 students learning the basics of polo this spring at Fox Creek Stables on Milton Road in Wauconda. The Barrington Hills Polo Club leases a portion of the property, and has operated its polo school, open to anyone, for 25 years, said John Rosene, president of the club.

If you can sit on a horse, you can learn to play polo. That’s the club’s mantra, and Amy Murphy of Barrington Hills is among those putting the mantra to the test this spring.

“I’m a newbie,” she said, declining to pinpoint her age other than to put it at “north of 50.”

“It’s my first time for polo lessons, but I am a rider,” she continued. “My parents bought me my first pony when I was 5. … Polo is something I hadn’t tried. My kids are in high school now, and it was time for mom to do something fun. It’s good, healthy, clean competition.”

Khan, who grew up in a mountainous region of Pakistan where “everyone has a horse,” said polo was as popular there as soccer is throughout Europe. Still, beyond knocking a ball around with what’s known as a foot mallet, he didn’t really learn the game until about 10 years ago. Ever since, he said, he’s been hooked.

“There are two kinds of polo,” he said. “There’s grass polo, and arena polo. For grass polo, the ball is a lot smaller, like a baseball.”

Just then, Khan’s Fox River Grove neighbor, Robert Evans, rode up on horseback. Khan handed the 67-year-old a mallet.

“Remember how to hold it?” Khan asked. “Yes, that’s it. Shake hands with it. That’s it.”

Evans walked the horse into the arena, held the mallet so that the broad side of the base would swing against the ball, and began knocking it around.

“An arena ball looks like a small soccer ball or volleyball,” Khan said, picking up where he left off. “It doesn’t carry as far.”

Rosene said students typically go on to become members of the Barrington Hills Polo Club. They pay $150 for their initial lessons, with the balance of $650 due toward the annual $800 club membership should they decide to join.

Lessons began Saturdays in mid-April. Horses are provided for the six-week program, open to men and women, including those without riding experience.

“Our goal is to get students so excited that by the end of school they’ll look around for polo ponies of their own to take full advantage of membership,” Rosene said.

Rosene noted that the club created the school 25 years ago to consistently recruit new members. Currently numbering about 50, members play summers on the grass field at Oakwood Farms in Barrington Hills, and year-round at the Wauconda facility, which includes an indoor arena.

“The best way to get people started in polo is to teach them a few simple things and keep going over them and over them,” Rosene said. “Some people move fairly quickly. … It’s like skiing. People pick it up at their own pace.”

Among the early lessons are proper positioning, lanes and determining the line of the ball. Also, it’s legal to push another player off the line of the ball, so long as horses are shoulder to shoulder.

Rosene said Barrington Hills is an amateur club, and members are in it for fun and friendly, though often spirited, competition.

“We’re not trying to create professionals, although some players have gone on to play some pretty serious polo from this club,” Rosene said. “Once the season really gets rolling, we play four days a week.”

Evans said he’s been riding horses most of his life, and always wanted to try playing polo.

“There’s so much involved,” he said. “It’s like playing chess. You always have to think ahead.”

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