Here's one of my favourite fragments of "Seven and a Half Minutes" - Polo player Roxy finds the trainer who's going to take her game to the next level...
The Old Man's Farm
lMy polo has reached a kind of “no man’s land:” too good to play with the polo school any longer but not good enough to play with the regular members of one of the top high-goal clubs in England, which I had decided to join.
I am caught in-between, not sure how to go forward.My headache is the headache of our club manager too, who has decided that for the first time he will put a special package out there for a few of us, the “in-betweeners.” We can only play among ourselves, at certain times only, and under no circumstances mix with the “big guys.”
I have trained with some of the best teachers in England, who taught me to ride and be safe on a horse. My balance is good, my half-seat still causes me lower back pain at times, but I manage to hold it long enough to do the job. My swing is clean. They kept on telling me all is “wonderful,” “perfect,” and “really nice.” My game wasn’t that good though.
Then, I trained with some great Argentine professionals who told me to run, to look around, to get out there in the game and not worry so much about the details. A different approach. My English coaches didn’t like that. “Back to basics,” they said, and so I had to unlearn some of the Argentine ways and relearn some of the English ways. More confusion.Lost in translation, I went on, like a camel crossing the desert, putting one foot in front of the other, lost in the midst of the dunes with a vague hope that I would find my way to the other side.
On my search, I arrived at the Old Man’s farm. Only an hour’s drive from London, I find myself back in Argentina. The petiseros get the horses ready, and among the familiar “Dale, Dale” shouts, I have a vague feeling that this might be the answer to my prayers. The middle ground between England and Argentina.
The Old Man rides next to me on the stick-and-ball field. He’s silent, his expert movements swiftly guiding the horse. He must have spent many years on the back of a horse. He’s seen it all and has no time for the “politically correct” approach of my English coaches. He doesn’t look for something good to tell me, to encourage me. When it’s bad, he says so plainly. “Rosannaaa! Ay ay ay, no no no, bad, bad!” adding at the end just for clarification, “Not good!,” so I really get that it’s not good.
Not a lot of what I do is any good anyway. After he lines up five balls for penalty shots, I take my horse in a wide circle canter and miss them all. Some I don’t even touch. A smile appears on his face as if he’s really enjoying the show.“You want my glasses so you can see the ball better? Ay ay! Not good.”
He lines them up again, and this time I hit a few. Maybe I’m too tired to care, so my body takes over from my over-controlling mind, and my shots improve. Some are really good shots, but I still miss the goal.“That’s better, isn’t it?” I ask, hoping for some encouragement.“Not good, not better at all. If it doesn’t go through the goal, what’s the use of a nice shot?” And so I decide there are no more questions from my side.
“Come, take the ball from me. Come on! Rosanna, what are you doing? Ay ay, you lost the ball. No, no, Rosanna, no swing like madwoman, look here, nice clean swing—like that!” I try to distance myself from the “madwoman swing,” but I just miss more balls.“
Go e-straight! Faster, faster!” His heavy Spanish accent puts an e in front of any word that starts with an s. Eeee-straight! E-straight! I get him, but my horse doesn’t want to go e-straight, or maybe he doesn’t speak English. I canter around, bouncing from the left leg to the right leg, but the Old Man maintains a patient look in his eyes.“Again! Go! Again, faster! Faster! Stoooop! Turn to the right! Faster! Offside hit! Run faster, faster!”
I have never gone this fast, at least not consciously while training. During the game it’s another story, since only part of me is present to register how fast I go and get scared. The other part is lost somewhere else, usually ahead with the ball or lingering around the horse’s heavy breathing. But here on the training field, it’s just me and him and the gray English skies, which start squeezing out the first drops of rain this morning.
“Faster, faster. Run! E-straight! Stop! Turn to the left! Nearside shot! Run, faster!”
The horse is breathing heavily under me. I must have stopped breathing altogether. I feel the worrying sensation of an approaching faint as I do what the Old Man wants me to do again and again and again: run faster, stop, turn, hit, run faster, stop, turn, hit.
After about twenty minutes of this mad run, my knees are finally about to give in. But the Old Man is merciless.“Up in the saddle when you turn. Not like this, don’t sit down, you are killing the horse. Up!” One more try and finally my knees give in. With my last ounce of strength, I bring the horse to a final stop.“Wait... one moment... let me catch... my breath... this is really... difficult!”
His eyes are sharp, and he’s no longer smiling.
“If it’s too difficult, you should stay in London in front of your computer. Why bother coming all the way here?”
I hear the first drops of rain hitting my helmet. But it’s OK. We’re done for the day. And I’m done with my search too. Because with that one sentence, the Old Man has told me he’s going to be the one to take my polo forward.