In the hands of an experienced rider, the mallet becomes an acrobat, says 15-year-old Maya Tantuwaya, who has never forgotten her first.
Around January, our growling Ford pickup crunches through the dirt road beyond field five of the San Diego Polo Club and pulls to a stop in front of our eight-horse trailer, lonely from six months’ abandonment. Dad and I forget our differences to jump out of the truck, and he fumbles with the key to the built-in tack room. I explain my hollow ambitions to keep an accurate inventory of our jungle of English saddles, intricate bridles, and the bouquet of polo mallets fanning out of a red water bucket like dry spaghetti. I make the same vow every year but never follow through. Ignoring me, Dad turns around to engage a passing horse groom in polite conversation, using his clumsy Spanish, as he reins in his cluster of six horses. He pretends to have known the groom all his life, even though I’m the one who spent an entire summer out riding with him in the mornings. Raymundo and I have become close friends, despite the language barrier.
Organizing the mix-up of mallets, my hand catches the woven cream hand loop of one of them. Up and out comes my very first mallet, separated from the tangle of chapped leather and spray bottles quarter-filled with the syrupy remains of what used to be fly spray. The threadbare rubber wrap on the grip still bears the unsavory whiff of sweaty palm, but there is bliss in curling my hand around the mallet’s end. Fencers and tennis players think of their foils and rackets as an extended arm, while the polo player’s weapon of choice harmonizes the momentum of man and horse into a scything stroke that sends the ball sailing tens of meters over the cropped-grass pitch. The wedged mallet head is clumsy, and its fine cracks and scratches are masked by duct tape, but its bruises bless it with the beauty of something from a (civilized) battle. The bony grip provides no leverage – that all comes from the player’s arm and hips in the swing. The cane itself, a 52in shaft of manau palm wood with a honeyed glint, stands dormant and straight. In the hand of an experienced horseman, it’s an acrobat – flipping to a 90-degree angle when hooked by another mallet and flicking with the fluidity of a dancer into backbends. Balanced upon the slender stalk is the mallet head – worn and covered in vein-like cracks and grass smudges. It still grasps the cane with snug stability. I covered the smooth wood with checkered tape and two skinny bands, but even the tape is frayed at the edges. The head, cigar-shaped with a diagonal wedge cut out of one end, was the pride and joy of my 11-year-old self. In stamped print, the initials MT, decorated with forest-green paint on the ends, declared my presence on the playing field. To swing it was to boast a coat of arms with the prowess of a cavalier. How I’d catapult across the fields, adrenaline clenching my stomach while I inhaled the essence of leather and dewy grass. Or at least that’s what I would fantasize.
The graceful lance is stiff with sleep, stained with memory of play some years before, when I could hardly manage to hit the uneven, plastic ball at a benign canter. Bouncing on the back of my short-legged bay, I’d shrug my heavy helmet into place, only to feel the front visor fall over my brow once more. The mallet would twirl, wild with the combination of the force of the horse and the languid noodle of my arm controlling it. Grazing the tender blades of grass or clunking my pony’s forearm with the mallet, I’d focus really hard until a solid clunk reverberated off the sweet spot, propelling the dented hunk of a ball forward. Well-balanced and dependable, the polished mallet soon became an acquaintance of mine. But the progression of time dulls all glory into a jejune bronze plaque inscribed with memory. Time to rebel against the accumulating dust and leave behind the nostalgia. Dad, meanwhile, is still stammering in Spanish, and Raymundo seems slightly amused by it. I twist the loop of the initialed mallet around my thumb and adjust my right hand. Even after years of inaction, it is usable – so long as I replace the tacky and frayed duct tape on the head.
Written by 15-year old Maya Tantuwaya and printed in Hurlingham Polo Magazine’s Winter Issue. Maya and her father, Lokesh have played at the San Diego Polo Club for many years. Photo by Siegel Thurston Photography.
More information about Hurlingham Polo Magazine, visit them online at hurlinghampolo.com