Polo often gets described as the sport of kings, or a rich man’s sport, and with that comes a perception that it only accessible for the elite and privileged. But most sports these days are expensive, especially at the top level. Motor racing, motor cross, sailing, or any sport requiring big equipment is going to cost money.
I think most polo players are just hardworking people who have the drive to play and are willing to put in the hours of preparation during the week to be able to enjoy the weekend playing the sport they love.
Looking after horses is messy and exhausting. It takes a huge time commitment to care for and train polo ponies. You can’t just stick them in a paddock and ride them on match day. I have a groom who helps with keeping the horses fit and with the presentation of the horses, as I have around 20 ponies in work. Eleven are fully trained, four are first season horses who are learning everything. I also have home breed ponies that I have broken in.
The polo ponies need to be ridden every day to keep their fitness up. Along with training time, it takes around half an hour per pony. And as players we need to be fit too, so I run regularly and do core strength training. A lot of the horses I train are ex-race horses and so they have to be retrained for polo. We do “neck training”, schooling them to steer with one hand, performing tight turns, and stopping quickly. We also have to get them used to the polo mallet and ball. You can usually tell a good horse by how athletic it feels riding it, and how smart they are.
Your average polo club is like any country sports club really. Usually the public see the big atmosphere special polo events covered by the media and that might give the misconception that polo is all champagne, oysters, and posh white britches, but polo clubs are really just family friendly places, and people with a love for horses. It is a casual family day out, usually with just a regular picnic, and the polo community has a big catch up.
The kitchen is usually bustling with cups of tea being made, and sandwiches or pies on the go. Everyone pitches in to prepare the ponies. Saddles are positioned, hooves are picked, and barrows and rakes are at the ready. Polo is also one of the few competitive sports where a whole family can play on the same team. I haven’t had much of a chance to play with my dad as he retired just over 10 years ago, but I have played alongside the likes of Olly Tuthill, an English pro who came to NZ and stayed with us to help dad with his horses. Players have handicaps, and they are added to give a team handicap. So, an experienced rider can play with a novice. Teams can also be mixed and so I have enjoyed playing alongside my sister from time to time.
It is a fast and physical sport. I love the adrenaline you get from high speed, combined with good hand eye co-ordination, and control of your horse.
There is a lot of contact as riders try to block their opponent’s shots or ride off to keep them out of the game or off the line of the ball. A regular match is about an hour to ninety minutes long broken into seven-minute time periods or chukkers. Because of the demands on the ponies, they are only used for a maximum of two chukkers each. Therefore, the grooms are not just looking after one horse per player, but a team of horses.
I played a lot of other sports growing up, including 1st XV rugby, basketball, and cricket, and still do. But I guess because I grew up around horses, and with dad a professional polo player, mostly in the USA, I got into it too. I was never forced to ride. My parents just said I could if I wanted to. Polo just stuck. I played my first match at 11 years of age and now regularly play for Hurunui in the local tournaments, involving clubs from Blenheim to Queenstown.
I was fortunate to play six tests for the NZ Schools Polo teams against Australia, South Africa, and the USA. This was a great opportunity to travel overseas to play and to make it even better we had some good wins. My senior debut for NZ came against Australia this year. This was a very humbling experience. Despite the loss I enjoyed playing at the top international level. My family were pretty proud to see me wearing the silver fern again too, this time as a senior.
I would love to go overseas, to either England or Argentina, to play professionally in the future, but my goal right now is to complete my university degree and increase my handicap. In the mean time I am enjoying looking after and training my young horses and working on becoming the best player I can be. For anyone with a love of horses, and a desire for physical competitive sport, a little bit of polo is bound to get you hooked.