Polo remains the rich man’s game. To the untrained eye, it looks like a blend of hockey and golf played by people on horseback.
In Kenya, it is still the ‘game of kings’ because the players are generally from the upper echelons of society and also because the high cost involved has conspired to put the game beyond the reach of the ordinary man and woman.
Polo was named the sport of kings because it was only royals and their courtiers who played it in ancient Iran where it started. Over the years, the British popularised it worldwide.
In Kenya, it is the British of the colonial era who took part in the sport before it gained a following among the few locals in the 1980s and 1990s.
Training and acquiring the necessary equipment for the game makes it quite expensive, except of course, for people of means.
Sport for leisure
One must first invest in learning how to ride a horse well and then learn the art of playing polo. Only then will they be qualified to start indulging in the sport for leisure or take it as a career and play competitively at an international level.
The common names in the sport include retired president Daniel arap Moi’s sons and grandsons: Gideon, Phillip, Jonathan, Kemoi and Kigen.
The Savage brothers, Quentin and Russell, also make the list as do Brian Perry, the current chairman of the Kenya Polo Association, Phillip Arungah and Raphael Nzomo - of course not forgetting Rolf Schmidt who has now retired from the game due to ill health.
Because of its exclusivity, there are only four clubs in the country that take part in the sport: The Nairobi Polo Club at the Racecourse grounds in Jamhuri Park, Manyatta Polo Club in Gilgil, North Kenya Polo Club in Timau and Custard Polo Club in Naivasha.
Most polo players own several horses because to get through a tournament, one requires between four and six horses for optimum performance.
The players mount their horses wearing white jodhpurs and breeches, knee-high riding boots, a polo shirt and a whip in hand.
The sport is not confined to men alone as both men and women take part.
The horses are saddled, their tails braided and wearing what looks like socks on their limbs.
This protective gear is meant to keep the impact of the ball on the horse at a minimum to avoid causing serious injury.
It is a bandage wrapped round the limb of the horse several times to provide a protective cushion against the hard ball.
The majestic creatures seem to be in complete and total synchronization with their riders, at some point it looks almost as though they can read each other’s mind. “You form a bond with your horse. You are in it together. The horse is your friend,” says Nzomo.
“People tend to misunderstand horses yet they are generally very friendly creatures and can be your friend for a lifetime.”
One must learn how to ride well before attempting to take part in the sport in which case the sessions would put you back a few thousand shillings before you can claim to be a competent rider. “Polo is a game that requires all your attention; there is no room for a wandering mind, only for focus,” Says Perry.
Before you start playing, you must learn how to balance and ride a horse. Once you learn this, the next step is to master how to hold the club/mallet and hit the ball. The classes are offered at most riding schools in the country.
The Hardy Stud School in Karen teaches both the riding and the playing. Each individual’s level is determined with their handicap, quite similar to golf. Some take a shorter time and attain a higher handicap.
According to the Hardy school, some people are quite quick at catching the game and can play quite well after only 20 lessons.
Each lesson costs an average of Sh1700 per hour. For polo players, there are no horses for rent so one must purchase their own.
Horses are purchased from breeders or owners who are parting with theirs. A horse can be bought from Sh200,000 up to Sh1.5million. A trainer for the horse will cost you between Sh25,000 and Sh4,000 a month. That is excluding the cost of a veterinarian and insurance for the horse.
Each motion made by the player creates a field for analysis for sports critics as each move creates the butterfly effect like a rippling wave.
“One has to manage one’s horse, communicate with team mates, predict the next play, and of course hit the ball! It takes great concentration to master all this!” comments Perry.
It is not only exciting for those playing but also those on the bleachers because of the excitement of looking at the majestic creature chasing after a ball with that gleam of an adrenaline rush sparkling from the eyes of both the rider and the horse. “And I have to warn you, it’s addictive. I look forward to the weekend so I can get to play,” adds Nzomo.
The riders are skilled as they balance on the horses and swing the mallet aiming to hit the ball towards the desired goal post. The ball can move at speeds of 100kph.
Nzomo, a past chairman of the Nairobi Polo Club tells BD life why he took up the sport. He says he learnt how to ride but was not sure what to do with the skill. That was until he learnt of polo and seven years later, he is still at it.
“Polo is for the rich or the adrenaline junkies. I just happen to be an adrenaline junkie,” he says.
Perry, on the other hand, has been a horseman since his youth.
“Over the years, I have been involved in horse racing, show jumping and other events related to horses. After a bad fall in a cross country event in Naivasha in the mid 1990s, I decided to focus on polo,” he says. He has been playing for the last 17 years.
The tournaments are hosted on weekends and are on a rotational basis with each club hosting a game.
The polo season essentially spurns six months. “We have entirely amateur games here in Kenya, of which we are very proud,” says Perry.
It’s a leisure sport for those who need the day off and love to ride for the thrill of it. Once you are a good rider, you can take up the sport regardless of whether you are a man or woman.
South African, Sbu Duma, an international polo player has been here to play the sport several times during the Kenya Open.
You cannot hire a horse to play polo. You therefore need to get your own.
“I have five horses, but over the years, I have had to retire some as they have become too old for the game,” said Perry.
The sport can be for individual amusement or as a family event, says Nzomo, who plays with his 16-year-old daughter. Perry plays with his two daughters. “I played in a team with one of them in last year’s Mugs Mugs tournament,” he explains.
“For me, it’s something I do for fun. I do not have the time to practice in order to play on an international level.
But my daughter has all the time and she would be better placed to play it at a competitive level,” says Nzomo when I ask him whether he has plans to play on an internationally competitive level.
Though he may not be keen to play on a competitive level, Brian Perry joined Quentin Savage, Henry Limb and Casimir Gross in representing Kenya in last year’s Newport international series in the US.
There are international polo schools and polo clubs across the globe.
“I have played overseas on a few occasions (Australia, Argentina, South Africa, Scotland), and last year, I represented Kenya in an international tournament in the US, in which we beat the US team,” says Perry.