Why polo is winning own fans, creating new bonds

Philip Arunga playing for the MICT team during the Nairobi International Polo Tournament at Nairobi Polo Club in September. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU
Philip Arunga playing for the MICT team during the Nairobi International Polo Tournament at Nairobi Polo Club in September. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU 

On a glorious day when a majority of Kenyans take leisure after gruelling office days, it takes one about an hour to drive from the ever-engaging streets of Nairobi’s city centre to the wire fence demarcating the Nairobi Polo Club.

Adorned at the gate is a white board. ‘Welcome to Nairobi Polo Club’. Then there are fields. And stables. The stabling can handle 90 horses with additional stables at Jamhuri Park.

Also, there is a beautiful stand that can sit hundreds of spectators, and a refreshment joint.

Kenya is slowly morphing into an impressive amount of horse-and-mallet athleticism, ranging from inter-regional activities to international competitions.

Over sixteen days scattered throughout the year, polo lovers make way from the clatter of Nairobi’s daily activities to the almost moribund Jamhuri grounds.

Beneath the ‘misunderstood’ veneer synonymous with Kenyan polo, lies bales of untold stories of success, determination and persistence.

Still, the basic understanding of Nairobi polo faces—what they do, what they seek to achieve, and what they seek to demystify – is worth listening to.

It is the story of Raphael Nzomo, an aviation expert who discovered polo when he was 38 or Mike du Toit, an insurance top executive who started playing polo in his mid-40s.

It is a story of Rowena Stichbury, Philip Arungah (the current Nairobi Polo Club chairman), Baringo Senator Gideon Moi and many other families of polo lovers.

For these rosy equestrian tales to be appreciated, hours of training, gruelling but exciting competitions and blisters have been cultivated.

Glamour, beauty, luxury and sophistication have always defined the game of polo.

Ponies at the Nairobi International Polo

Ponies at the Nairobi International Polo Tournament at Nairobi Polo Club in September.

It is associated with luxurious brand names. Also sprinkled in its lexicon include jargons like breeches, chukkers, ponies and mallets that conjure the high-class appeal the sport possesses.

However, the intensity of polo and its activities has not stymied interest in joining it as more Kenyans yearn to see the game’s appeal.

New players

Polo is witnessing popularity, attracting new players and spectators keen to indulge in the rich traditions of the game.

“It is spreading more and more. It is no longer a preserve for the rich. We are having new members coming. Before, they would be afraid to even ask how to join,” Raphael said.

He said there are an estimated 40 playing members attached to the Nairobi club and 200 countrywide.

Nairobi Polo Club was founded in 1907. Since then, Raphael said, Kenyan polo has experienced intermittent and steady growth in terms of members’ participation, international repute and new members. Other areas have spawned professional polo tournaments including Makuyu, Gilgil and Timau.

Kenyan polo players are now a mixture of diverse geographical and financial backgrounds with varying degrees of experience.

“We are growing. We are on the verge on becoming a global powerhouse in the polo arena,” he said.

Polo is a very physical team sport that requires one to be thinking of many things at the same time (including the riding!). Any polo player will tell you swinging the mallet while on a speeding horse is no easy task.

The fitness polo offers— mentally and physically— is more than combination of other sports can offer. It is also addictive. In every manner of wording, polo is a very narcotic sport. Also, it does not discriminate.

“It does not matter how old you are or your gender. In June, we had the youngest being nine years and the oldest 74, and we played together,” said Rowena.

Mike du Toit, the regional group executive for Liberty and Stanlib: East and Central Africa, puts it better: “It is the only sport of such physicality where men and women compete on even terms. Don’t under-estimate a polo playing lady—put her out there on the pitch and any sweetness you saw in the bar evaporates!”

Daunting task

The reality is keeping a pony can be quite a daunting task. Polo members spend more time to make sure their horses are comfortable, than perhaps they play polo.

A horse stays outside during the day and in stables at night. It has to be groomed and exercised on a daily basis and fed three times a day on hay. It also needs an extra scoop of oat, barley and horse meal on a daily basis.

“Horses must be well fed and groomed. They require a lot of care and must be attended to by a vet at the slightest hint of ailment,” said Raphael.

Excluding the costs of a veterinarian in case of an illness or injury, maintenance costs for a horse are about Sh30,000 monthly.

“It’s definitely not a cheap pastime, but it’s a huge amount of fun!” said Mike.