Mallets, Ponies and an Unlikely Polo Enthusiast


3/4/202410 min read

In the neon-clad era of the early '90s, most would’ve taken a look at me and never have guessed what was about to unfold. There I was, in my early 40's, a chap who'd rather be caught in a downpour without an umbrella than spend a minute on a sports field. You mention football, cricket, or tennis, and I'd have offered you a smirk and a quick exit.

That is, until a certain day in the quaint region of Orange Grove. A visit to an old acquaintance, Pooh Leighton (it's 'Petula' for the uninitiated), led me down a path I’d never imagined. She and her husband, Ross, the sort of bloke you'd picture on a ‘Forbes’ cover, lived on a sprawling estate. Acres stretched out with the majesty of English countryside, but what caught my eye were the stables.

Polo, she said. The sport that had the Royals wrapped around its finger. And me? I couldn't even distinguish a saddle from a stirrup. But Pooh, with a sly gleam in her eye, had other plans. Before I knew it, I found myself perched on ‘Lady’, a docile pony, mallet in hand. I reassured myself that if I could master the trick of patting my head while rubbing my chest, then surely, in time, I'd manage to hit that elusive white ball with a long, unwieldy, stick, all while balancing on a moving horse.

The feel of the mallet, the sound when it met the ball - it was exhilarating. That initial thwack, sending the ball soaring, was my call to the wild. I was hooked, and not just to the horse. Over the next weeks, Pooh became my mentor, guiding me through the nuances of the game. The horse and I, we became a team. She seemed to anticipate my every move, and together, we became a formidable duo on the field. Well, perhaps calling us 'formidable' might be stretching the truth a bit, maybe even a lot, but the connection was undeniable.

In the true spirit of embracing the game, I went all in. Six polo ponies, a monstrous horse truck, and even a full-time groom to boot. It was an extravagant affair, but back then, business was good and the coffers were overflowing. And let's not forget the extensive list of equestrian gear: saddles, bridles, saddle blankets, bits, reins, leg and tail bandages—the list went on. To top it off, I needed to look the part too. White jodhpurs, polo shirts, a safety helmet with a face guard, spurs, knee pads, polo boots, gloves, crop, and of course several mallets. It all made for quite the shopping list.

As for stabling my ponies, I chose Ian Johnson’s property, conveniently located right next door to Ross'. Ian had also committed to Polo and invested heavily, building a large block of stables. This location was not just handy; it was downright practical. It made it easy to take my ponies over to Ross's for stick and ball practices, other training sessions, and even some friendly games. The proximity allowed for a seamless integration of practice and play, making the whole polo experience even more enjoyable.

Polo became more than a weekend escapade. With Ross and Pooh's guidance, I found myself at the heart of the Keysbrook Polo Club. Sure, I was a greenhorn with a -2 handicap, but with fire in my belly and the wind beneath my pony's hooves, I was unstoppable. Or at least, that's what I liked to believe. Additionally, I owned one pony, ‘Emblem’, that was truly unstoppable too. Due to arthritis in his legs, it became painful for him to pull up to a stop from a full gallop. This led to many a nail-biting scene where we ran out of field and nearly ended up crashing into the hedgerow at the boundary.

Ross and Pooh were undisputed pillars of this community. Hosted on Keith Kiely's expansive Serpentine farming property, the club wasn't short on its own remarkable stories. For instance, Keith's son, Brett, had at one time managed polo endeavours for none other than Prince Charles in England. The Keysbrook Polo Club, in its own right, was a hotbed of thrilling connections, providing a range of experiences that made my polo journey truly exhilarating. The entire affair was a symphony of relationships, both on and off the field, elevating the game to something far more than just mallets and balls—it was, for me, a grand arena where life unfolded in its most vivacious form.

Having made some strides in my game, I was upgraded to a -1 handicap. This newfound confidence meant a lot, especially during a high-goal tournament at the Equestrian Centre in the Swan Valley. Ross Leighton, our team captain, had one clear instruction for me: keep Ernie Cooley from the opposing team away from the ball at all costs. I took the task to heart. For several intense minutes, I managed to block Ernie's every move, positioning my horse deftly between him and the ball. Ernie's frustration was palpable.

Then, in a chaotic tangle, our mallets locked together. The ball was nowhere near us, and the game had moved to the other side of the field. But there we were, locked in a stalemate, with Ernie's anger boiling over. In retrospect, while I was executing Ross's orders, I might have pushed the boundaries of sportsmanship a tad too far. Seeking an end to our impasse, I finally let go of my mallet, letting it drop to the ground. This gave Ernie the freedom to race back into the game, while I had to waste precious seconds dismounting to retrieve my mallet. That encounter seemed to mark the end of any camaraderie between Ernie and me; he never spoke to me again after that day, not that he paid me much heed before.

King’s Meadow in Guildford, the picturesque heartland of the Perth Polo Club, held a special place in my heart. Framed by majestic trees, it provided a shady retreat for spectators and created an idyllic backdrop for the games. One tournament day, while playing my usual number 4, full-back position, I found myself isolated with the ball on the right-hand boundary of the field, hurtling towards our goal post. From a challenging 30-degree angle, with adrenaline coursing through me, I managed an impeccable under-neck shot.

The ball sailed several feet off the ground, heading directly for the goal. Such a shot is a feat, to say the least. It was destined to score from a distance. But just as it was about to be my crowning moment, our number 1 dashed down the field and, in a move reminiscent of Napoleon's conquests, unnecessarily tapped the ball a mere metre from its destined glory. He basked in the applause, while my once-in-a-lifetime shot remained unsung. It truly was the one that got away, but deep down, I know the magic I had conjured.

Polo, often depicted as a sport for the elite, offered so much more than just a gallop and a swing of the mallet. In Perth, it became a gateway to an eclectic mix of society – a delightful blend of the city's most influential and the hardworking farming families that upheld the tradition. So it wasn’t just about hobnobbing with the upper crust as many might think. Though engaging with personalities like Laurie Connell, Bernie Hart, Phil Hardcastle, and many more was both intellectually stimulating and socially enriching.

Polo ponies are often hailed as the epitome of equine athleticism, and for good reason. These remarkable creatures are trained for speed, agility, and an almost telepathic responsiveness to their riders. A standard six-minute chukka may not seem long, but it's an intense workout for a pony, demanding quick bursts of speed, sudden stops, sharp turns, and a whole lot of stamina. This is why a player generally requires a minimum of six ponies if they are playing a full game of six chukkas, ensuring that each pony gets adequate rest between rounds.

But rest assured, these aren't just any ordinary horses; they're treated like equestrian royalty. From carefully tailored diets and regular exercise regimes to top-notch veterinary care and even massages, these ponies receive a level of attention that rivals the care given to world-class athletes. Their well-being is paramount, because in the high-octane world of polo, the synergy between rider and pony can make all the difference.

Polo, a game often dubbed as "the sport of kings," traces its origins back over 2,500 years to Central Asia. Fast-forward to today, and it's played globally by a range of enthusiasts, from the high society elite to more casual hobbyists. The game's basic objective is to score goals against the opposing team by striking a small ball through the opponents' goal using a long-handled mallet.

A standard match consists of six chukkas, each lasting six minutes. After each game, there's a tradition known as "divot stomping," where spectators are invited onto the field to replace the turf that's been churned up by the horses. It's not only a practical necessity for the upkeep of the field but also a social ritual, providing a chance for fans to interact and stretch their legs. Despite its reputation for opulence, polo has increasingly diversified its player base, showing that it's more than just a pastime for the well-heeled.

Ah, Singapore, a place teeming with contrast and diversity, was the setting for an intriguing episode in my life. You see, I had harboured the aspiration to play polo at the renowned Singapore Polo Club. Upon my arrival, the reception couldn't have been warmer. I found myself amidst Singapore's crème de la crème, individuals whose wallets seemed to have no end.

In my 40s, I was still fit as a fiddle, despite a love handle or two that may have made a sneaky appearance. Imagine my surprise when I found out about the weight limit to play polo there. A limitation, of all things, stood between me and my polo dreams. I was slightly over, and so, my hopes were dashed.

However, this didn't deter me from enjoying the sport as a spectator. Oh no, the show must go on, as they say. What struck me the most was how different the pace of the game was in Singapore compared to what I was used to in Australia. Down under, we'd play six chukkas back to back, a whirlwind of sweat and vigour. But in Singapore, they spread the game leisurely over three days, only two chukkas a day, and sometimes those days were spaced a week apart.

The players? They looked as if they'd just stepped out of a spa. Not a bead of sweat in sight. The experience was, how should I put it, rather twee. But I have to confess, there was something immensely appealing about it, quite the contrast to the exhausting hustle we're accustomed to in Oz.

So although my polo dreams may have been curbed, the experience offered a fascinating glimpse into a world both similar and yet so different from what I knew. In the end, it was all quite the revelation.

The tale of Ernie Cooley at King's Meadow on that blistering 45-degree day serves as a sombre cautionary tale in the polo community. Ernie, a prominent player from the Keysbrook Club, found himself a pony short in his usual string of six. Opting for a risky move, he chose to play pony number one in both the first and sixth chukkas. Known for his fierce competitiveness and unyielding drive to win, Ernie pushed his ponies hard—often too hard, some might say. And that fateful day, it proved devastating. The poor pony, already exerted from its earlier run, collapsed mid-game and tragically died minutes later.

The incident cast a grim shadow over the day and ignited a storm of criticism aimed at Ernie. There are unwritten codes in polo, one of which is the ethical treatment of the ponies, who are, after all, the true athletes of the game. Ernie's single-minded focus on victory at any cost had led him to make an unacceptable decision, one that would be a stark reminder to all about the responsibilities that come with participating in this noble sport. The backlash was swift and harsh; what Ernie did was not only disallowed but also inhumane. And so, the sad episode became an enduring lesson on the importance of treating these magnificent animals with the respect and care they so richly deserve.

Whilst delving into the world of polo, I was at the helm of Burlington Jewellers, a venture that added another dimension to my polo journey, whilst also financing it. Keen to intertwine my passion for the sport with my business acumen, I sponsored various polo tournaments. This was not just a savvy business move to elevate my store's profile but also a heartfelt gesture to give back to a sport that had given me so much. Among the numerous trophies and prizes I sponsored, the crown jewel was undoubtedly the Burlington Cup. Laurie Connell, an athlete with a treasure trove of accolades from hockey to horse racing, once remarked that it was the most splendid cup he'd ever won, an endorsement that spoke volumes.

One of the most captivating aspects of playing polo is that it doesn't just open up a field; it opens up a world. Whether you find yourself in Argentina, the birthplace of modern polo, or amidst the lush greens of England, you'll discover that polo clubs are incredibly welcoming to fellow enthusiasts. The allure isn't merely confined to the sport; it extends to the social sphere as well. You could find yourself sipping champagne with high-profile celebrities, rubbing shoulders with international business magnates, and schmoozing with their extensive network of friends and followers. But don’t get me wrong, despite its reputation for opulence, polo has increasingly diversified its player base, showing that it's more than just a pastime for the well-heeled.

But as with any sport, polo had its highs and lows. My passion had its costs: a broken ankle, a fractured elbow, frequent dislocated patella, a concussion, and a side of broken ribs. As the injuries piled up, and I was spending more time off-field with injuries rather than on-field in the game, the once tantalising allure of polo began to wane. The fear of a crippling injury loomed large. The risk was real, as happened to Christopher Reeve, Superman, who was rendered a paraplegic in a horse-riding accident. It was with a heavy heart that I bid adieu to the polo fields.

Yet, the equestrian world was revealing more layers to me. While deeply immersed in polo, I was introduced to the Peel Hunt Club. Soon, I became a member and ventured into the world of fox hunting. Though it came into my life later, it ran parallel to my polo days, promising its own set of adventures. But as they say, that's a story for another time.

© 2024 Peter Pickering