Saturday 17 March 2018

There's no helicopters jetting into the polo, we're walking out of caravans!

Prince Charles and Katie Price may have given the ancient equestrian sport a "bad name", but Ireland Ladies' team captain Siobhan Herbst explains to our reporter why you don't have to be royal or rich to play the game

Siobhan Herbst, captain of the 2017 Irish Ladies Polo Team, photographed at Polo Wicklow. Photograph: ©Fran Veale.
Siobhan Herbst, captain of the 2017 Irish Ladies Polo Team, photographed at Polo Wicklow. Photograph: ©Fran Veale.
Irish captain Siobhan Herbst at Polo Wicklow. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
Potential: Siobhan believes the sport can become a major draw for spectators. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
From left to right: Irish Ladies Polo Team Caroline Keeling ,Julie Kavanagh, Siobhan Herbst and April Kent

Chrissie Russell

Polo is not something you immediately associate with Ireland. "Polos?" asks one friend quizzically when I mention working on this article. "Do you mean the mints or the cars?" The sport actually, I reply, you know, the one played by posh English people.

Siobhan Herbst laughs when I tell her about my stereotypical summation of polo (the sport). It turns out it's one she's well used to hearing. "It's a pretty common misconception that you have to be royal and rich to play, but it's just not true," she insists.

If anyone should know, she should. The Wicklow woman is at the heart of Ireland's polo scene, rated the county's top female polo player, captain of the ladies' national team and boss at Wicklow Polo Club, Ireland's only all-weather, year-round polo club. Today, Polo Wicklow will host the 2017 International Ladies' Polo Tournament at Ballykenny Estate outside Ashford, with teams travelling from the USA, UK, Germany, France, Argentina, Australia and Saudi Arabia to take part. It will raise funds for the Irish Injured Jockeys Fund.

It's the only female tournament in Ireland, but it's long been a highlight of the polo calendar and is now in its 18th year. Ireland, as it turns out, has quite an illustrious polo heritage. We're home to Europe's oldest polo club, with the All Ireland Polo Club established at Phoenix Park in 1873, and last year the men won the European Championship - a step up from the previous year when they took home silver.

Irish captain Siobhan Herbst at Polo Wicklow. Photo: ©Fran Veale.
Irish captain Siobhan Herbst at Polo Wicklow. Photo: ©Fran Veale.

There are nine clubs and between 100 and 150 players in Ireland. "It's still quite small, but it's growing and the standard is improving," says Siobhan (35). Something that illustrates this improvement in play is the inclusion of an 'eight goal tournament' in Ireland this year.

"This isn't going to make any sense to you," she begins before promptly losing me in an explanation of polo's handicap system. However, the essence seems to be that beginners have low numbers (starting from minus two) and experienced players can rank as high as a 10. Traditionally, tournaments here have a lowish handicap - three is the norm in Ireland - so eight is a very good sign of rising talent.

One area rapidly receiving increasing attention is the women's game. This year has seen two global firsts. It's been announced that there will be a Ladies' Open in Argentina (where polo is a passion) and just last month the prestigious Coronation Cup in England hosted its inaugural ladies' game between the USA and England, who were sponsored by Swarovski.

"With all the promotion ladies' polo is getting, sponsors are wanting to jump on board and support them," says Siobhan. "It's still a very male dominated sport, but in the last couple of years, women's polo has grown phenomenally."

A factor fuelling this has been the inclusion of a 'ladies' handicap' allowing women to be assessed on a different scale to men. "In a mixed match, my handicap would be one, but in the ladies', it's four," explains Siobhan. "It's making it more possible for ladies to compete seriously rather than struggling to compete with the men and it's making the ladies' game very exciting."

Women, she believes, can bring something different to the sport than men. "I think women have more feeling with the horses," muses Siobhan. "They might not be as strong on the ball, but women are very good riders and, in the ladies' tournament, people are always quite happy to give them their horses."

From left to right: Irish Ladies Polo Team Caroline Keeling ,Julie Kavanagh, Siobhan Herbst and April Kent
From left to right: Irish Ladies Polo Team Caroline Keeling ,Julie Kavanagh, Siobhan Herbst and April Kent

Which isn't to say that women are timid on the field, demurely trotting after the ball. "I find women's polo much more aggressive," laughs Siobhan. "I'll be black and blue after a ladies' match because you've eight women all in the same area trying to prove something to each other." In a mixed match, she's quick to point out that "they don't go light on you," but "the men's game has slightly more chivalry to it".

This will be the first year where Ireland's top four female players have played on the same team. "It's our strongest possible team," says Siobhan excitedly. The 'dream team' includes Julie Kavanagh, who runs a golf club, April Kent, manager of her family hotel, and Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keelings Fruit.

There's no prize money in polo and the sport operates with the backing of wealthy 'patrons', Caroline being one of them. Siobhan, Julie and April's fathers all played polo, which encouraged them to take it up in their late teens, but Caroline came to the sport later. "She rode as a kid, knew she loved horses, loved teams, came and took a few lessons from me and that was her hooked," explains Siobhan. Apparently a lot of people take up polo later in life. "We've adults come for lessons who have never ridden before," reveals Siobhan. "People want to try something new. They want a sport. Going to the gym is awful boring."

In the UK, more young people are coming to polo through the pony clubs, something that's starting to happen in clubs in Kildare and Cork. Siobhan began riding at a young age and lives and breathes horses.

Her job sees her up feeding horses at 7.30am with the rest of the day dedicated to training, schooling and lessons. It's rare to catch her not on horseback. "I've done phone interviews while riding," she laughs. "It's my mobile office. I generally do my emails on horseback, it's the great thing about having horses that ride with one hand."

In the winter she'll go to the gym two or three times a week, but in the summer it's all riding, the exertion of which works all the muscles enough that she doesn't have to think about what she eats. Her summer polo circuit involves a lot of travel to glamorous locations and she informs me she's just recently returned from jaunts to Italy and America, and has a trip to France in the pipeline.

"I think it was Churchill who said 'Polo is a passport to the world'," she chuckles. Reluctantly I have to point out that none of this - the wealthy business women, the horsey upbringing or the trips to France - are dispelling my perception that this is a sport that requires a serious amount of cash.

"It does and it doesn't," concedes Siobhan. Apparently hiring a horse is one option to bring costs down and even having your own horses can be cost effective if you work them yourself.

"There's one player I know who is a milkman," she reveals. "He has his own horses and plays on an extremely tight budget, working all year so he can save up the money to pay the tax and fuel on his lorry to play polo for four months of the summer. Last weekend he was up at 4am to do the milk round, then in his lorry to drive three-and-a-half hours to a tournament."

Membership of a Polo Club costs less than fees at a golf club. "People have this perception that you have to be a multimillionaire just to go and watch a polo match, but I was at the races recently and the wealth there would be streets ahead of what you'd see at the polo. There's no helicopters jetting into the polo, we're walking out of caravans!"

At today's event she's less preoccupied with potential celebrity guests and more focused on making it a family-friendly space with artisan food stalls and a dedicated children's area.

Having proved myself woefully unable to wrap my head around the complexities of the handicap system, I wonder if polo spectating can be enjoyed by just anyone. "I think it can," insists Siobhan. "It's hurling on horseback. Look at the excitement you have watching a hurling game, the skill and the speed of it. Now put every one of those players on half a tonne of horse meat that runs as fast as a racehorse… it's a really exciting sport."

There's also an element of danger. This year will be the first time in three years that April's not been ruled out of the tournament because of injury.

"She's dislocated her shoulder, broken her collarbone and last year she fractured her leg," reveals Siobhan, who - "I'm touching wood as I say this," she says quickly - has never had a polo-related injury. "April's braver than me," she admits. "If I see danger or I'm uncomfortable on a horse, I'll pull out and not push myself. April has balls of steel - she'd get on any horse and play it to the full."
Her teammate's litany of injuries is, Siobhan insists, "very unusual". "There's an element of risk, like in any sport," she explains. "But accidents are rare. All the rules in polo are made for the safety of the horse and the rider."

Not that anyone would be so gauche as to call it a 'horse'. "In polo it's always a 'pony' in spite of the fact that it is a horse," laughs Siobhan.

"Anyone talking about 'polo horses' would be showing themselves up as a real newbie." The tradition is a nod to the sport's roots, which started in 6th century BC Persia, played on 13-hand ponies and traditionally a sport of emperors. Flash forward to the present day and it has now been embraced by actors and models.

When she was 15, Siobhan was interviewed on RTÉ, declaring "my father says Prince Charles gives polo a terribly bad name". "Katie Price is the other extreme of why people might not want to play," she laughs. "But, honestly, you don't have to be Prince Charles or Katie Price - anyone can give polo a go and love it.";

Bluffer's guide to polo

✦ There are two teams of four aside (that's on grass - in an indoor arena, it's three aside and some other different rules but we'll stick to grass and not over complicate things).

✦ Teams change ends after every goal.

✦ A game is made up of four 'chukkas' with each chukka lasting 7.5 minutes. There's also three minutes between each chukka and a half-time interval of five minutes (during which spectators are encouraged to help replace mounds of earth on the field in 'divot stomping').

✦ Polo is always played right-handed.

✦ Players are numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4 with 1 usually offence and 4 usually defence, although all players have the full use of the field.

✦ Players have to have a minimum of two horses because no horse can play more than two chukkas and have to have one chukka rest.

✦ They are horses but the polo set ALWAYS call them ponies.

✦ The rules of play are similar to driving a car on a main road. If you have the ball, you're on the main road - the line of play - and no one can come hurtling in from side roads and cut you off dangerously, that's a foul.

✦ "That was his/her line" is common side-line talk, a sort of Polo chat equivalent to soccer's "he was never offside".

✦ Common calls are "hooker" and "take her out". Both are defence tactics (not amorous talk). Hooker is 'hook her' referring to hooking the mallet of another player, "take her out" or "push, push, push" are to ride alongside the player with the ball and push them out of the way.

✦ Spanish swear words are frequent and welcome.

Celebrity polo players

Jodie Kidd:

A long-time devotee of the sport and has played in Ireland (as has her brother Jack) both of them are desperate to strip it of its 'just for toffs and posh people' label.

Sylvester Stallone:

The Italian stallion has played polo competitively for years.

Katie Price: Despite playing, Jordan has found herself blocked from some events. Something the rider blamed on 'pure snobbery'.

Tommy Lee Jones:

The No Country For Old Men star has spent years honing his skill explaining: "The mechanics involved in being able to hit a ball that small from the back of a horse, are quite staggering.

Princes William and Harry:

Stealing the crown from their dad in the Prince of Polo stakes.

Nacho Figueras:

An Argentinian polo star and the face of Ralph Lauren for more than 15 years.

Kenney Jones:

The ageing rocker loved Polo so much he set up his own club in Surrey.

Irish Independent

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