The sport of kings

Champagne glasses clink in the sunshine as eight horses thunder past at speeds of up to 45km/h. A small white ball leads the pack, awaiting the next thwack from a rider’s mallet. The 2500-year-old sport, a favourite of royalty, is at home in Argentina, England and here in Canterbury.

The polo season is in full swing here, with the Style team in the midst of the South Island Open. Games are played as locally as Wigram and Rangiora, and as far afield as Winchester, and each and every one of them demands of the players much more than clean white pants.

Charlie Wood, the eldest of three polo-playing brothers from Sefton, will tell you it’s no Pimm’s picnic when you’re on the field. “Horses take a lot of prepwork. There’s the gear, the team, trucks and the grounds that all need to be in condition ahead of a game. Everyone in the league will be playing polo full-time, putting in 14-hour days to get everything ready.”

It’s just one of the misconceptions polo players come up against. Once people realise this polo isn’t the one played in water, they still think the ball is hit in the same way as croquet – on the smallest face of the mallet’s head. Yet it is the entire mallet used to propel the ball as far 135m, half a length of the field, though even this is no mean feat. However, our team have already showed the Heineken Urban Polo team they know how to swing a stick.

While the youngest in the Style team, Lachie Appleby, 16, is making his way through Christchurch Boys’ High School, the other three have played polo around the world. Both Charlie Wood and Henry Jones have played seasons in England, where you can earn around 600-700 pounds a game, and Henry Wood (the youngest son of Roddy Wood) has spent time in Argentina, where polo is the national sport. “It’s the best place in the world to play polo,” Charlie says, no stranger to playing in Nigeria and Iran too. “They are natural horsemen; there’s something about the passion and flair they have for the game. And they raise good horses.”

Back in Christchurch, the team is set to face five teams over a three-week period, playing one match a day that will last an hour. Each match is divided into seven-and-a-half-minute segments, called chukkas, and with every chukka the teams change ends. With breaks between the chukkas, spectators can expect to be sipping on those bubbles for around an hour. Though, as the grades go up, so too the does the number of chukkas per game, so sip slowly, and give thought to the sport of kings and the efforts that have gone on behind the scenes.

7 things to know about polo

  1. You cannot play left-handed. Riders hold the reins in the left hand, and the mallet in the right, end of story.
  2. The South Island season is longer than the North Island’s, but the country’s penultimate match, the NZ Open, is played in Auckland.
  3. In the last World Polo Championship, NZ was the top 8, but the first three places went to Argentina, Chile and England.
  4. Each player will swap ponies at least once in every chukka. Ponies can be swapped mid-chukka, or as often as every three to four minutes. (Charlie has taken 12 ponies to one game.)
  5. All four members of the Style polo team know of someone dying due to a polo injury. Most often broken are collarbones.
  6. All teams can be mixed as they are rating/handicap based. However, women can play in a women’s only competition if they choose.
  7. Unlike jockeys, polo players can be tall. However, it is better for the horse if your weight does not tip the scales too drastically.