Catriona Thomson: Polo is not just for princes

Karina Bowlby of Stewarton polo club near south queensferry with Hope Thomson turquoise hoodie and Barbara Neil (black top ) of Linnfall equestrian and pony club centre.

 Picture: C Thomson
Karina Bowlby of Stewarton polo club near south queensferry with Hope Thomson turquoise hoodie and Barbara Neil (black top ) of Linnfall equestrian and pony club centre. Picture: C Thomson
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MUM, can I learn to play polo?” was the question. “I have no idea,” was my honest reply.

Another equine request from my daughter, who despite our efforts to the contrary, is obsessed by everything horse. After some investigation, we are invited by Karina Bowlby, owner of Stewarton Polo Club near South Queensferry to find out more. Although we can’t afford to own a horse, we have found a place near our home where Hope can learn to ride and gain essential horse experience. As my polo knowledge is strictly limited to the mints with the holes in them, I’ve volunteered Barbara Neil, owner of Linnfall Equestrian and Pony Club Centre, to sign up for an introductory lesson with Hope.

From the outset Karina is keen to set the record straight, “Polo is not just for princes,” adding that in Scotland, “it’s more of a beer and barbecue scene rather than champagne and chiffon.” Dressage-loving Barbara is jokingly chided for wearing a hairnet; with polo “we are a bit more relaxed, not that formal.” There are no admission charges to watch matches, and no competition fees to enter tournaments, so as equestrian sports go this is a steal. “You just pay an annual membership fee and if you own a horse anyway, you are free to play as much as you want,” with chukkas on Wednesday night, Saturday afternoon and Sunday at noon. The club is really casual with the focus on lessons and beginners.

“Our motto is to have fun, enjoy yourself and relax,” says Karina.

Serial sportswoman Karina was heavily involved in tennis and handball, before falling for polo, which she both coaches and plays. She says, “Age is no barrier and our members include folk who are 40 plus, who are as fit as butchers’ dogs. Our oldest member is 69.

“It has the reputation of being a dangerous sport, but we are lucky if we have one person a year falling off, and that is simply because they have overstretched, not because the ponies have done anything wrong.”

The modern game can be played by mixed sex teams and is divided into periods called chukkas with whole games lasting a couple of hours. Outdoor polo is played with four players on each side while indoor polo has only three players and is played with a smaller air-filled ball. At Stewarton you can play polo all year round, due to an all weather surface, but we are all in awe of the outdoor pitch with its stunning backdrop of the three Forth bridges.

First we are introduced to the steeds; Tobiana, Ceci and Pintada, three Argentine Criollo crossed with thoroughbreds. They are bred for speed, stamina and agility, although they have a reassuringly calm nature. Karina says she often introduces people to the sport who have never ridden before. “I can almost tell how they will play polo by the way someone walks.” It is down to hand eye coordination, “and hockey players make great polo players,” she adds.

Before our brave duo mount, Karina demonstrates the different shots with a shorter mallet on the ground. Players can swing the mallet to hit the ball on the “near side” = left side, “off side” = right. Next they master the backshot, before they attempt the neck shot where you would hit it under the horse’s neck from either side and a tailshot which is hitting the ball behind you across the horse’s rump.

There is quite a lot to remember but it’s time to swap the short sticks for the long mallets and give the game a proper bash. Hope and Barbara soon get into the swing of things and the air rings with the satisfying sound of balls being struck.

Both horsewomen have loved every second of their polo experience. Barbara exclaims,” This is brilliant, when can I come back?” And I can 
tell that is exactly what Hope is thinking by the huge smile on her face.

A one hour beginners’ lesson costs £45 per person while annual membership to Stewarton Polo Club costs £240. An intensive training programme will cost in the region of £5,000. The club is seeking three beginners with no polo experience to fast track to tournament standard within two months. Beginners must be available to train three times a week during that period and attend a three day trip to Sotogrande, the centre of European polo. Training will start the week beginning 10 July. To apply see the news section of www.stewartonpolo.co.uk