9 Feb 2024

More rugged than posh - playing polo the Kiwi way

From Country Life, 7:40 pm on 9 February 2024
Playing polo at the Barrett-Dearden Memorial Cup, the club's major annual home-game tournament.

Ponies in full flight at the Barrett-Dearden Memorial Cup polo tournament Photo: Maggie Tweedie

Summer at a sports ground in Central Hawkes Bay means the thud of hooves and the knock of mallets under the hot sun, sheep grazing in paddocks nearby. 

Country Life has dropped in on a polo match - the Barrett-Dearden Memorial Cup - the major annual home-game tournament for Wanstead Polo Club.

As the second-largest club in the country, the grounds are home to some of New Zealand's more experienced players.

"It is a cool sport because it allows you to play like a warrior. I started playing when I was 50," said Pete Hyslop, who has 10 years under his belt.

"It's pretty hard to play full contact rugby at that age but you can certainly play polo."

The teams are mixed in gender and age and the youngest player on the Wanstead pitch today is just 10 years old. 

A match is split into time periods known as chukkas, each seven minutes long. A game can last anywhere from four to  eight chukkas, depending on resources and standard of play.

The sport comes with traditions like stomping the divots in between chukkas. 

"It's literally stomping the grass back down for the next game so the field isn't so bumpy for the players," Maria Apatu, one of the spectators, explains.

She has rallied others onto the pitch in their gumboots and hats to ensure the match runs smoothly. 

Stomping the divots between chukkas ensuring safety of polo pony and rider

Stomping the divots between chukkas ensuring safety of polo pony and rider Photo: RNZ/Maggie Tweedie

In the shade, tacking up a group pf horses waiting for their turn on the field, is Pōrangahau local, horse trainer, and polo player, Wirihana "Woody" Kururangi. 

He was riding horses before he could walk on the East Cape in Tokomaru Bay. 

"They're amazing animals, they will put their life on the line for you". 

Now he works alongside Harriet Kuru and her whānau at Opiango Hills, who train and breed horses in Pōrangahau. 

The Kurus also take in retired racing thoroughbreds and give them a new life in polo. 

Kururangi says this process can take anywhere from four months to a couple of years.

"We take them from the track, school them up and train them up for polo".

Polo is thought to have originated in Central Asia some 2000 years ago and has been dubbed the "sport of kings".

In the UK it has a reputation as a sport for the wealthy elite, but this isn't necessarily true in Aotearoa. 

"It can be posh but it just depends where you are," Kururangi said. 

"It's not as posh around here in New Zealand. We just do it the same way as rugged really".  

Kururangi spent a season in England, regarded as a right of passage for New Zealanders who fall in love with the game.

Julia Hyslop with her favourite horse Chaos

Julia Hyslop with her favourite horse Chaos Photo: RNZ/Maggie Tweedie

Julia Hyslop, who has worked abroad as a polo groom, says she was attracted by the camaraderie of the sport, with her teammates leaving " their heart and soul on the field, and a few swear words". 

"In the UK it's a professional sport, it's a lot more intense and there's more of it," Ellie Dalton, a groom from England, explained. 

Her job involves managing a collection of ponies to switch at the end of each chukka. The rule is kept in place to protect the wellbeing of each horse. 

Keeping each horse fit is also an important part of a groom's job. 

"We put so much effort into exercising them and keeping them fit and they will only play, say, one chukka. So there's all that preparation and they shine in seven and a half minutes." 

At the Wanstead Polo Clubhouse it's a family affair with babies in prams and kids watching too. 

Former Junior All Black Robbie Hunter, now in his 70s, is commentating over the loudspeaker while Andy Barrett organises a "race of the season" involving an electric bike, a polo pony and a couple of cars. 

Volunteers keep score next to the commentator during a polo game

Volunteers keep score next to the commentator during a polo game Photo: RNZ/Maggie Tweedie

A large mower smooths out the pitch before the next chukka begins on the immaculate five-hectare paddock which is grazed by sheep during the off-season. 

“This is real, this is grassroots, it’s country," Hyslop said.