Northern Ireland polo aces on why saddling up isn’t just for the elite
Polo is a sport loved by the royals - but can anyone take part? Linda Stewart asks four players from the Northern Ireland Polo Club, at Tyrella House, Co Down and Rhone Hill, Dungannon, what attracts them to the fast-moving game
‘There’s a misconception that it’s expensive and inaccessible’
Polo instructor Jamie McCarthy (32), from Comber, lives at Tyrella with his girlfriend Mary who runs the polo livery stable for the Northern Ireland Polo Club. The club is celebrating 25 years since its revival following the demise of the Ulster Polo Club and is poised to host the first Ulster Cup since the Second World War. Jamie's brother, sister and mother all play polo.
"We grew up on a farm and my mum always rode horses, so she dragged me into it - as much as I didn't want to," Jamie laughs. "We did all sorts of Pony Club stuff, but to be honest I never looked forward to doing anything with horses, even if I enjoyed it once I was doing it.
"But we went down because David Corbett at Tyrella was running a polo course. I thought polo was all posh eejits hitting a ball about.
"But it was very different to most of the Pony Club stuff that I'd done. The riding aspect was a bit more physical, more like rugby which I was playing at the time. And you don't have to wear jodhpurs - I hated wearing jodhpurs. Then we just started coming to Tyrella and doing a bit more."
As Jamie got more involved, he competed in Pony Club polo and travelled to England to play.
"Never at any stage did I expect to be doing it as a career. It was always good fun and I was amazed by how many people did it over there. There are hundreds of teams in England," he says.
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After finishing school, Jamie decided to do a gap year in New Zealand working at Ainsley Polo, run by brothers Ross and Kell Ainsley.
"I learned a lot from them and got a real passion for it - and one year turned into four," Jamie says.
After the third year he began studying environmental law at Queen's but found student life wasn't for him and left after six months. Instead he began studying law at the Open University while working in New Zealand.
"Then I came back home and decided to make a go of it and that was six years ago," he adds.
Now Jamie is Northern Ireland's only HPA qualified polo instructor, training riders and horses.
"When I started, it was on a downturn, but Mary and I have encouraged younger players to come in and we have all types now. We play polo four days a week, and during the summer, one team heads off to tournaments elsewhere in Ireland every weekend, in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork and Waterford," he says.
"The royals are always the first thing that gets mentioned - it's a good image and a bad image to have at the same time. There's prestige, but there's also a misconception that polo is expensive and inaccessible to get into."
Each polo team has four players competing on a pitch sized 300 yards by 200 yards. A match is divided into four or six chukkas, each 7.5 minutes long. The objective is to score more goals than your opponents and teams switch ends after each goal.
"I've always liked the team aspect and the physicality of it. You're bashing horses into each other at 35mph and hitting the ball," adds Jamie.
"There's a real satisfaction with being able to hit a ball at high speed with everything happening around you."
‘It is just like playing rugby... only on a horse’
Richard Suitor (47), from Moneyreagh, owns a car business and lives with his partner Nicky (46). He has two children, Katie Rose (13) and Max (8).
He had never even sat on a horse before but gave it a go when he was watching his partner Nicky play - and found he loved it.
"It's one of those things where my first love was motocross," he says.
"But I thought 'If I can ride a motorbike, I can ride a horse'. And I got on and found it was a lot different - I got educated fairly quickly.
"But I had good balance with having the bike skills and Jamie said to me 'you could pick this up fairly quickly'. I decided to have a go at it and I've been playing it ever since."
Richard says polo is very much a contact sport.
"I suppose it's adrenalin-driven - that's the main thing. I played rugby at school and it's just like rugby, only on a horse," he says. "A couple of friends came along and now they are playing as well. It's a great social thing as well.
"But I can't get any of my motorbike friends to have a go. They think I'm completely bonkers.
"They would get on a motorbike and jump 30ft in the arena and not think twice about it, but they think polo is too dangerous.
"They think there's no control in a horse because it's got a brain of its own - to a certain extent, that's right."
Richard reckons he now splits his free time about 50:50 between motocross and polo.
"I've played a match against Scotland," he says.
"It's a shame that more people won't try it.
"The funny thing is I meet a lot of people who are into showjumping and cross-country and they didn't think anybody played polo in Northern Ireland.
"Even the normal horse people think it's too dangerous and that it's a bit bonkers!"
‘From my first go I have been absolutely and utterly hooked’
Richard's partner Nicky Wilson (45), originally from Castlereagh but now living in Bangor, is a finance officer with a local council and has ridden horses since she was around seven.
"I've played polo for about six years," she says.
"I knew a couple of people in England who played it and had been putting the feelers out to find a polo club here. There had been a club in Donaghadee a few years ago, but by the time I wanted to give it a go, it had closed."
However the HPA in England put her in touch with Jamie - "It turned out the only instructor in Northern Ireland was only a few miles away," she laughs.
"It was always something I'd wanted to do and, from my first go at it, I was absolutely and utterly hooked. It was just the excitement of it - I couldn't wait to do it again."
"It's like horse-riding, but with 10 times the excitement and buzz. I tortured everybody to have a go at it.
"During the summer, any time there's a glimpse of sunshine you're getting the barbecue out, playing a few chukkas and then down to the beach. It's one of those sports most people don't know even exists."
Nicky says polo has an elitist image because people associate it with the royals, but anyone can have a go. "I work in a council and I do it. I think what's holding it back is that people don't realise you can just have a go," she says.
"It's really adrenaline-driven - when you're galloping down the field and hitting the ball, you get a real buzz out of it. It's the speed of the horses and the people and the social aspect - it's very much the full package.
"It suits everybody - it's good for me, it's good for a couple, it's good for children who come down with their parents."
Nicky says the one question she always gets is whether she has met the royals.
"You have to say they don't actually play that much. And there are thousands of people who play in the UK and Ireland. You don't get that much stick, but you do get amazement when you tell people about it - they just look at you with their mouths open. Most people have never heard of it being played here.
"We are very lucky to have Jamie - he's the only qualified HPA instructor in Northern Ireland and he really likes to see people coming on."
Another misconception is that you have to be able to ride before you can have a go at polo, Nicky says.
"When Ricky started, he had never been on a horse before. I think with polo, you are so busy trying to hit the ball that you don't realise you are riding the horse - you're really determined to hit it," she adds.
"You get so caught up trying to hit the ball and you don't realise you've been riding for a couple of weeks!"
‘My job is quite stressful, but this is very therapeutic’
Air traffic control engineer Paul Donnelly (46) from Newtownards is married to Nicola (44). They have two sons, James (16) and Robert (12), who both play polo.
"I work up in the airport as a flight control engineer looking after the radar, the navigation and the comms. It's quite a stressful job, but you go down to Tyrella and it de-stresses you and is very therapeutic. It lifts your day. If you have a stressful occupation, it's a good release," he says.
"When I was a child I used to ride but as I got older I moved away from the horses."
Paul says he went through a bit of a midlife crisis in his 40s. He'd always wanted to have a go at polo and found there was somewhere nearby.
"I came up and had a go and I've never looked back," he says. "I'll never be professional but I can pass myself. It's good exercise, keeps the weight off and the mind active."
Paul says polo is a far more interesting and complex sport than people realise, but it is seen as elitist. "There is a diverse range of people of different ages and backgrounds who are all into it. I've never been a keen sports team player and this is the first team sport that I've really enjoyed and felt a part of."
He also explains you don't have to have a horsey background to play polo.
"The horses are more like circus ponies than anything. They are very, very placid and they do as they are told. When I first started playing polo, at the end of it I could barely speak because my fitness level was so low!"
Paul says polo is starting to undergo a bit of a revival and a lot more children are playing as well, including his two boys.
"If they don't enjoy football or hockey, maybe polo is for them. With my younger one, he was a quiet child, but polo was a great way to involve himself more with people and it has boosted his confidence as a result," he says.
If Paul has a stressful day at work he loves getting down to Tyrella for a few chukkas.
"It's right under the Mourne Mountains - you couldn't get any more scenic," he says.
"On a warm summer's evening, you couldn't wish to be anywhere else."