I catch Charlie Tighe just as he returns home to East Anglia after going to Brighton and back in a day. He’s earning a crust as a temporary delivery driver, dropping off sofas, armchairs, tables and other pieces of furniture far and wide. “Every day I’m getting up at ridiculous times,” laughs the teenager, who left school last summer. A recent trip to Exeter meant a 1am start.
If I were Charlie I couldn’t tell if I were coming or going. Last autumn he found himself whisked to Argentina – living the dream on the polo field, riding the kind of high-quality horses he could barely have imagined, put up in a house and lent a car, and relaxing by the pool in temperatures of about 30C.
When he came back to England for Christmas, his flight to Heathrow was delayed a day by December’s snow and ice. “It was -1C when I got off the plane. Couldn’t believe it!”
So how did he get to this point? Mum Lisa has kept horses for a long time. “When I was two she sat me on a horse and walked me around.” When Charlie was about 11, Norfolk Polo Club was launched by Chris Townsend. “I was really good friends with his son Tom and started going along, after school, and having a bit of a knockabout.” They rode when they could. “The Townsend brothers and myself, we never used to like cricket, so we’d request an absence during games (at school) and we’d go down and play some polo.”
By 2016, Charlie had been talent-spotted and was selected for a Young England clash with Scotland. “Absolutely loved it. When I got the email to play against Scotland I was running around the house, shouting ‘Mum! Where are you?’ It was a big thing for me. That was the time when I thought ‘Yes, I could do this.’”
There was even better to come in 2017. In August he played in a big tournament in Sussex, where his team reached the final. “Luckily I had a blinder of a game. I managed to score all the goals.” (Three for his team.) A fortnight later he again represented Young England. Among those he impressed was legendary polo figure Simon Tomlinson, who asked Charlie if he wanted to play in 2018 at Beaufort Polo Club in Gloucestershire. A great honour. But it was rather trumped by another. The call came from a man who runs the top Park Place team in Henley. He was on the lookout for a substitute player.
Charlie went for a trial and found himself one of two contenders offered the chance to go to Argentina for winter training with top players Mark and Luke Tomlinson (Simon’s sons). In April he’ll be back to Park Place for a second trial. If the better of the hopefuls is up to scratch, he’ll land the vacant spot.
“I was driving back from the trial speechless. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I’m from Norfolk, hidden away in Norfolk, and I’ve played a couple of good games in junior tournaments, and then suddenly this pops up…”
So with about 20 days’ notice he flew to Buenos Aries in October. He and his rival (“It’s quite chilled between us”) had a house to live in, in a “polo town” called Pilar. They had the use of horses and a groom. “By the end of the trip I had nine horses (allocated for use). It was crazy.
“Polo is life out there, so their pitches are immaculate – almost like a football pitch.” There’d be training seven days a week. If there wasn’t a practice match, he’d take out a horse and practise hitting a ball. Or hone his skills in the saddle.
“I turned up and they said my riding is dreadful! I hadn’t been told that before. ‘So, teach me, then; please tell me how to improve!’ That was quite funny.”
He flies back to Argentina next month, then back to England in the spring and that second trial. I’m sure he’ll nail it. But what if he doesn’t?
Well, he might look to go to college and get a job that would allow him to continue enjoying his passion. “But I can’t see myself not playing! It’s addictive. Riding horses and with a bit of a competitive edge as well… I couldn’t not do it.”
What’s the key to success?
“Practice. Hitting-the-ball techniques. And if your horse is really good, you’re going to be playing a lot better. If you can turn onto the ball a lot quicker than the other guy, that buys you a couple of seconds.”
Meanwhile, he dreams of warmer climes. “I’m not a fan of winter; especially in England when it’s raining.
“I keep looking on the British Airways app and it tells me exactly how many days I’ve got left!”
Charlie, who lives near Norwich, would have started riding earlier in life but for Perthes disease – a rare condition affecting the hip. The blood supply to the rounded head of the thighbone is temporarily disrupted and the “ball” of the joint starts to break down. “I was wheelchair-bound for two years. They operated on it. I had my sixth birthday in hospital, just after the operation. Now it’s brilliant.” The former Langley School pupil had to cut down on polo as his A-levels approached last summer. His season was only about eight weeks long, though he did cram 37 games into that time, by riding wherever and whenever he could, as a free agent. Charlie based himself near Cirencester, where he’d spent summers for the past couple of years, working in a polo yard in exchange for his horses’ keep. He’d get his expenses paid when he played for a team, so his season didn’t cost him very much. He’d got his 7.5-tonne lorry licence just before his exams began, so he could drive himself around, too.