Just outside the Hunter Valley town of Gresford, where the sealed road becomes a dusty, corrugated driveway, a hidden gem awaits.
Surrounded by lumpy green hills, with the scent of cut grass and horse manure wafting on the breeze, is Beau Blundell’s sanctuary.
Blundell – the president of the Wirragulla Polo Club at nearby Dungog – owns a 101 hectare property and breeds polo ponies.
As the afternoon sun dips lower towards the horizon bathing the countryside in gold, the clip-clop sound of a horse grows louder.
Beau Blundell rides towards the stables, dismounts and tethers his horse to the wooden slip-rail fence.
He is warm and welcoming, wears blue jeans, a vest and brown riding boots. Speaking with a gravelly voice, he calmly reassures and praises his horse following their afternoon on the polo training paddock.
Blundell is counting-down to his club’s biggest event of the year, the Wirragulla Annual Polo Tournament – an event which attracts 12 teams and about 50 competitors – including some of the Hunter Valley’s best and brightest riders.
A passion for polo
Polo is a game played between two teams of four horses and riders. The aim is for the players to hit a small white ball between two large sticks at opposite ends of a paddock – all while riding at full-speed on their ponies.
Games are split into four or six periods called ‘chukkas’, which last seven minutes each.
After growing up in Sydney, Beau Blundell always had a keen passion for rural life; and when his uncle introduced him to the thrill of polo, he was hooked.
“I’ve heard many people say it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever tried to do – me included,” Blundell said.
“It’s an experience you can’t do anywhere else; and it’s a sport where once you’re hooked, you’re completely hooked.”
Polo is a game that has a symbiotic relationship between human and animal.
Not only does the rider need to have impeccable skills hitting the ball at speed; they also need to manoeuvre their horse so collisions don’t occur and cause serious injury.
But Blundell said the sport is not cruel to the horses.
“That’s a misconception that many have – that it’s cruel. It’s far from it. These animals love to do this,” he said.
“Being a player that looks after his horses and loves his horses, I can tell you that mine love to play.
“For the guys that drive an income from it, the worst thing they can do is not look after their horses. Every care is taken with these horses to make sure that they get the best care possible.”
As the sun’s rays shine on Blundell’s property, they create a shimmering sheen on the course chestnut hair of his horses.
“[A polo pony needs] speed, agility, and mental stamina. I think they’re the ultimate sporting horse, you know, there’s not many that can do what polo ponies do,” Blundell said.
“They’re generally thoroughbreds with a bit of stock horse infusion.
“There’s a lot of training that goes into the horses – from when they start as a two-year-old right through to finishing their playing career.”
With the hills around Gresford sheltering his property from the ‘man made’ world, a sense of tranquillity is intertwined with the countryside.
Blundell runs about 30 horses on his property, from a stallion to young stock to breeding horses.
Competing with the world
Each day Beau Blundell juggles the running of the stud with training horses, coaching riders, and playing polo.
Over the years he has played polo around the Hunter Valley, but has also ventured to Singapore and Malaysia.
While Argentina and the United Kingdom are considered among the world’s best polo-playing countries, Blundell said Australia’s reputation for polo is slowly improving.
“As far as Australians go on the world polo scale, we’re probably fairly minor,” he said.
“We have some very good players, and the Hunter Valley produces probably the best polo players, and has done in my lifetime anyway.”
Polo players need to have innate hand-eye coordination and the ability to ride a horse well in order to succeed in the sport.
Blundell said being able to bond with the horse is just as important.
“Having the ability to connect with a horse is certainly a trait that I look for when we’re trying to teach people how to play,” he said.
“I think it’s probably one of the greatest things. It’s not something that’s forged in five seconds.
“You have to spend time with your animals and work the idiosyncrasies out with the animals and work with them, rather than make them do things.”
Importance for Dungog
The Dungog-based Wirragulla Polo Club is one of the sport’s oldest groups in Australia.
As president of the club, Beau Blundell said the Wirragulla Annual Polo Tournament is growing in popularity among the sport’s fraternity.
“It’s up there. Scone is the biggest by a long shot; but we’re slowly getting there,” he said.
With it being about five months since Dungog was ravaged by a severe storm and flood, Blundell said the tournament will play a role in the town’s ongoing healing process.
“I think it’s a good day out for people to just come and have a couple of beers and watch something that’s a bit different.”