Players fantastic, ponies marvellous, pitches are better, but the polo is boring, says influential British polo figure.
John Horswell is master of many things in polo today: manager, coach, mentor, friend to many and even expert commentator for television. In a revealing interview with The Telegraph, Horswell believes that polo may be facing “a crisis” yet in the same breath, has witnessed great changes in the sport.
At height of his playing career, Horswell held a 6 Goal handicap and played for England and is regarded within the polo community as one of the leading polo coaches in the world. He also holds an ‘A’ grade HPA umpiring qualification.
Most recently off 3 goals, Horswell’s love of horses and the sport has endured over four decades, and although he is not part of the sports hierarchy, he remains an influential figure in the sport.
“I think I speak from a position of strength when I say that I think we have a sport at the moment that is in a bit of a crisis,” Horswell said.
“There are too many people in it trying to make a living, whether they’re English or foreign, and we’ve ended up with a market system that doesn’t work in the way the old one did – where you had a patron who you came and played for and you played for that guy and learned the game there.”
“Nowadays, at a very early stage of your career you’ve got your horses and you play a bit with this person, a bit with that person and a bit with the other. Teams change every day, sometimes twice a day, and you end up with a situation where you play a sort of version of polo that wins because that’s what’s important. But you’re not playing a version of polo that will be a benefit to you.”
Overall, assesses Horswell, “The players are fantastic, the ponies are marvellous, the pitches are better, but the polo is boring.”
Horswell outlined the good, the bad, and the ugly in polo at present:
On high goal polo, the super teams and the patrons
“We’ve got the super league and then the rest of us. They’ve got more money, more ammunition, better players. You can’t equalise that in this sport.
The systems that the big teams use nowadays are designed to make the most of their assets – which is the ten goal player with the amazing ball carrying skills riding 200,000 dollar horses that are flying machines. They set out to make the best use of their assets.
You just have to accept it and either carrying on competing in it, or, as a lot of patrons have done, decide not to. If you look at a list of the teams that have played since 2010, there’s as many (patrons) not playing as playing.
They’re all still active, they all still own horses and pitches. They’re not playing this because there’s no point.
A couple of economic downturns we’ve had have turned the patrons into negotiators, deal-doers, power-brokers, whereas before if you wanted a four goal player for your team, you played polo more or less at one level and you picked your players and you played them all season and that was it. People concentrate on their ponies and their game and everything else they need to concentrate on.
There’s certain levels of polo where there aren’t enough teams, but this is the problem with the high goal and teams dropping out.
We’ll possibly have less next year and less the year after.
When I first started playing polo there weren’t that many people playing polo. You probably knew them all – both on the ground and socially. Argentine players in the main were gentlemen players. They would sell some horses, maybe, to cover the costs of being away.”
On polo professionals in the UK
“There’s a difference in mentality between a kid who wants to make something his whole life and his career, and he’s desperate to climb up the ladder, and a the old Corinthian ethic of the talented gentleman player.”
“I’ve always been a free marketeer. We’ve been spreading the resource too thin and getting mediocrity. Too many people coming into a sport and getting support – not getting enough, getting a little, you end up with a whole load of mediocre players who don’t fulfil their potential.”
On the state of the game
“Players skills have developed. Lots of the component parts have developed. However, whether you think it has improved or not depends on what you expect to get out of it. If you view polo as being that amazing, fun sport that you can play with a horse – all the old traditional views that people had – it’s not improved, it’s got worse. On and off the ground.
The style of polo that’s played now… I went to Soto Grande for August, probably in 2013, and I came back and said, yeah, it’s great, it’s a lovely place, the pitches are fantastic, there are great players there and great horses, but the polo is so boring.
Basically what they did was floor guy knocks in, the drones go out, they lock up the people, he goes as far as he can, he waltzes to the other end and scores a goal. If he can, he scores a goal and the other people he misses start to come the other way.
This summer we’ve had a very, very dry summer, so now these pitches are amazing, but we’re seeing the same polo. The teams that are being successful, Dubai, King Power and UAE play off the back.”
On why polo has changed and the way horses are played
“The horse was trained to play a whole chukka. But what tires out a horse? What tires out a horse is stopping, turning and re-accelerating. When polo started to be a game of stopping and turning and re-accelerating, horses got tired quicker.
The skill level, the original ball juggler, were all contributing factors that ended up making the horses tire more. There was a lot more de-acceleration and re-acceleration. As a consequence people started changing ponies. Now you get patrons changing ponies in the middle of chukkas, sometimes with not very good consequences because they get bucked off the second one.
A patron of mine who I know quite well asked me the other day, do you think I should start changing horses? I said, no, why? He said, well, everyone else does. I said, you should play yours two in a row because they’re having to work them when they get home because they’re not tired enough.”
Horswell advocates a rule change
“The one rule that needs refining and enforcing better is the walking rule. The tapping rule. I haven’t given it a huge amount of thought, but if you could force people to release the ball… it’s poorly enforced and it needs tightening up. It involves something to do with changes of speed as well as changes of direction.”
Food for thought, indeed, for polo and its future. In spite of the witheringly honest assessment offered by Horswell, he will remain a figure in the sport who players turn to for the sharpest technical advice.
“It’s still an amazing game and I still enjoy it and I still enjoy training kids and pros and coaching teams and coming up with ideas.”
“One way or another, having been paid or unpaid, I’ve been responsible for a lot of the players in this country over the last 20 or 30 years who have got to five, six or seven goals,” Horswell said.
“I’m coaching teams, I’m training a lot of pros. I still work with Max (Charlton), for instance, and I’ve got sixes and fives and fours and threes. Like a golf coach, I understand how the swing works – why it’s working and why it’s not working.”
“It’s another eye. Some people come and see me once a month, some once a fortnight. I do occasionally come up with new stuff. I film a lot of stuff with slow motion cameras. Nobody has what I call a ‘perfect swing’. They all have different issues and problems and what’s interesting is what the good player does to sort out the problem. That’s what I look at. I can turn round and say to my other players, look, you have this little issue here, what I have is a way that so and so uses which will help sort it out.”
It’s a pity that world governing bodies in polo don’t use Horswell as their adviser: the sport would be richer and healthier as a result.