A lesson in the sport of kings

On a chilly winter’s morning, journalists were invited to learn about polo first hand, with the help of trained professionals and ponies at the Inanda Club in Sandton.

Once the introductions were out of the way, it was time for the media people to do their thing. Many of those in attendance were going to experience riding a horse for the first time.

After a quick lesson on how to get onto these powerful animals, the Inanda Club polo manager Craig James gave a round-up of the game of polo.

As part of the polo experience, the club hosts a City Polo Training School, where people are taught how to play.

READY TO PLAY: Zompie Tsotetsi, left, Nathi Chabala, James Koto and Zamo Wodi line up to begin their game. Picture: Supplied

“It is a nice way to get involved, because you don’t have to go and buy all the horses and the equipment. You can come and rent them and get yourself started. It also helps in the development of the sport,” said James.

After a few strolls and gallops to familiarise oneself with the ponies, James then explained the game itself and how it’s played with a polo stick – a mallet – the general safety of the sport, the direction of play and the importance of riding shoulder to shoulder.

“Players can paint their mallets differently. Some choose to put their initials on them, while others choose to paint them with bright colours. There is a number at the top end of the mallet head. It is measured in inches and we generally don’t use anything bigger than a 53 or smaller than a 51.

HOW IT’S DONE: Craig James explains how the game of polo is played using mallets, while the ponies wait in the background.

“If you use a 54 mallet it means you are riding a giant and it becomes that much harder to hit the ball. Most polo players have an average of about 52/53. A mallet head is always flat with the number facing away from you when you are hitting the ball.”

James also explained about the period of play in a polo match, known as a chukka. Chukkas are split into sections of four to eight seven-minute periods.

The media people were also taught about the scoring system, where the format was three chukkas in one direction and the other three in the other direction. The old format had the teams changing sides every time a goal was scored.


James added that they were reducing the time of play to reduce the risk of the horses getting hurt.

“You have to think of these guys as sportsmen. Normally towards the end of a race when you have extreme fatigue is when injuries happen.”

Polo is an expensive sport because of the number of ponies involved, but James said it was still accessible.

LINED UP: The ponies for the day. Picture: Dimpho Maja/African News Agency (ANA)

Known as the “sport of kings” for its grace and glamour, many assume it requires great wealth for long-term involvement. It has, however, over the years become available to budding polo players aspiring to play the sport, and secured its roots in many African countries.

“For each chukka I have a new horse, so that’s up to six horses. You can get away with playing a horse twice; a minimum of three horses will do the job, but if you’re playing competitively then you need more horses.

“If I arrive at a six-chukka match, it’s very unlikely I’ll arrive with anything less than eight or nine horses for myself. Within a chukka you can change ponies as many times as you want – get on a fresh horse as many times as you want, but the change must be strategic.”

As part of the club’s development project – the Inanda Club Development Cup – they have trained and helped riders from disadvantaged backgrounds to hone their polo skills.

IN THE SADDLE: Enos Mafokate, the first black South African showjumper, brought students from his riding school in Soweto. Picture: Dimpho Maja/African News Agency (ANA)

Nathi Chabala, the recipient of the most valued player award at the Development Cup held recently, will be kitted out with polo gear and go on to play at the Cell C Inanda Africa Cup polo tournament.

He follows in the footsteps of Zompie Tsotetsi, who has been a professional polo player and coach for the past two years, after coming through the ranks in the Free State and being mentored through the Inanda Polo Development Programme.

“Polo is seen as an elitist sport, but this perception is changing. We welcome young South African polo players to be exposed to the game to raise their handicap and to develop their dedication, focus and hard work that allows them to enter the world of professional polo,” James pointed out.

The 2018 Cell C Inanda Africa Cup tournament is set to take place on August 26.

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