Inside the snow polo games, the wild Austrian winter sport with an aristocratic history

Subtlety isn’t Jan-Erik Franck’s strong suit. He is, after all, the self-described “voice of polo” and has the booming Dutch-meets-German-meets-Swiss tone to match, flitting between languages like a personal Duolingo. And right now, he’s calling out every play at perhaps the wildest version of the otherwise genteel game of polo one could possibly think of.

With sunglasses pulled over his bifocals, both sitting precariously at the peak of his nose, Franck is laser-focused on the competition in front of him. He darts his eyes back and forth, announcing every penalty and anecdote he can think of to keep the freezing crowd roaring as they stand in the shadow of the Alps in the tiny Austrian town of Kitzbühel.

For today’s event, Franck is commentating at the Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup, a three-day polo experience where players mount their horses to thwack a ball down a miniature version of a regulation field – though “field” here is a loose term as it’s actually just ice with a thin layer of snow on top. And neither these horses nor the riders seem to care about the precariousness of their situation, making it all the more thrilling for Franck and the spectators lining the barely bellybutton-high fence separating them from the play.

“In traditional polo, you can fit nine football fields in a polo field,” said Franck, explaining what makes snow polo that much more special. “So, for a spectator of traditional polo, you’re not always up close to the action. But here, it’s a much smaller field. You get more of a sense of being with it.”

It’s the perfect game for a place like Kitzbühel, as it knows no subtlety either.Stacey Leasca (Credit: Stacey Leasca)Stacey Leasca

Kitzbühel is a destination that could have gone unnoticed as a barely distinguishable blip on the radar between the larger communities of Innsbruck and Salzburg, had it not made a major name for itself as both a luxury destination for the absolute upper limit of the upper crust and as a sporting mecca for those who just do not care for moderation.

Here, labels like Louis Vuitton and Moncler reign supreme, but both are worn as genuine activewear, especially in the winter months, when the town comes alive with ski enthusiasts who flock to its 2,000m peak and stay at luxury hotels like the traditional Goldener Greif or the more modern Alpenhotel Kitzbühel am Schwarzsee. On the slopes, visitors can try their hand at shredding down pristine powder and watch the pros at work at the Hahnenkamm Race, alpine skiing’s premier global event, which has called Kitzbühel home since 1931. But that’s an occasion for this weekend (literally, as it runs from Friday 19 January to Sunday 21 January 2024). We’re here for the horses.

While not steeped in the same amount of history as the Hahnenkamm, the Bendura Bank Snow Polo World Cup turned 21 this year, with Tito Gaudenzi helming the event as its CEO.

“I’m an addict to the sport, and I love the horses,” Gaudenzi said while sitting on a spotless white couch in the VIP lounge, still muddied from his last game, which, by the way, he won handsomely. “Having an event like this helps bring the sport closer to people.

It’s an exceedingly chic affair at that. Inside the heated VIP tent, bottles of Veuve Clicquot – whose team is also playing in the tournament – are handed out like water. Caviar is doled out with what appears to be an ice cream scooper, and there are two Bentleys parked out front. There is even a vintage Land Rover Defender acting as a wine bar. And the spectators are dressed to match in what Gen Z has now dubbed the highest echelon of fashion: the mob wife aesthetic: Fur, Moon Boots, Chanel and the aforementioned Moncler abounds.

Yet, no one here can be considered a poser. Once the game begins, everyone rushes from the tent outside, whistling like it’s their own kid they’re watching, shouting out points scored and explaining to the lesser in-the-know folks (ie, me) about how the game works.Stacey Leasca (Credit: Stacey Leasca)Stacey Leasca

Whether played on grass or on snow, the rules are the same. Each team has four players made up of two offensive, one captain and a defender, though really, all four players are expected to be able to flex at a moment’s notice to knock the snow polo ball into the goal. The game goes on for four (though sometimes up to six) seven-minute quarters, known as a “chukka”, and between each one, players can change out their polo horse. And they do so with the utmost grace, seemingly floating off one horse and onto the next, barely touching the ground in between, as the horses excitedly dance, tippy tapping their hooves and snorting in anticipation. And the most obvious rule of all – the team with the highest score wins.

It’s a game that hasn’t really changed much in its more than 2,000-year history. Originating in Persia in 600 BCE, it quickly went from a training tool for warriors to a game preferred by the nobility. However, it wasn’t until the 19th Century that it found worldwide fame, spreading from India to Argentina, and finally to the US in 1876. Along the way, it picked up plenty of famous players too, including both Prince Harry and Prince William, their father, King Charles, and their late grandfather, Prince Philip. Even American “royalty” have been known to play a game or two, including Walt Disney, who was known to play with his counterpart, Will Rogers.

But in Kitzbühel, it’s not just the VIPs that have come to watch this display of human and animal athleticism. The surrounding field is entirely open to the public and is completely free.

“It was very important for us to work with the tourism board. We make the public area free so everyone can come and see,” Gaudenzi said. “I think that’s very important because we want people to access the sport.”Stacey Leasca (Credit: Stacey Leasca)Stacey Leasca

Though don’t let that sweet quote fool you. Gaudenzi may have nicely invited everyone to watch, but that’s because he simply likes an audience when he wins.

“Listen, whoever competes against me should say their prayers,” he added with a wink and a smile.

Kitzbühel marks a small but important tournament in snow polo. Those who can’t get enough can make their way to the big game in St Moritz, which hosted the very first snow polo tournament in 1985. Players are set to take to the frozen lake on 26-28 January. You can also head to Argentina later this year for the Cerro Bayo snow polo tournament.

But, if warm weather recreation is more your speed, polo has plenty of that for you too. That includes the Polo Extravaganza in Dubai in March and another Gaudenzi-prefered match – beach polo in Miami played directly on the sand. “My home choice is Miami,” he added.Stacey Leasca (Credit: Stacey Leasca)Stacey Leasca

Still, if you want your feet to quiver under the thunderous weight of horse hooves travelling 48km/h directly at you and stop just as their warm breath kisses your cheek, snow polo, specifically the snow polo played here in the opulent, adrenaline-rush devoted town of Kitzbühel, more than delivers.

“If you’re a purist and you only want to watch the original polo, then go to Argentina, America or England,” Franck said. “But if you want to be part of the action and be up close, come to snow polo.Stacey Leasca (Credit: Stacey Leasca)Stacey Leasca

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