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Polo: An ancient game with a modern touch

 Capital FM’s Magda Jurkowiecka (left) and Mbuu Ngugi of Soldier Salute during Soldiers Salute match against Tusker Malt at The Nairobi Polo Club. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

At a field adjacent to Jamhuri Park, Nairobi, men and women gather to spectate in a sport few know about. At over 100 years old, Nairobi Polo Club is one of Kenya’s oldest sporting clubs.

Last weekend, it attracted a youthful population eager to cheer mounted men and women competing at the Soldiers Salute tournament.

On the terraces, off the sun-baked field, it was a kaleidoscope of colour as the ladies in light colours, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses trained their eyes on the ponies pounding the earth as their minders searched for the ball amidst the clouds of dust wafting off the ground.

The men also came out to watch the action, clad in sweatshirts, moccasins and Panama hats. The crowd was similar to what you will find in golf tournaments like the Magical Kenya Open championship.

Both games involve chasing a ball with a hand-held club, or in the case of polo, a mallet. And while golfers slog tiredly along the fairways, a horse is the preferred mode of conveying polo players around the field.

Polo has a long history, both globally and in Kenya. Accounts about its origins differ but the first tournament is thought to have been played around 600 BC in Persia. The name polo originated from the Tibetan word pholo or ball.

For ages, the sport was associated with Persian kings, queens and princes with legends stating it was used to train war horses in the empire. Due to such association with nobility, it has been viewed as a rich man’s game.

In Kenya, polo has been around since the beginning of the 20th Century with the Polo Club being in operation since 1907. As expected, white settlers were the ones who could afford the horses and patronised the game for decades.

The rules may have been altered over the decades but one thing has remained constant: you need good horses, yes, not any horse, to take part in the game.

On this weekend, some of the best horses were on the field, being marshalled by 16 men and women making four teams — Tusker Malt, SBM Bank, Tanqueray, and Capital FM—each of the four players identified, not by names, but by numbers One to Four, each with a different competency.

 McKenzie Petronillah (from left) Lyncie Wambui, Jane Njambi, Ashley Wanjiru and Xander Mbugua during the Soldiers Salute Cup finals at the Nairobi Polo Club on Sunday 18th, February 2024. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

The game involves driving the ball down the field with the mallet and in between the two posts. It calls for speed, alertness, quick manoeuvring, anticipation, determination and self-control.

Here are some basic rules enforced by two mounted umpires who penalise any who do not toe the line.

Teams should especially play in a way that offers utmost protection to the horses. The players should be careful to avoid cutting off another player from the front as this may put the horse and rider in danger. After each goal or at the end of a round (also known as chukka) that lasts for about seven minutes, the teams change sides to ensure no particular group gains an undue advantage over the other. They also change horses after each round to make sure the animals get some rest before the next round.

Among the players was Eva Kamau from Team Tanqueray. She is not exactly sure when the bug for polo bit her. “I remember attending a match around 2016 where women were playing,” she says.

Eva has four thoroughbred horses that previously participated in horse racing. “They need to be agile to participate. We buy them when they are already trained.”

“The game is resonating with the upscale and sophisticated demographic. Tanqueray fits their lifestyle with style, substance and character,” says Scaver Saitaga, the custodian for Tanqueray portfolio at East African Breweries Limited and who, in addition to polo, hopes to leverage on other major sports events such as golf and rugby.

“We will focus on sustainability, social responsibility initiatives, and exploring new sports and events to reach diverse audiences.”

After the horses returned to the stables, players and spectators alike camped at the hospitality tents where they reminisced over equestrian prowess over nyama choma and a sip of their favourite gin. 

 From left: Natalie Tewa Prince Brian and Melvin Tilia during the Soldiers Salute Cup finals at the Nairobi Polo Club on Sunday 18th, February,2024. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

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