A trip to the Auckland club in Clevedon gives an up-close look at a dangerous, difficult and rather costly sport

The country around Clevedon, southeast of Auckland, is parched and brown. Hawks circle slowly in the blue sky and even at 10am, the sun is like a hammer blow. The occasional "Road May Flood" sign seems like a grim joke.

Just the other side of the township, on Kawakawa Rd, the line-up of big horse trucks marks Fisher Field, the headquarters of the Auckland Polo Club, where the national open championship, the BMW Polo Open, will be staged in the middle of next month.

This club day, when the public can have a look for free, is a sparsely attended affair - a couple of teams are down at the club champs in Rangitikei, where they compete for the Savile Cup, reputedly the country's oldest sporting trophy. But the few members there welcome the interest of a stranger who knows next to nothing about polo and has always regarded horses as only marginally less dangerous than alligators.

In the far distance, an octet of players mounted on a tangle of horseflesh are scrapping for a ball I can't see. The field can be up to 300 old-fashioned yards (274m) long and 160 yards (146m wide). That's almost seven football fields, or about 4ha. They have farms smaller than this in Europe.


But every so often the action comes closer to where I'm standing and the ground fairly shakes under the hoofbeats of a combined four-tonne weight of the horses, who snort as they wheel at their riders' commands.

"I said hit it, not tap it," yells one of the players to a teammate, his posh-English RP vowels conspicuous above the hubbub. Another player gives the white ball a fearsome whack and the chase is on again. "It's like playing golf in an earthquake," says club member Mark Fitzpatrick, who's waiting to take the field.

Michael Ellyett, whose layoff with a shoulder injury gives him the time to explain what's going on, elaborates. "Any equestrian discipline requires a level of skill that is unimaginable for a non-rider. In polo, you're playing a shot like a golf shot with somebody trying to push you over on a horse that's going 60 or 70k - and the ball's moving."

Amid the apparent chaos, there are rules. When a ball is struck, it creates imaginary lanes either side of its line of travel and the idea is to occupy a lane and stop anyone else from entering it, in much the same way as we drive on motorways.

Trying not to think of my dodgy mastery of a stationary golf ball (never mind the indignities of my inglorious equestrian career), I ask whether people get injured at polo.

"Oh, all the time," Ellyett says mildly. "Most players - if not all of them - have had broken bones. If that ball hits you, it will break most things it hits."

The Hindi-derived word for a seven-minute period of play, a chukka, is a reminder of the modern game's roots in India, but I am surprised to learn that the sport's powerhouse nation is Argentina: dynasties of players have developed in the culture of a country where being a cowboy is still a real job, matches are televised and the biggest tournament attracts crowds of 45,000.

There are no Argentinians at Fisher Field, but English accents stand out. (You can tell the English players because they pronounce the first "o" in "polo" to rhyme with "go", not "goal").


Ed Hitchman is one of the professionals who spend the southern summer here, honing and passing on their skills and "making" polo ponies.

It can take three seasons to make a horse, he explains, because they need very specific skills, such as stopping suddenly and bumping into other horses, neither of which comes naturally. But a made horse can sell for $50,000 here, and more in the UK. "You can make a good living at it," says Hitchman.

It's a costly sport. A season here can cost as much as $25,000 - though in the UK it would be four or five times that, Ellyett tells me. But Brydie Canham, playing her first season, says there's no trace of snobby elitism and "everyone is really friendly".

Canham, who grew up riding, says she was instantly hooked when she took up the sport.

"It's a massive learning curve," she says. "The first time I got on the field I had no idea what was going on, but after three or four sessions, suddenly it clicks."