‘‘Head down!” yells Jamie Dickson as he gallops up behind me. My own horse is bearing down furiously on the little white polo ball Dickson has knocked out some yards ahead. I stand up in the stirrups, lean over the horse’s front hooves then look – as instructed – head-down at the ball and swing my mallet into the turf as it races by beneath me.
Imagine the best drive you have ever made on the golf course, then add the satisfying crack of wood on wood, then imagine it again from the back of a galloping thoroughbred – in Barbados.
“Well done!” Dickson calls as he trots up beside me and continues the lesson with further refinements on the technique of forehand swings. He and his brother, Neil, have managed the Apes Hill Polo School for the past eight years on behalf of the Apes Hill Club, a 470-acre, private golf, polo and real-estate development led by the Barbadian construction magnate Sir Charles Williams.
As a result of efforts by Sir Charles and a cadre of polo players and patrons at the five world-class polo facilities on the island, Barbados has a busy polo season – an international pro tournament is in play there during most weeks of the northern hemisphere’s winter months.
Nearer by air – and, perhaps, culturally – to European home turf than the rarefied high-goal polo capitals of Palm Beach and Buenos Aires, the Dickson brothers foresee Barbados becoming a new global nexus for polo, attracting the considerably larger market of amateur and low-goal players. As such, it would not compete directly with Palm Beach – for now.
Efforts to develop a horse-breeding and training programme in “Bim” or “Little England”, as Barbados is colloquially known, have yielded some early success. Neil reports that Barbadian pro players Stephen and Teddy Williams, sons of Sir Charles, have been winning matches on home-bred horses, and that many of the pros who come to Barbados from around the world compete on local ponies. Even Prince Harry, who famously came off his horse at Apes Hill during a charity match for his Sentebale foundation, has found Barbadian ponies to be very much up to the job.
According to Neil, the polo school is busy from December to May with a mix of amateurs and novices, about 20 per cent of whom have little or no riding experience at all. In spite of some years learning dressage (an equestrian sport that is to polo what ballet is to lacrosse), I am in this final category.
Neil observes later that riding experience certainly makes it easier to learn the sport, but that general athleticism is almost as important. Over three lessons I was able to acquire the basic repertoire of forehand and backhand strokes; and I can vouch that enough may be learnt in a few days for one to decide whether playing polo will become a passion.
It is also enough to decide whether you want to be among the clients who rent or own villas and return each year to the Apes Hill Club to take “polo holidays”. These comprise a week or two of morning lessons, practice chukkas and competitive games on the school’s ponies, followed by afternoons watching matches at one of Barbados’s five polo fields (Apes Hill, Lion Castle, Holder’s, Buttals and Clifton), which rotate as host clubs for international tournaments. Into this category I could also fall.
“You are not required to bring anything” read an e-mail message I received from Neil shortly after booking. “Please wear trainers and jeans – we will provide chaps or boots.”
People rise early in Barbados to take advantage of the cooler temperatures, so my lesson is at 8am. Much of the Apes Hill Club property seems to have been coaxed out of tropical jungle, and the road to the practice field passes through a gully with a natural grotto that, in full bloom, could stand on its own as an eco-tourist destination.
Jamie Dickson arrives ahead of two grooms, each riding one pony while holding the leads for two or three others. Jamie informs me that Neil is recovering from a fall at a match, so he’ll be giving my lessons instead. Two grooms riding a herd of horses through the gully from the stabling area to the practice field is quite a display of horsemanship.
The grooms stand by the field with the six ponies Dickson has reserved for my lesson – three ponies each; or, as it turns out, two and a spare. A small but elegant gazebo with a view of the field provides comfort and shade for spectators, but the grooms stand with our mounts in the morning sun as the animals graze quietly.
Dickson begins the lesson with a description of the equipment and types of bit in the animal’s mouth, and demonstrates the style of one-handed neck reining that steers the polo pony. We hit balls around the field at a walk to get a sense of how to co-ordinate the motion of riding with the swing of the mallet.
After 20 minutes of practice swings, Dickson cracks the ball out some yards in front of me, and my horse turns automatically to follow it. Holding the mallet is mostly a matter of vertical balance; held correctly, it is surprisingly light. I drive the horse forward into a gallop, and find that focusing on the moving ball takes my mind off staying in the tack. As if by magic, my body balances itself in the saddle as we bolt across the field.
Dickson is a keen observer and an enthusiastic teacher who takes sincere pleasure in even a beginner’s progression. In fact, the sport encourages riders of mixed ability to play one other through a handicap system that rates each team according to the cumulative ranking of its members.
If a team rates higher than its opponent, the difference is given to the disadvantaged team as a sportsmanlike head start of a few goals. Jamie Dickson (3-goal) with Neil Dickson (2-goal) and fellow Old Harrovian Teddy Williams (3-goal) would rank as an 8-goal team. If a complete novice (-2) were added, they would rate as only a 6-goal team.
Many of Neil’s clients come to Barbados regularly, and some are invited to join practice chukkas with higher-rated players, generally British pros playing from December to May prior to the UK season.
Some clients who have taken up the sport as adults have achieved handicaps as high as 2. (Princes Harry and William both have a formidable, yet still gentlemanly 1-goal handicap; if the Royals are any example, becoming a passable amateur polo player may be achievable for a much broader set than the mystique of the sport would imply.) The school supplies ponies and hires pros to play with clients at every level as a part of the holidays.
It is an extremely fast sport, and on my third and final day, Dickson introduces some gamesmanship, including techniques for deflecting and hooking the mallets of opponents. He also demonstrates (thankfully, at a walk) “riding off” an opponent, which means chasing down another player and forcing him off the path of the ball by leaning into him at a 20mph gallop. By comparison, polo makes soccer seem laughably genteel.
Halfway through the lesson we dismount and the grooms bring us bottles of water and two fresh horses. As the adrenaline subsides there is a stinging in my thumb – I’ve blistered and torn the skin by gripping the mallet like a hammer instead of balancing it in my fingers like a golf club. Dickson has surgical tape ready and after some water and small talk, I’m taped up and back on the field. We’re horsemen, not footballers.
I had hoped the blister on my thumb might leave a scar or at least require bandaging for a few days after my vacation so that I would have a story to tell. “Oh, that,” I imagined saying to anyone who noticed it. “Yah, nothing really – just a polo injury I picked up in Bim.”