Many a sport involving horses is referred to as ‘the sport of kings’ but, considering its right regal pedigree, polo is perhaps the most fitting claimant to this crown. And yet, there’s a new(er) kid on the block that similarly sees illustrious players up on their ‘high horses’, as JON RAWLINSON reveals.
From soccer to rugby union, rugby league, American football, sevens, nines (the list goes on!) there are plenty of very different games which claim the name of ‘football’. Similarly, while polo and polocrosse are not exactly peas from the same pod, these equestrian codes share at least one major connection – they are both the domain of the Ainsley brothers of Pukekohe East.
“We were born and raised on a farm and have been riding all our lives,” Kel Ainsley informs me, “When it comes to sports, there’s not a hell of a lot we haven’t done on a horse!”
Kel and his brother, James (known as ‘Ross’), were born and raised rurally across the ditch. Both have represented high-goal (top level) teams, including Australia in polo, with Kel also competing for New South Wales and Queensland in polocrosse.
For the benefit of city sorts, polo originated in ancient Persia and is a little like mounted hockey, whereas polocrosse (developed into a sport in Australia in the 1930s) is more a hybrid of polo and lacrosse. Or, as Kel puts it, quite succinctly:
“With one you catch and throw the ball, with the other you just whack it.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that!
“Polocrosse is a bit like netball in that players have zones where they need to stay,” he elaborates, “A polo field is a whole lot bigger [roughly two to three times the size] and everyone can move everywhere, which makes it a more tactical game.”
Because polocrosse isn’t as demanding on the horses as the sport’s older cousin, only one mount (rather than at least two) is required per player. In addition, smaller fields – where the ball isn’t played along the ground – require less precise preparation. These factors can keep costs down for players.
Despite this, these two horse sports also have some obvious similarities. Yet, code-hopping isn’t common while playing both at a top level is also unusual, he confirms.
“People do go from one sport to the other but not many. They might have a go at both but will tend to stick with the sport they started with.”
First introduced to polocrosse aged six, Kel (also a top showjumper in his youth) took to the sport immediately.
“We were introduced to polocrosse when we were at pony camp. Both sports are great fun to play and there are a lot of great people to play them with. They’re adrenalin sports; you get quite a kick, especially when you win.”
It hasn’t taken me long to realise that whenever this Aussie-born battler’s heckles are up and victory’s on the line he pulls no punches!
Home on the range
Although Ross isn’t on hand when I drop by, that’s not unusual; he’s somewhat more of a globe ‘trotter’, a walking (and riding) advertisement for the business than Kel, who (largely) holds down the fort at home in the country.
“I did that [follow the polo seasons] for about 20 years and Ross, who started before I did, is still going,” he confirms. “I still travel to compete now and then, but I’m not based overseas anymore. “Even when Ross is playing abroad, he’s keeping our face in the game. If people are looking for a horse, he’ll hear about it and, by watching people play, he can see the type of horses they’ll need.”
Since moving to their Pukekohe East property approximately 14 years ago, the brothers have built a successful business, known as Ainsley Polo, breeding and selling horses, tack and saddles, as well as providing training for horses and riders.
“We chose Pukekohe specifically because it’s close to the airport for when international clients come over and when we go overseas to compete. Auckland Polo Club [based in Clevedon] is close by, too.
“If we drive down the road for half an hour here, we’ll see 10 horses and probably try eight of them; if we did the same in Australia, we’d probably only see a couple and not try either. The size of the country comes into it but it’s more just about the quality of the horses New Zealand produces.”Matching the right horses to the top pros is no easy task and neither is breeding the best.
“Genetics plays a huge role. We’ve been breeding polo horses for a long time in order to get the quality of stock we have. You could have a horse which is just a freak, put any Joe Blow on him and it’ll go really well, but that person won’t get the best out of it. It really comes down to making sure players have horses best suited to them.”
Just a couple of years after settling here, ‘team Ainsley’ made a new selection when an English lass came to ‘town’ looking for a pony. Instead, she procured much more than she bargained for.
“I came here because New Zealand is known as the place to buy polo ponies,” wife, Lucy, adds. “I was looking for a horse and found Kel!”
Lucy no longer plays polo, but she does hold the reigns as far as marketing and advertising the business goes, while also wrangling the couple’s three children.
The Ainsley brothers were practically born in the saddle so it’s no surprise that their children are following in their dads’ hoof steps. Lucy and Kel have three children together while Ross has also sired three youngsters, with his partner, Siobhan.
“They’ve all started riding early but only the older ones now have the strength needed to hit the ball properly,” says Kel. “But give them time and [the younger ones] will get there too.”
Polo to the people!
Polo may have once been a right rural pursuit but, down here in the antipodes, it’s rapidly becoming a favourite of town folk too. Bringing a sport enjoyed by royal sorts to the common man – well as common as they come in Remuera – Heineken Urban Polo is an exhibition tournament featuring some of the world’s best players and horses… of course, of course.
On February 24 at Shore Road Reserve, Remuera, Urban Polo takes place soon after the Land Rover NZ Polo Open – February 18, at Auckland Polo Club, Clevedon. While the latter is one of this country’s oldest and most prestigious high-goal (or top level) tournaments, the former also offers plenty of riveting ‘divoting’ entertainment, Kel Ainsley from the Glenfiddich team explains.
“Urban polo is referred to as ‘gladiator polo’. It’s a three-on-three format designed to make the sport more accessible to city people. If they can’t come to the country, we bring the game to them, so there’s more exposure for the sport. And, it’s a good, fun day out too.”
Ainsley Polo will provide plenty of fresh horses for the affair, as well as ensuring professional players from around the world catch their plane in time to mount up.
The Taupiri Polo Club (of which Kel is president and Ross, club captain) hosted its own event, Polo in Pukekohe, in December.
“Spectators have always been welcome but this was the first time we’ve run an event advertised to the general public,” says Kel. “Some friends, who play polocrosse, asked if they could jump in and we thought ‘why not’? It’s probably unheard of to have both sports on show at one event.”
The Ainsley’s property doubles as home ground for the Taupiri Polo Club since it was moved north years back; a name change is currently on the cards.
For more information about Urban Polo or the NZ Polo Open, visit nzpoloopen.com or urbanpolo.co.nz; the next instalment of Polo in Pukekohe is expected to take place towards the end of this year – details via ainsleypolo.com.