Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Playing the ponies

In many countries polo is a sport for the rich and famous, but in New Zealand, as Steve Searle found out, it tends to be the domain of down-to-earth farmers who fit the sport in with milking and managing the farm. Polo may be called the sport of kings but for Lenny Kay, who milks 370 Friesian-cross cows in the morning before towing the horse truck to the next polo match, it’s the sport of farmers. Lenny, 36, who farms in the Waikato didn’t start riding until after leaving Lincoln University with a diploma in farm management, but was determined to line up among the fifth generation of Kays on the polo field. His great-great-grandfather Andrew Kay helped form the polo club at nearby Kihikihi in 1892. During summer Lenny is regularly off to weekend polo events in the Waikato region after the morning milking, driving a truck with five to eight ponies, mostly ex-racehorses of smaller stature.

The Friesian-dominant herd is well fed on a rotation of pasture, chicory, palm kernel and maize silage.

Upsetting the start of their season was a fire last August that destroyed the milk room and pumps but neighbour Nigel Simmons came to the rescue, offering the use of his dairy after his herd was milked and the morning tanker gone. Lenny was also impressed by local contractors who made it their priority to have his dairy back in operation in six days.

Visiting English polo pony trainer, Sheena Robertson, riding horses since the age of five and here for her third off-season, was similarly impressed by the wider community of polo players.

“Everyone is friendly and knows each other,” she said. “Polo is a lot more commercial in England.”

The preparation of ponies for a day’s polo is certainly less fussy at Korakonui where the horses are “being agriculturally kept”, she said. She works fulltime training about 40 polo ponies a year in England and runs a young horse programme for a “high gold patron” of top level polo.

“Polo ponies can cost a lot of money and a lot of time but you can look after them far more cheaply and quickly.”

They take eight to 10 ponies away for both riders but first the milking has to be done while Sheena musters the horses and puts feedbags over their heads in the cattle yard. They are soon in the horse-truck and setting off to arrive a good hour before the match starts so there’s just enough time to quickly brush the horses clean, clip their manes, tie their tails and wrap bandages around the horses’ cannon bones (shins).

Then they’re ready for the first game of six chukkas (seven minute periods of play) where there’s hooves flying, mallets swinging and the ball being hammered goal-ward.

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