Polo pro Josh Morris-Lowe reflects on the thrill of the king of sports
By Jonathan Steffen
Polo is, in the words of Sylvester Stallone, “like playing golf in an earthquake.” Top pros will hit the ball at over 100 miles an hour from the backs of horses galloping at up to 45 mph as they charge around a field three times the size of a football pitch. Players will deliberately ride their mounts into one another, hook each other’s sticks with their own, and generally do everything they can to hamper the opposition’s game. To make it even more confusing, they call the playing periods “chukkas” and the horses “ponies”, they switch ends after each goal, and they even change horses during the course of play, literally leaping from one saddle into another before racing off for the next attack. Silvester Stallone has a point.
It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that Josh Morris-Lowe, manager of Cambridge Polo Club, sees the game as friendly, accessible, and relatively easy to learn.
“You certainly need a sense of adventure to play polo,”
he says, “but you don’t even have to be a rider to get started. We regularly take on people who’ve never ridden before – and not just twentysomethings. Some of these mature to become excellent players.”
One reason for this, observes Josh, is the ponies themselves. Bred and trained for the sport, they are handled by professionals from their earliest youth. “Polo ponies are extremely responsive because they’re so well trained,” says Josh. “This makes them much easier to ride than some of the horses one might encounter at riding schools, so they’re ideal for beginners.”
Safe at speed
As for the riders, whether experienced in the saddle or not, they likewise receive continuous attention from pros like Josh, who ride with them as they teach, demonstrating points of technique, making corrections where necessary, and always offering encouragement. This very close and informal coaching relationship extends from the initial lesson through the first practice chukkas all the way to forming teams for leagues and tournaments: polo sides are composed of a mix of amateurs and pros, the ratio depending on the level played.
“The direct involvement of pros helps to develop the amateurs but also to keep the game safe,” explains Josh.
“We help beginners by explaining the rules as we play – something which is very necessary, for polo is always played at speed and the rules are there to keep everyone safe, ponies and players alike.”
Josh Morris-Lowe has been a pro for ten years. Originally an eventer, he switched to polo with the rest of his equestrian siblings out of curiosity as a teenager. Curiosity led to addiction. “We used to argue with one another about who was going to get which horse to ride,” he recalls. “I even retrained my eventer as a polo pony so I could play!”
The Morris-Lowe family, whose Haggis Farm club is on the outskirts of Cambridge, redirected their efforts into polo. Aided by the experience of their friend Henry Brett – captain of the England polo team at the time – they appointed an Argentinian polo trainer, hired grooms, bought more horses and set about building one of the first polo arenas in the UK for playing the game in the winter. They then created two grass pitches for the summer game. With two more pitches planned for development and some 85 horses currently in the stables, the club is growing, and houses Cambridge University Polo Club as well as Cambridge Polo Club itself. Josh and his family have ambitious plans for it. “We aim to run a friendly but extremely professional club at which patrons emulate the quality of the high-goal game,” explains Josh, whose brothers Ed and Twm are likewise professionals.
Patrons are the amateurs who own the teams that are the lifeblood of the sport, and the high goal is the top echelon of the game. Josh himself recently returned from five years of managing the high goal in Dubai. His experiences working as a polo manager for polo patron Mohammed al Habtoor showed him just how patrons can influence the sport.
“Mohammed al Habtoor wanted to create a terrific standard for the game in Dubai. He made a huge investment, drawing on the services of professionals from overseas as well as buying in top-quality ponies and creating the necessary infrastructure.”
Al Habtoor’s success is reflected in the growth in the status of the Dubai Polo Gold Cup, one of the top annual events in the calendar of this global sport.
More of the horseplay
Josh himself was unfortunate enough to sustain a number of serious injuries in short succession, which hampered the development of his career as a top-flight player. He still plays the low- and medium-goal, however. “It’s a more dangerous sport for the pros than for the amateurs,” he reflects, “because the professionals will always be pushing at the limit of what is physically possible. Injuries will inevitably happen. But we do everything we can by way of good preparation and good umpiring to minimise them.” As for the ponies, they are every bit as involved in the game as the players. “Polo mimics horseplay in some ways,” explains Josh.
“We train the ponies not to kick, of course, but they really enjoy testing their mettle against each other. They understand the game perfectly well, and I have ponies that actually tremble with excitement before a match. They’d vote to play it if they could!”
Polo has seen considerable expansion in recent years, with major growth not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, Russia and China, along with its traditional bastion of South America. Josh would like to see that growth mirrored at home. “It’s a great sport, for players and spectators alike, and it’s very easy to get involved in. An excellent starting-place is the website of Hurlingham Polo Association, the governing body of the sport in the UK – www.hurlinghampolo.com. Find a club near to you, borrow a stick, and just give it a go!”
This interview appeared first in Issue Three of Joshua’s Magazine (www.joshuasmagazine.com). This Issue is available from WHSmith from 13 September 2014
Photographs by Jonathan Steffen
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