The world of university polo may seem irrelevant to the majority of readers, bringing to mind images of kids who can barely hit a ball treating the sport as a secondary hobby and never taking it particularly seriously.
Contrary to this, I believe there is much to be said about university level polo and the role women play in it, and how it compares to the actual sport. As publicity secretary for Exeter University Polo Club, I am part of a polo club committee made up almost entirely of women. This women heavy polo club gives an interesting perspective on the current debates on gender discrimination in the polo world, and I believe university polo could actually be the perfect place to target and encourage change.
University polo certainly has its differences, setting itself aside from either pony club lessons or the professional sport. For a start, we attract an entirely new and extremely broad membership. Because training and competitions are massively subsidized, polo is made more affordable and an achievable goal for more people, including many horse riders. It’s also advertised across the university to people who’ve never even heard of or considered it before, including those who can’t ride. At the same time, people who’ve played polo their whole lives play for us too.
We aim to present equal opportunities to all levels of player, a goal not usually associated with polo. I believe university polo in England transforms this world from something only heard about and accessible to for a lucky few. With this it also changes women’s current and potential roles in the game. One of our top female players at Exeter University Polo Club, Karina Kaute-Brown, began playing polo at the age of eight, and has played across Europe and spent three months training with 10 goaler Pelon Stirling and his family in South America. Her variety of experiences demonstrate how widely the acceptance of female players varies internationally, having played in Germany in 2000 when women’s polo did not even exist there and being one of the only girls during her training at La Dolfina with Stirling in Uruguay in 2013.
In contrast, Karina’s experience of women’s polo in England is that it is taken very seriously, and particularly at university level, where she has played amongst many strong females. While clearly internationally women are accepted in polo, the vast quantities of female players found at university level are certainly unique.
What we’ve particularly noticed at Exeter University is that the majority of our club’s members have come from riding backgrounds, explaining our heavily female numbers. These players are often people who’ve thought about playing polo their whole life and never had the chance or finances and have fallen in love with the sport. This has led to the committee being nearly completely female, meaning women in polo at our university dominate the club and certainly don’t feel left out. This strikes me as a huge contrast to professional teams, which are almost entirely male, giving young female polo players relatively few icons. While our beginner members could potentially be a great way to find new talent, the gender discord in professional polo means opportunities for female players don’t seem easily obtainable.
Luckily in our club, beginner members are able to look up to and learn from those women who’ve played their whole lives, which we think is great. As previously mentioned, two of our strongest female members, Karina Kaute-Brown and Charley Howell, have shown the beginner female members of the club that women can be just as competitive, strong and crucial to the game as their male team-mates. Nevertheless, when looking beyond university level, female icons seem much less prominent.
Is it because of the challenges facing female polo players that so many university students assume their new passion must stop after three years?
University polo uses mixed gender teams, something I believe is a perfect example of gender equality and one of the things that makes polo great. Another advantage I believe is that training girls equally arguably makes our members better players, giving them more opportunity to play all the positions and get the chance to be the game maker. Exeter Polo Club’s history is clear evidence of the values of mixed gender teams, shown through Karina’s victory at the 2015 Open level University Summer Nationals in a team made up of herself and fellow female player Charley Howell, and two men, Francisco Acosta and Matias Bertola.
Karina and Charley were crucial to the game, and Karina argues that ‘boys think to hit far and fast but girls pay more attention to details like tactics and team play, which can be a lot more efficient’, as well as stressing the importance that girls are no less competitive than boys. In her time at La Dolfina as one of the only girls, Karina remembers feeling intimidated at first but ended up playing some of the best polo she’s ever played.
Maybe the desire to be treated the same as men actually makes women stronger minded, better players?
Despite this, we’ve found it sometimes impossible to include a man on our teams, meaning we often enter all girls who end up playing boy-heavy teams. At our recent Nationals tournament, our strong all girls novice team seemed unfairly paired against an all male team in one of their matches. Our teamwork, skill and riding ability out shone the other team, but the sheer physical strength of the male team made them very difficult to beat.
Does this gender blindness sometimes work against us?
Despite admiring the attempts of the polo world to pursue gender equality, there seems to be something slightly unfair about mixing genders in a game where being a man simply makes it easier to hit a ball further.
Of course there is much more to the game than physical strength, but it is something that definitely gives an all male team an advantage. Because of this, there is perhaps room for university level polo to change its ways along with recent decisions to create separate handicaps for women, and acknowledge the difference perhaps by some single-gender competitions. At university level we’ve found the gender-blind nature of polo brilliant in theory, but complicated to carry out fairly in practice.
The fact that university polo is mixed gender is in so many ways a great thing; so rarely are sports mixed at university, and we can certainly vouch for it making training, but especially socials, much more fun. On top of that, it makes the game more interesting, skillful and teamwork oriented. At university women aren’t afraid to sign up to the club, but neither are men, and we think for this reason polo should be seen as an example for all university sport. Even more so, I believe these values at university polo should be replicated more in the professional sport.
While the values of mixed gender teams will always be questionable, surely being treated equally and playing with men can at the end of the day only be a positive thing?
Karina believes that ‘the idea of the game doesn’t change, whether it is all men, mixed or women’s polo.
It always stays a competitive, passionate and fascinating sport’. Female players need to realize their opportunities and not see their end point as pony club or university level polo, and heavily female university teams such as Exeter’s seem a great place for this change to start.