Polo’s whole new ball game

Polo player Ellie Tempest at White Rose Polo Club, North Cliffe
Polo player Ellie Tempest at White Rose Polo Club, North Cliffe
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It may have a reputation as a sport for well-heeled southerners, but Yorkshire is causing a stir in the world of polo. Lucy Oates investigates.

It might sound like a cliché, but Ellie Tempest was riding almost as soon as she could walk.

Now 17 and one of the sport’s brightest young stars, Ellie first got into the saddle at the tender age of two, but it was a family friend who introduced her to the world of polo when she was 11.

“I was hooked from then on. I love the sport because each game is different, and it’s a team game so you’re playing with friends and have a good laugh afterwards,” says Ellie.

“When I was about 12 years old, my parents bought me a horse – Tally – and she built my confidence so much. I love her; she will always be a special horse for me, even though we’ve since sold her on to someone else who loves her very much.”

It wasn’t long before Ellie joined White Rose Polo Club at North Cliffe near Market Weighton in East Yorkshire, where she began honing her skills under the guidance of the club’s highly experienced coach, Tony Wesche.

With 68 members ranging in age from 12 years to 72 years, White Rose Polo Club is the largest of four Yorkshire polo clubs registered with the Hurlingham Polo Association, the sport’s governing body in the UK.

The others are Beverley; Toulston, near Halifax in West Yorkshire; and Vale of York at Bawtry near Doncaster.

Ellie recalls: “I wanted to raise my game so my parents bought me a proper polo pony. Tony at White Rose Polo Club taught me everything I needed to know, looked after me and helped me understand the game. I realised that balance is key in polo; if you’ve got balance you’re away.”

During the last five years, Ellie has competed regularly at both pony club and polo club tournaments and now has a handicap of -1.

This is no mean feat, given that two-thirds of all handicapped players are rated at two goals or less. Although the scale ranges from -2 to 10, it’s so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that only a handful of players in the world have achieved that level.

Ellie, from Northallerton, was invited in the UK national women’s tournament at Ascot Park after selectors from Women in Polo (WIP) spotted her talents at the pony club polo championships, which took place at Cowdray Park in West Sussex last month.

Ellie was playing as part of a team from Bedale and West of Yore Pony Club that went on to win the Loriner section of the championships.

“I had no idea that the national selectors were there – I just played as normal and never even thought about it. My team won the championships and then they announced who had been selected to compete in the national women’s tournament. I didn’t realise what was happening until I heard my name called out; it was a big shock.”

The UK national women’s tournament was held in late August, but had to be postponed after the first day’s play because of the bad weather.

Ellie’s side got off to a winning start and secured a place in the finals, but are currently waiting for the fixture to be rearranged.

“Thankfully, we managed to play on the first day and it was good. I was chosen to captain my side. It was a bit nerve-wracking at the beginning, but once you get into the game you just want to play your best. As a new team together for the first time, we gelled really well and all made it work.”

Now that she’s had a taste of success on a national stage, Ellie is keen to develop her game further, adding: “I’m going to work hard and build up my handicap so that I get better opportunities.”

But Ellie is not alone and the Yorkshire polo scene is thriving.

Claudia Aylott, managing director of the Summit Polo School at White Rose Polo Club, believes that nurturing talented young players like Ellie is key to the future success of the club and the growth of the sport here in Yorkshire.

She explains: “We started a junior club about two years ago. The junior members have training sessions and play chukkas every week, and we also have a junior tournament here towards the end of each season. There are many talented young players and it’s important for us to bring them into the club.”

Although White Rose Polo Club was formed relatively recently – in 2007 – by Claudia’s husband Hedley, its membership has grown steadily and its largest summer tournaments now attract a good crowd of spectators.

Despite this, Claudia is the first to admit that polo has a much more established following in the south of England.

“When one of our teams played away at a tournament at Cowdray Park, where polo has been played for more than a century, they couldn’t believe that we even played polo in Yorkshire!

“The commentator was taking the mickey the whole time – in the way that they sometimes do – but the team went there and won.

“People didn’t know about us before, but with more of our teams going and playing at major tournaments down south and Ellie being selected for the national side they know about us now. We’re really putting Yorkshire on the map.”

As part of its efforts to encourage more youngsters to take up the sport, White Rose Polo Club recently teamed up with Pocklington School in East Yorkshire to offer polo sessions as an after-school activity.

From the start of the new academic year, polo lessons have been available to all of the independent school’s students, who are aged between seven and 18 years.

Mark Ronan, the school’s headmaster, said: “Playing polo involves teamwork and physical challenges, all of which help to develop individual confidence, self-reliance and physical well-being: essential life-skills which we aim to nurture in our students.”