By Hennie Helliwell

The development of university polo has meant that the sport is now accessed by more young people in the UK than ever before. Many students who previously didn’t have the chance to play can now join in with lessons and matches for a price suited to a student budget. Exposure to polo during university also means these students are more likely continue with the sport and become club players in later life.

Polo holidays are popular amongst students, but recently more and more UK university polo players are opting for a working polo holiday. These holidays are usually cheaper because the student helps out with the running of the yard, unlike the traditional polo holiday where the time between polo sessions is your own. Having just returned from a working holiday at the fabulous Polo Club de Saint Cannat in Provence, I was curious to find out why these holidays are gaining popularity with student players.

Gaining horsemanship
Sam, an international business student from Warwick, first went to St Cannat on a polo holiday with friends. Later that year, he retuned for a 3 month working holiday at the club. For him, the obvious benefit of a working holiday was the reduced cost, meaning he could stay and play for much longer than when he was just on holiday. However, the unexpected benefits of a working holiday improved his game beyond recognition. The university polo format is designed to get non-horsey people, like Sam, playing as soon as possible, but this often comes at the expense of developing proper horsemanship. By caring for the ponies during his stay, Sam felt he gained ‘horse-sense’, which enhanced his ability to understand the ponies on and off the pitch and made him a better player. He felt this was one of the main advantages of doing a working polo holiday and would recommend the ‘working’ option to other novice students seriously wanting to develop their game.

Insight into running a yard
As well as aiding beginners, working holidays can also have huge advantages for established players. Danno, a medical student from London, has been playing polo for almost ten years, and had previously kept his own ponies to join in with Pony Club and club polo. Now that he is at university, Danno is unable to play as often as he would like to, so began going on working polo holidays during the summer breaks. He says that the intensive tuition received during his polo holidays finally freed him from the plateau in his play that he had experienced for a number of years. More importantly, Danno feels that the ‘working’ parts of his holidays have shown him new ways of running a yard and keeping ponies, which he would not have experienced on a traditional holiday. He says that this ‘behind the scenes’ knowledge will be invaluable in the future if he keeps a string in the UK again.

Improving fitness
A working holiday can arguably help you make the most of your polo tuition. I took up polo in my second year of university, but the intensity of my degree meant that I was unable to join in with the weekly practices during term time. Therefore, the backbone of my polo education has come from working holidays during the summer, getting me to a basic standard so that I can now join in with university matches whenever time allows. Polo holidays are a great addition to university training, because unlike the university system you play with people above your level, which really pushes you to improve your game. I also found that working on the yard developed my strength and fitness during my stay, meaning I was able to play better and really make the most of my lessons. I know if I had been on a pure polo holiday I wouldn’t have been as active between polo sessions, so I was thankful for the ‘working’ side of the holiday as it helped to get me riding-fit in a short space of time!

Obviously, working polo holidays are not ideal for all students. Principally, it is a ‘working’ holiday, and mustering up the energy to join in with yard duties can be difficult, especially after a long and tiring term. Yards vary as to how much work is expected from you, so it is important to know what the ‘work’ and ‘holiday’ balance will be. Additionally, many of these yards require students to stay for a minimum number of weeks or months, and thus these holidays lack the flexibility of a normal polo holiday. They might also be less able to accommodate large parties of student groups, instead taking a handful of helpers for the summer. Finally, as a working student you might not be the priority at the yard, particularly if there are paying customers also playing during your stay. However, on the whole, working polo holidays are swiftly becoming a smart alternative for the university student, or indeed anyone else, who wants to have the polo holiday experience for a fraction of the cost.