Despite our differences, horses and cats live together in harmony as though there is a special connection between us. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re a little peculiar given that they have one toe on each foot and can sleep standing up. But I celebrate our differences and enjoy their soft fuzzy muzzles and small gentle eyes. So I’m always a bit nervous about supporting events that involve the use of my hoofed friends. Nevertheless I joined John at the Ashfields Carriage and Polo Club in Essex to experience the thrills that humans find so entertaining at the races.
The horses were mighty fine specimens, tall and strong and beautifully groomed and all the riders were dressed to impress in their jodhpurs and breeches. The sport entails One, two or four horses running like the clappers around a course pulling a carriage that carries two or three people each of whom have a particular role. The person at the front tends to drive the horses forward shouting commands and tapping them with a whip if they go in the wrong direction. The horses know what is coming when they line up at the start of the race and are chomping at the bit to get going when the starter drops their flag. Meanwhile the person at the rear appears to throw themselves across the back of the cart, shifting their weight around presumably to balance the vehicle and stop it careering off the track on the tight turns. I’m sure this is a simplistic view and professional carriage racers would explain the rules much more eloquently.
It is a real test of endurance for all participants which is why I was pleased to see that the horses are taken for a drink, some food and a good scrub-down as soon as the race is over. John got some great action shots and also got splashed with mud at one of the driving obstacles so I suggested he could join the horses in the showers but he wasn’t amused! Instead he dried off by taking a walk around the paddocks and admiring the Essex countryside while I admired the impeccably manicured lawns. John would have to mow our garden at home for a week to achieve the kind of short lush grass that surrounded us at the equestrian centre. I would help but my paws are not designed to push a lawnmower!
If they made wellies for cats, I would have worn them. Unfortunately a soft knitted sock from your auntie might be a kind thought but is not going to keep your paws warm on the cold hard ground of an Austrian winter wonderland! As you can see from the photos, the vista was like a scene from a Christmas card, with piles of snow balancing on the top of fences, bending the branches of thick evergreens and glistening in the distance. This was the sight that greeted John and I as we headed out from the hotel in Kitzbuhel to watch the snow polo world cup. Who knew there was a snow polo world cup?!
John wanted to take me with him on his trip to Austria for a winter weekend break while he flexed his photography muscles at the 2016 snow polo championships and I enjoyed a rest from the photography business. Ok let’s be realistic, it’s hard enough to operate the focus mode switch on my equipment with my thumb and dewclaw, but I cannot seriously be expected to do it in 2°c with 5 cm of snow on the ground. So we both decided it would be sensible for me to stay on my blanket in the car while John stood at the edge of the pitch to capture the action.
The objective of polo is to score points against the opposing team by driving a ball into the opponents’ goal using a long-handled mallet. It sounds simple but there are a multitude of complex rules to follow such as tapping the ball on the correct side in the correct way or ensuring that the player in the line of the ball or at the smallest angle to the ball has the right of way. You would have thought that the horses end up crashing into each other or someone gets walloped in the eye with that big stick, but the rules are designed to promote the safety of the ponies and their riders and it seemed to work.
There were 3 players per team and it was all quite civilised as the players pushed the surprisingly large ball around the surprisingly small pitch. I suppose the pitch can’t be too big or they’d be worn out very quickly and the ball needs to be reasonably sized (it was about the size of a cantaloupe melon) and brightly coloured red so it can be seen. The ball is very light so the players need to strike it carefully so keep it on the ground. The horses have special shoes so they don’t slip and there are about 5 horses per player, so one horse plays for a few minutes before being taken to a warm dry box while the next horse makes an appearance. I was impressed at the agility of the horses as they were able to leap forward, stop and turn in an instant, and they seemed to anticipate where the ball was going and how the rider needed to play. John got some great shots and my favourites show the glistening snow being scattered into the air under the hooves of the horses. I’m amazed that John managed to operate the focus mode switch on his equipment considering the number of layers he had on! But he’s not the type to let thermal gloves, a cotton layer, a fleece layer, a waterproof layer and an insulated beanie get in the way of a good photo opportunity!