The sun is setting over the tree-lined polo field at Dubai’s Desert Palm resort. The grassy expanse, just a few minutes ago a flurry of activity, is falling into shadow; ponies are being led away and spectators are milling on the sidelines, waiting for buggies to come and whisk them back to the main hotel. There is a midnight blue G-Wagen, with a single-digit number plate, parked a short distance away and, inexplicably, a goat on a leash rummaging through the grass.
It’s the end of the opening day of the second Ralph Lauren International Ladies Polo Tournament and the day’s victors are lining up for a celebratory photo. A couple of the ladies express concern about how presentable they are after their exertions on the field. “This is what winners look like,” Sheikha Maitha bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum interjects, with a flicker of a smile.
As it turns out, she’s right. By the end of the three-day event, Sheikha Maitha (under whose patronage the tournament is being held) and her cohorts on Team UAE – Sunny Hale, Marianela Castagnola and Ploy Bhinsaeng – will have beaten Team North America and Team Europe to lay claim to the winner’s trophy, rounding off an action-packed event designed to highlight the rising profile of women in polo.
There will also be a much-anticipated All Stars match, which sees Sheikha Maitha, Castagnola, Lucy Taylor and Nina Clarkin join forces to play against Hale, Bhinsaeng, Hazel Jackson and Eva Brull. “This is a historical moment for women’s polo,” says the tournament director Pete McCormack, of the event. He is not exaggerating.
The globally recognised polo handicap system can be confusing, but it basically sees players rated on a scale of minus 2 to 10 goals, depending on their level of horsemanship, team play, knowledge of the game, strategy and horses. A ranking of 10 goals is so difficult to achieve that it is currently held by fewer than a dozen players around the world, while about two-thirds of players are rated at two goals or fewer. For the All Stars match, the ladies on the field hold a combined goal count of 27, the highest-ever number to be fielded during an all-female polo match.
These are some of the best female players on the planet – trailblazers in a full-on, full-contact sport that is often viewed as too taxing for the fairer sex. Hale, for example, was the first woman in United States history to win the prestigious US Open Polo Championship and spent around 20 seasons playing in teams consisting of some of the greatest male players in the world. This can be likened to a woman being hired to play in the NBA or the Super Bowl, in the starting line-up alongside only male athletes.
“In our sport, in 2,000 years, that had never happened. Why is that? I didn’t come from a lot of money, I didn’t come from a lot of anything. I just didn’t listen to anyone who told me that it wasn’t possible,” Hale tells me during a post-match chat.
The steadfast American remembers playing her first polo tournament, as a substitute, when she was just 10 years old. She decided early on that she was going to play polo with the very best players in the world, regardless of their gender. And that’s what she did.
Three to four years into her professional career, Hale realised that male players were being fired to make room for her on top-level polo teams. It was unprecedented – and a turning point for all women in the sport. Today, Hale dedicates her time to growing women’s polo around the world and has started the Women’s Championship Tournament to encourage more women to become involved.
“The landscape of our sport has changed. The doors are now open for women to go and participate, especially if they are talented and willing to work at it. We need more tournaments like this – a congregation of international girls getting together and pooling that energy and passion, because that’s what really promotes the sport of polo.”
Like Hale, Sheikha Maitha is used to hearing that polo is too tough a sport for women. “I heard it from the day I started,” the daughter of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, tells me. “Everyone kept telling me to just relax and have fun. I didn’t realise that they didn’t actually believe that a woman could do it. And I think we’ve proved them wrong.”
Of course, Sheikha Maitha is no stranger to demanding, full-contact sports – she is a highly accomplished martial artist who represented the UAE in tae kwon do at the 2008 Summer Olympics, and won silver in the over-60kg karate category at the 2006 Asian Games. In fact, she only took up polo three years ago as a form of rehabilitation, after a back injury forced her to retire from martial arts. “It’s nerve damage and I don’t think I can do the sport justice by being in it any more, but I do miss martial arts. If there is any way that I can get back into it, I will,” she says.
Remarkably, she went from having never swung a mallet to playing high-goal polo in just five months. One of the main draws of the sport, she says, is the horses themselves. She speaks with particular fondness of Patchi, the first polo pony that she ever rode, and who was part of the action today. “She’s an older horse but she has really looked after me; I’ve made so many mistakes on her and she always forgives me. She’s a horse that I know my children will be riding.”
Beyond the horses, it is the camaraderie of the sport that polo players often enthuse about. “It’s a real life passion once you’ve been introduced to it. That’s what has kept the sport around for 2,000 years, that passion and that camaraderie,” says Hale – sentiments that are echoed by Sheikha Maitha. “I come from a martial-arts background and that’s obviously an individual sport, so to be part of a team sport was something so new and it felt like less pressure and much more fun. Polo, if you ask any polo player, is very addictive, and it changes all the time. No two games are the same and the horses keep you going and motivated. It keeps you young.”
A great polo player, whether male or female, needs to have an open, calm mind, according to the experts. “The best polo in the world is like chess at 35 miles per hour. You have to be calm and pick your move carefully,” agrees Hale. But when it comes to female players, great technique is also critical. “To be able to hit the ball well, it takes real technique,” Hale adds. “Some of the best female players in the world are very small and very petite and they can hit the ball 200 yards. So a woman has to really understand the technique in order to hit the ball that far.”
And is it a different game when all-female teams are playing, I wonder? Definitely, says Hale. “Women ride horses really well but when they play mixed polo they are generally given the job to go forward as a receiver, or as a follower, and play solid defence. When you put eight women on the field, they all ride well and they are all very defensive, so it becomes very calculated in terms of how you move down the field. Women are much more calculating – in a good way. We think about all the various different strategies.”
Hale has travelled the world to increase the profile of women in polo, proving from her own personal experiences that it can be done – and that the gates are now officially open. In the UAE, Sheikha Maitha is setting a similar example, offering a much-needed role model for Arab women in all sports. “There’s a lot more women getting involved now,” she says. “I just want them to believe in themselves more. You don’t start off being talented and good at everything. It takes hard work. That’s the downfall of the UAE population. We are so used to having everything and it being amazing and big and quick. With sport, you have to put in the hours, you have to make the sacrifices. It might not even be for your generation but for the next one, and we are not used to thinking that long term.”
She hopes that people will take her own somewhat tumultuous sporting journey as a lesson in perseverance. “That’s the thing, I am still doing something, even if it’s not what I started out doing. I am going to continue. I hope other people have that attitude. When you fail at something, just keep trying. Just be patient. Hard work is the whole point. It’s supposed to be hard.”
So what, then, is her ultimate goal? “If I talked about a pipe dream, I’d love to be in the Argentinian Open, or to see a woman playing there. It’s never been done. But it can be. That, I think, is collectively every female polo player’s dream, to see a woman in the Open. I’d like to be that woman but I think there are much better players closer to that goal than I am.”
At this point, the sheikha’s pet pit bull comes and plants himself very firmly between our feet, eager for some attention. “I apologise,” Sheikha Maitha says, but I take it as a sign that it’s time to wrap things up. But before we do, one last, very important question.
“Is that your goat over there?”
“I love how interviews always end up being about Fa Fa,” Sheikha Maitha says with a hearty laugh. “She is mine but I’m trying to disown her. She was a gift from my cousin and she just keeps following us around.”
And with that, the sporting Sheikha Maitha wanders off to have a chat with her teammates, before climbing into her G-Wagen and heading off into the night, ultra-persistent goat in tow.