Cool Runnings on horseback: Hong Kong novices take up challenge to learn polo in 10 months and compete in Beginners’ Cup

Five complete beginners travel to Tianjin every month to learn to ride a horse and hit a polo ball in time for the October tournament

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 9:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 April, 2018, 9:36pm

Andrew Leung Hok-yuen figured that if his girlfriend could do it, why not others? Jeanette Ng Dyte was thrown off a horse more than 30 years ago and vowed never to ride again.

Leung, an experienced Hong Kong polo player, was determined to help her overcome her fears. He dragged Dyte to the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club in China and insisted she give it a try. Within two days, Dyte was cantering along happily and hitting balls.

Long passionate about popularising the sport in Hong Kong, Leung was inspired by Dyte’s equine revival. He gathered a group of complete novices, built a wooden horse for training in his backyard and gave himself a goal – turn them into competition-ready polo players within 10 months.

The result is the Hong Kong Beginners Cup, to be held in October.

“I persuaded her to learn with an expert Argentine instructor and he trained her so well. She had so much confidence, she was cantering by the second lesson,” said Leung, who is living out a polo version of the movie Cool Runnings, in which misfit Jamaican sprinters become Olympic bobsleigh sensations.

“She got her bravery back, she trusted the horse and the instructor. I was flabbergasted at the speed with which she improved. I thought well why not train people from scratch and let them play in a beginners’ polo tournament, and give them 10 months to learn.”

Within a few months, Leung – a lawyer by profession – had assembled a team of five beginners who would commit themselves to 10 months of training so they can be ready for the Beginners Cup from October 13-14 – pilot Andrew Leung Yuen-hing, accountant Gary Sze, fund manager Michael Li, teacher Jon Rees and businessman Julian Chan. The squad travel once a month to Tianjin for training.

They are joined in the squad by beginner Michelle Hou, who works at an international bank, and Ellie Briana Molyneux, an experienced polo player who is helping to train the riders.

Sze is the only member of the team who had never been on a horse before training started.

“My first reaction was that [Andrew] was not serious,” said Sze. “[But] I realised that this was an opportunity to try something new, something that not everyone can have a chance to play. Even my wife said I should try.

“Once the instructor helped me to get on the horse, surprisingly I was not scared as I thought I would be. I still had my doubts as riding a horse is one thing and playing polo is another. I hope there is enough time for me and the team to be at a reasonable standard to participate in the tournament.”

Rees, 36, who teaches at International College Hong Kong, said his employers supported his quest to become a polo player with the prospect for pupils to one day follow suit.

“At the school we promote a growth mindset attitude among students so this was a chance to model that,” said Rees. “I’m 36 and notice my body slowing down, so I’m interested in exploring avenues that would keep me competing at an older age.

“Learning polo was a chance to challenge myself in a new sport that I never imagined I’d have the chance to play. It seems to be the ultimate sport as it’s a field sport, but of course everything is played on horseback, eventually at high speeds too, so it is exhilarating.”

Li, who grew up in the United Kingdom, said he thought Leung was joking when he first broached the idea.

“When he pitched me the idea, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, great’. I thought it was a joke but I was polite and agreed but now I find myself desperately trying to ride a horse and hit a ball at the same time,” he said. “For us, the huge challenge is riding a horse. Taking absolute beginners who had hardly ridden before apart from in beach holidays and turning them into polo players is a great challenge. It sounded like great fun.”

Chan, in his mid-50s, said he became interested in the sport after accompanying his daughter to polo lessons, giving him a chance to detach himself from the stress of business.

“After I got on the horse, it felt very different than just watching it from the side. It was much bigger and taller than I thought. An assistant was leading my horse at all times. He talked me through how to hold the reins and the stick correctly, and also how to remain balanced on the horse. I slowly gained confidence and tried a couple hits while guided by the assistant. It was difficult to aim at the ball from a higher view. I felt very excited every time I hit the ball far.”

Hou will be travelling with the group for the first time this weekend. She is an old friend of Leung and they hadn’t met for many years until she saw his Facebook posts on their polo project. For now, she is not part of the Beginners’ Cup squad but is not ruling it out.

“You never know,” she said. “I’ve never ridden before. Learning to ride a horse has always been on my bucket list but it just never happened. The others are all part of the tournament in October but I’m not even thinking that far yet.

“But it’s my first lesson so who knows. If I end up loving it, I might be part of it. But for the moment I feel really proud because diversity is a big topic around the world these days and I think it’s good for a women to be part of it.”

Mastermind Leung hopes that his efforts, and those of the budding players, will help to promote polo in the city and encourage Hongkongers to take up the sport.

“I think our group is a good representation of Hong Kong,” he said. “We have expat, indigenous, BBC [British-born Chinese], mixed race and local. Through the Cool Runnings analogy, we are training for a polo tournament with no facilities.

“We have to use our creativity, imagination and perseverance to train, something that embodies the Hong Kong spirit.

“Hong Kong has the market for fine dining, luxury brand names, 5-star hotels, luxurious golf clubs, including a world-class horse racing set up, due to the Hong Kong attitude of ‘if you can have it/do it, then so can we!’

“The training polo packages in Asia now are as affordable as the cost of an average ski trip. I think this inaugural Hong Kong beginners polo tournament is something unique on a global level and resonates and appeals to the spirit of the Hong Kong people. It’s this spirit that makes Hong Kong so great.”