Polo from a Female Perspective.
This week we take a look at polo through the eyes of one of the UK’s top female amateur players, Charlene Goudkuil.
Goudkuil, 27, at zero goals is one of the new generation of polo player: female, self-funded, committed and an amateur. “Once I’d had my first lesson I was totally hooked and then within a year I had bought my first pony. I just absolutely love it. It’s the most addictive thing. It’s like rugby on horseback. The adrenaline is addictive. When you have a great game, it’s the best thing ever.
“I absolutely think I could have become a fully fledged professional but I think I started too late. I missed the boat. When I have a good game, I have a very good game and I play over my handicap. Yet because of the demands of my job, which I love too, I don’t get the time that is required to practice.”
Goudkuil has come into the sport at a great time in the development of women’s polo. “They’re trying to bring on the women’s polo community and various other female leagues in some countries and places known for polo (like Chantilly). In the UK I think they should make a bigger deal out of it. Ascot polo club (now Westcroft Park Polo Club) always used to run a really good ladies’ tournament that I quite enjoyed.
“I tend to play mostly mixed but as a lady I obviously stand out more in the ladies polo. I just tend to play mixed because I prefer a faster game. Girls play a different game of polo. It needs to be pushed more in the UK, it definitely does,” she explained. “And the weird thing about polo is you don’t read much about it in something like Horse and Hound. I don’t understand that. Those publications don’t really cover polo. It will be a one page or double page spread and that’s it.”
Goudkuil’s potential has been spotted by female pros in the UK, such as England player Hazel Jackson. “Hazel has approached me a couple of times and said there are opportunities for me to try out for them but because of my work commitments I couldn’t… It’s mostly my job that holds me back. I’ve got career aspirations now and polo is on the side. I still manage to play at a good level, but my career is really important to me… and it means that midweek my job comes first over polo.”
But when Saturday comes, the phone, computer and meetings are replaced by the thunder of hooves.”I play polo and that is my full focus. Five days a week fully on work and the two days I go home all I think about is polo. It’s like two different lives. When I’m on the train home on Friday night after work I literally just switch off. When I step on to the polo field I forget about everything. I then reset myself for the week. That’s the drug and the effect it has.
“I played a lot of arena polo to start with and then I moved into playing on grass. I’ve been to France for the last three years. The French Open has been running for five years for ladies and it’s played at Chantilly Polo Club in Paris. It’s absolutely beautiful. And it’s a good level of polo. They’ve just moved it up from 12 goal ladies to 16.
“In men’s polo I’m off zero and in ladies I’m off two, which I really shouldn’t be because that’s the equivalent of a minus one. I’m under handicapped. I think that’s why I get drafted out to these places. And hopefully that might give me an opportunity to play for the England team in the near future,” she laughs. “We’ll see.”
As a player Goudkuil says “I have no fear. You can’t when you play polo… I’m a strong person as well. If someone is going to take me out, it doesn’t matter who they are, I’ll have a go.” And when asked about her aspirations in the sport; “I just want to play as a player, as a semi professional. I want to do what I’m doing now but at a higher level. I’d love to play for my country.” She is inspired by other players such as “Hazel (Jackson). I’ve played with her so much. I’ve trained with her. Seeing her play is great. And then you’ve got Emma Boers, who is a real up and coming player. You see them improving year after year. I’m inspired by them all.”
In her view the game could grow if it gained more expositor with fans and sports enthusiasts. She also feels the net is not being cast wide enough to bring in horse riders and potential players of her ilk. “You get a lot of polo cross players who would be good at it. A lot of polo players are ex polo cross. I think a lot of other riders would excel at it because most riders are sports people and they have good hand eye coordination. I think that’s just the nature of anyone who does a sporting activity.”
Goudkuil points out the game is too concentrated in just a few areas. “I’m not from a real polo county area. I live in Ipswich, Suffolk and I play in Cambridge and Silver Leys in Hertfordshire. They are both an hour and a half drive. That’s perfectly fine. They’re good clubs and I play at a good level there. But polo is so concentrated in areas like Surrey and Sussex and Hampshire. It’s so saturated in certain areas. Places like where I’m from struggle a bit. If you go to a boarding school, you might be able to play there, but I’d never heard of polo until I got to university.”
Polo for Goudkuil is about graft, the thrill of the game and the glow of post-match fatigue, coupled with the love of her ponies. We wish her good luck for a great 2017 season.