Out of the ordinary

Steve Thompson, director of the Dubai Polo Academy, talks to Leisure Manager about his struggle to get people to step outside of their comfort zone and try something truly different

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By  Sarah Gain Published  November 14, 2006

Why did you decide to set up a polo academy here in Dubai?|~|Steve-Thompson-B.jpg|~||~|As a new club, the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club needed an academy to source, train and produce players that would ultimately become members of the club.

We also specialise in the Polo Experience, which involves tuition in the general skills of polo including the basics of riding and stick-and-ball skills. It finishes with a mock game.

There are also several optional extras, such as lunch and exhibition matches, and the package is tailor-made to each group’s requirements.

The Experience is designed for companies as a team-building event or annual office outing and with Dubai being a big destination for the incentive travel market it works perfectly here.

I knew the market here in Dubai wouldn’t wait — I knew if I delayed then someone else would come here and set up and do exactly what we were going to do.

I understand protocol because I’ve played with the royals and with celebrities — I know how to keep my mouth shut about all the gossip and that’s what’s needed here. Plus I knew that Dubai had such aspirational values, so I just thought, “It’s got to work.”||**||How has the concept been received?|~||~||~|People are often a bit dubious about whether they can do this kind of thing, but no previous riding or polo experience is necessary and we supply all the equipment.

Everyone tends to be nervous at first, but once we give them a push they always really enjoy it — people get a great sense of achievement out of learning to do something they never dreamt of doing, and nothing breaks down barriers between people like charging about on a polo field.

It’s rare enough in Dubai for someone to just step out of air-conditioning. To be out in the fresh air, to see grass and to see horses, let alone to ride a horse, is a totally foreign concept for most people.

These people may never have been on a horse in their life, and all of a sudden they’re not only sitting on a horse, but cantering around, wielding a stick and actually playing polo. Everyone who tries it gets a real kick out of it, and we want everyone to try it. We force people to have a good time.||**||What are the academy’s main markets and what are you doing to attract these sectors? |~||~||~|On a regular basis we accommodate about 20% Emirati nationals and 40% tourists. The remainder is made up of expats and people around the world who already play and are visiting Dubai specifically for a polo holiday.

Because the perception of polo is that it is posh, pretentious and expensive, we have had a number of events for the local media, destination management companies and hotel concierges, giving people the chance to try out the Polo Experience. We’ve also held small corporate team-building events to showcase the product.

Jumeirah is our primary sponsor and has been great in encouraging and supporting the sport of polo within the local market. We have a strategic partnership with Madinat Jumeirah, so we work closely with them, and we also work with a number of other five-star hotels, particularly the Park Hyatt.||**||What facilities does the academy have?|~|Steve-Thompson2-B.jpg|~||~|We have two bars, a café and a restaurant, as well as rooms for team meetings. The most crucial element of the business, however, is of course the horses. We brought over 28, mainly from Argentina and the UK, although it seems as though we’re feeding 50!

All the horses are trained for polo, and they have all been hand picked, so there is always a horse to suit all levels of ability, from complete beginner to professional player. All the equipment is supplied — from hats and chaps to sticks and team shirts. ||**||What are the challenges of running an enterprise like this?|~||~||~|We opened in October 2005, so we’ve only been open about a year. At the moment it’s about raising awareness and getting people out here to see the place and try it out.

Emaar, the company that owns the property, only opened it three weeks before the season closed last tear, so we’re really still gearing up at the moment.

Obviously, the cost of running this place is enormous — it cost a fortune to set up because I had to buy all the gear — safety-approved hats, sticks, saddles and so on. The insurance was also extortionate, and then of course there were the horses.

I think the cheapest one I brought over cost about US $1500 and the most expensive was about $2300, then of course there were the shipping costs and quarantine expenses, and all the marketing. It really was sink or swim — either it was going to work or it wasn’t.

The weather here isn’t as big an issue as people might think. Although we are unable to operate in the summer, the Dubai season is actually longer then the season in the UK. Here we are able to begin teaching towards the end of September and we can go all the way through to the middle of May.

Schooling horses generally starts at 5.30am for an hour and, depending on the weather, we will teach all through the morning. Midday and afternoons are generally left clear for meetings, presentations, e-mails and proposal writing, so that the horses aren’t working during the hottest hours of the day. Then lessons begin again about 3pm and run through until early evening.

We give 50-60 lessons per week, and this increases significantly if we are running the Polo Experience, which is for groups from 10-60, and four times a week I play in polo matches. It’s a lot of work, but I have such a good time, too.

People get so jealous when they hear that I do this for a living! I could never go back to having that Monday morning feeling.||**||How did you become involved with polo?|~||~||~|It’s a very long story, but in a nutshell, I’ve wanted to be around horses ever since I was a kid. I’m from Liverpool, and my family wasn’t “horsy” at all. I did odd jobs on a farm and in exchange, the farmer let me play with the horses.

I would get up at five or six o’clock in the morning, get a bus all the way out into the country, pick potatoes and do all sorts of work on the farm, just for the privilege of being allowed to groom and muck out the horses — I wasn’t even allowed to ride them. Then I’d go to school filthy and stinking — everyone thought I was crazy!

Anyway, after I left school I eventually wound up working in London as a list broker. I made loads of money, so took up polo at the local club in Epsom. Working in an office really wasn’t for me, and I got really into the polo.

After about six months I decided to turn it into my career. I became trainee player and travelled around the world training young horses to play polo. I went to New Zealand, Australia, Barbados and Mexico, and I did that circuit for about six years.

Eventually I moved back to England and I took several professional coaching exams and began teaching. ||**||Do you have any plans to expand?|~||~||~|Through natural evolution, the teaching base will expand. As the clients at the academy get better, they will graduate to the club, making way for new beginners to come through.

Also, at the moment, we are in discussions with people in Saudi Arabia regarding the possibility of setting up a facility there. We’re meant to be opening there on November 19, but it’s such an enormous task — that will of course take some time.

We are also setting up camel polo. That will be such good fun. It’s not really a serious sport, more of a bit of light-hearted fun, for the benefit of the tourists really.

It’s proving to be quite a challenge to organise and the exact logistics of how it will work are still being worked out, but it’s a great sponsorship vehicle as it’s very news worthy and hugely photogenic, because the camels have the big saddle blankets and they’re just generally good fun.

Because camels are usually trained by effectively being whipped into submission, if we were to try to take a polo stick near them they’d freak out. We need to find camels that haven’t been so roughly handled so that they don’t have this deep-rooted fear.

I will soon be going out to find suitable camels. Then we have to set about training them. When we actually open for the regular polo season on November 1, and the other instructors come over, the pressure will be taken off me to some extent. So then I might literally be going into the desert at 5am every day for four whole weeks to work with the camels.

The camels don’t need to be particularly sharp, we just need them to go in a straight line and be comfortable around a polo stick and ball. As long as they are well cared for and they’re happy in the work, it should be no problem. Instead of feeding them first thing in the morning, we’ll train them first, so they’re hungry and therefore more responsive.

The big camels are really quite scary — they’re quite intimidating, because they have such flexible necks. They will bite you, and they can kick — they’ve got massive articulation in their legs and can literally bring their hind leg up to scratch their nose. Instead, we’ll probably use the smaller, Syrian type — these will be easier to handle and not quite so off-putting.

They’ll only play for ten minutes at a time and because they can’t have a bit in their mouth the way that horses do, they have to have a fixed rein from their muzzle, past the hump, to a wheel-like device that the rider can turn to steer them.

They have such long, bendy necks that if you try to neck-rein them [the method of steering used when manoeuvring a polo pony], their head just swings round and looks at you, so the device we are developing will keep the head more fixed and make it possible to control them.

I’m hoping that we will have the training and everything sorted out so that we’ll be ready to launch the camel polo in the early part of next year. We might even try to preview it in March at our annual charity event, a big family fun day and picnic that we hold for the Dubai-based charity for the blind, Foresight. I’m sure everyone will love it.||**||

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