When playing polo, it’s not easy to keep up with the Joneses. However, Bruce Fraser (manager at Ashmole Farm, owned by Chris Jones) is well qualified to try! JON RAWLINSON spoke to this Clevedon local about what it takes to hoof it with the best.
Considering the ballyhoo as horses thunder across the field carrying riders armed with mallets, and a ball flying through the air, polo hardly appears to present the type of serene scene one might expect of a sport for gentlemen and kings. And yet, keeping calm under fire is exactly what Bruce Fraser recommends.
“They say polo is about eighty per cent down to the horse, but [players] need good hand/eye co-ordination while making calculated plays about when to keep the ball or pass it all while staying calm under high pressure,” he explains. “You have a ball smashed past you at high speed, horses going as fast as they can while bumping into each other – as if they’re tackling – so it can be dangerous. I’ve had my fair share of tumbles, been run over and hit in the head by the ball, but nothing too serious – I learned from a young age how important it is to know how to hit the ground and roll!”
Training and managing horses is Bruce’s forte while playing polo helps him with this work. Following decades of experience, he’s still a handy player (with a handicap of two) when saddling up for Clevedon-based Hololio Polo Club.
“Two isn’t too bad and there’s a lot of really awful players out there,” he jokes. “It’s definitely a good [level] to be at when training young horses. Hololio’s a family club – it’s owned by Nick Jones, and I work for his brother, Chris. We have practices two days a week and tournaments every weekend during the season. Everyone’s welcome to come and watch.”
As in any equestrian sport, the man may maketh the mount, but the right horse sense is essential. Bruce’s primary role at Ashmole is to train and manage polo horses, often passing them on to some of the best in the sport.
“Every year, we get a batch of horses – mainly failed racehorses – and try to teach them to play, giving them a new lease on life. Breeding is a big part of [how suitable a horse will be] but some with proven bloodlines won’t do well while others turn out to be really good. The best have a certain look – the right size, not too long or too short with the right temperament.
“Good, old fashioned horse sense is important, but these mounts should be tough and fast as well.
“If you can get the right combination [of temperament, speed, agility and strength], you’re onto a moneymaker! Fast is good, but riders need to have good control with horses able to stop and turn quickly.”
Originally from South Africa, Bruce has lived and worked across New Zealand, as well as further afield, but he is now an affirmed Clevedon local.
“I grew up on a dairy farm near a small town called Underberg, Natal. My father and grandfather played polo and, pretty much, I was riding before I could walk. My brother, Garth, organised a job for me in New Zealand, a working holiday, and I spent the next couple of years jumping between here and England, playing polo and working with horses,” he recalls.
“I’m based fulltime at Ashmole now, although I still head back to the UK for the summer season. When I left school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I then became involved with managing horses and here I am, still doing so after all these years!”
Bad luck on field can see many high (goal) hopes come crashing to earth, but bad luck off it has been devastating for all involved with the (usually!) annual NZ Polo Open.
Cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid pandemic, 2022 provided ‘that sinking feeling’ for organisers when the grounds flooded during Cyclone Gabrielle. However, the 2023 edition (scheduled for February 18), has Bruce Fraser (for one) practically champing at the bit.
“I absolutely can’t wait! It’ll be my sixth NZ Polo Open – something like that. I’ve had one win so far and a couple of close seconds and thirds.”
A showpiece for the sport, the NZ Polo Open takes on special significance locally. Including the Joneses, Jonny Wade (Tiger Polo) and the Ainsleys (Pukekohe East), just to name a few, many polo families have set down roots in the wider Franklin region.
“It really is the perfect hub for polo,” Bruce adds. “It’s close enough to the city but far enough out so we have the space needed to play it and raise horses too.”
For more information regarding the 2023 Open, visit www.nzpoloopen.com.