Polo is changing the lives of rural youth one chukka at a time!

Poloafrica, a Laureus Sport for Good Foundation project, recently held a Winter Open Day to showcase their mission at their home base on Uitgedacht Farm, set in the foothills of the spectacular Maluti Mountains in the Eastern Free State. Poloafrica’s mission is to give economically disadvantaged adults and children the opportunity to participate in equestrian sporting activities, including polo, in a professional environment. Crucial to the success of the programmes’ outcomes are learners being taught to ride and play the game, providing they demonstrate discipline and commitment to the animal and the sport; work hard at school and at the life skills lessons provided during school holidays. Incrementally Poloafrica is also changing the perception of polo in South Africa away from being a sport enjoyed by only the wealthy and urban privileged few by making the sport more inclusive and encouraging to wealthy blacks who join in on the game.

“The majority of the development polo players in the country belong to the Poloafrica programme. Poloafrica teams have numerous wins to their credit in tournaments in Gauteng, Natal and the Free State. There are four adult players, three of whom coach other players and bring on young ponies and one of whom specialises in pony care” explains Catherine Cairns, Founder and Trustee of Poloafrica. “Recently the scope of equestrian activities offered by the programme has broadened, with the introduction of dressage and show jumping. Poloafrica serves 8 villages in the surrounding farming community, with a few children visiting during the holidays from across the Lesotho border. The scholars range in age from 6 to 21, all of whom benefit from Poloafrica’s educational and sporting programme. Over 60 ponies are required to make this possible.”

The children in the programme learn a variety of lifeskills, such as art, singing, needlework, beekeeping, carpentry/welding, acrobatics/self-defence, computer skills and spoken self-expression. They also receive extra tuition in Maths and English, two subjects which present a challenge to rurally educated children in South Africa today. The educational opportunities reach beyond the children; adults in the community also benefit, as they do from the employment opportunities offered by the programme. Poloafrica is widely known in the local community, affecting many families, and is seen as an important force for good.

Cairns further explains that adult players/coaches are permanent employees and take care of the ponies and the facilities on Uitgedacht Farm, the home of Poloafrica. The children come to the farm on weekends during the school term and six days a week in the holidays. They spend all day on the farm, having riding lessons, pony care tuition and polo practice. Four days a week during the holidays they receive lifeskills lessons. It is an all-absorbing programme, the children are very busy which they enjoy. All children are given transport and homework help for school attendance.

Conscious that the sport globally has an elitist and exclusionary image, and is therefore uninviting to many ordinary South Africans, Cairns explains that in terms of transformation, the government’s Transformation Charter for South African Sport might have been written with Poloafrica in mind. The Charter explicitly states that narrow-based efforts to shift the demographic profile of national teams are unsatisfactory short term expedients, which can bring problems in their wake. Instead the Charter encourages transformation in sport through broader community involvement, the creation of development programmes at grassroots levels to deliver facilities and infrastructure to previously deprived communities with the goal of unlocking the potential of black youth in South Africa.

Poloafrica’s strategy delivers against these exact objectives. The programme provides beautiful, first class riding and polo facilities in an under-served area, with extensive community involvement. With little help it has already developed a robust pipeline of promising young riders and polo players from one of the most disadvantaged parts of the country concludes Cairns.