What happened when top jump jockey Lucy Alexander tried playing polo in Perth?
Approaching Thom Bell’s yard we see that Lucy Alexander is already here. Scotland’s first and only female professional jump jockey stands facing us with her arms crossed, looking distinctly cold and wet.
Lucy’s family have bred, trained and raced thoroughbreds for more than 50 years. There are very few female jump jockeys out there and Lucy has experienced great success in her career. But, today, we thought it might be fun to make this racing champion play polo for the very first time.
As Lucy steps into the caged pit and mounts the wooden practice horse, affectionately named ‘Woody’ by Thom’s students, she looks a little uneasy.
‘Hold out your hand like you’re asking your for dad for money!’ says Thom.
Lucy instinctively holds out her right hand, palm facing up. Thom smiles, ‘all the girls know how to do that!’ Thom has a knack for lightening the mood, he bombards us with unprintable innuendos – there is a lot of talk about handling the stick. I’m not sure if Lucy appreciates this sort of humour.
Thom hands Lucy a polo stick. It is much bigger than Lucy had imagined and Thom explains that polo is a sport in which both men and woman can be equal, as it is not the rider’s strength, but the weight of the stick and momentum of the swing that hits the ball far. Therefore to be good, it’s all about technique and timing.
Thom and Lucy start with a basic swing.
‘You are a natural!’ says Thom, as Lucy whacks the ball into the wire cage. Now for something a little more difficult. Starting from an umbrella position, using momentum and speed, Lucy hits the ball higher and harder into the wire.
She does a few more of these which much praise. Then, feeling a little more confident, Lucy takes another full swing and clobbers ‘Woody’ over the head.
‘Oh no! I’ve decapitated the horse!’ says Lucy.
‘How is she doing?’ I call over to Thom from behind the protective wire cage.
‘I usually only teach this shot on the fourth lesson, so that says something about how she’s doing!’ says Thom, showing Lucy how to swing from the other side of the pony, a much harder shot. A sort of back-hand swing.
‘Like that?’ says Lucy, hitting the ball up into the wire cage.
Thom grins, ‘Yes, very “like that”!’
Now, time for Lucy to get on a real pony. These ponies are fit and agile, to be able to stop suddenly or turn at a moment’s notice they need to be obedient and incredibly well trained. The tack is very different to what she is used to in racing, which is very minimal.
In polo there is much more safety gear, breast girths and standing martingales, double reins and pelhams, feet and tail bandaged up. The commands are all different too. Polo ponies take command from the pressure of the reins on their neck, riders hold the reins in their left hand and move from left to right to turn the horse, all whilst standing in the saddle. This is completely alien to Lucy and she looks visibly uncomfortable. She wobbles at first.
‘This feels very strange, I’ve never held the reins like this before.’ says Lucy. ‘And I’m not used to balancing with long stirrups.’
Thom’s daughter Ophelia is star struck by Lucy.
‘I think there is a bit of hero worshipping going on here,’ points out Thom, as Ophelia shortens her stirrups like a jockey and gallops around us, trying to catch the attention of her hero. But Lucy’s concentration is elsewhere. After years and years of training to be a jockey, she is struggling to find her balance. I’m suddenly worried we might be ruining her racing technique – I hope she forgets everything she has learned today!
As we practice in the school, Thom’s groom, Gonzalo Calisaya, from Argentina, tacks up the other horses and gets them in the box to go down to Errol Park to play a few chukkas.
At Errol we are met by St Andrew’s students Hannah, Vicky and Jonathan. The field is very green and has immaculately mown stripes, like a gentleman’s lawn. It is very windy and Lucy looks cold and apprehensive, as her and Thom go out on the field to practice whilst the others get ready.
From the side-lines I can hear Thom shouting ‘Excellent Lucy!’ over the howling wind, as they hit the ball back and forth. She stands out from the others riding the only grey, and wearing blue jodhpurs and a baggy pale blue jacket. She looks like a jockey!
Later Lucy tells me, ‘It’s such a completely different style of riding. I’ve always been told to keep my hands down, and now I’m being told to keep them up!’
‘She takes direction very well. She listens and does it and, though she slipped back into old ways a few times, when I told her to get her hands up she listened and did it,’ says Thom. ‘That’s why she’s a good jockey, she listens to her trainers.’