POLO IN BARBADOS
A Personal Memoir
My involvement with the Barbados Polo Club started the year I married Tony Archer. It was soon after we returned from our honeymoon in July 1966. The first polo match he took me to was at the Garrison, where I watched him play for the first time. Polo had been played there by British cavalry officers in 1884 when the Club was first formed. According to the late Keith Melville, who presided as President for thirty-nine years, the club became inactive between 1929 and 1939 due to the Great Depression. After 1939, the Club was revived and polo was played at the Garrison once more, mostly by the Barbadian planters. Tony was not a planter, but he had a deep love for horses and all equestrian sports.
It was all new to me as an 18 year old Trinidadian girl who had never been around horses before, far less watched a polo match. I seldom missed a polo afternoon when my husband played. One by one, as our babies were born (there were five of them) they would be packed up and carted along with us to polo. In those days, it felt like a family affair and generations of polo players enjoyed the sport and the socializing afterwards. When the Polo Club moved from the Garrison to Holders, there was no clubhouse, only a tent made up of palm leaves. The bar was the back of our station wagon, as Tony was in charge of the bar. Needless to say, we were always the last to leave! Members ran up tabs and I assisted Tony in sending out the bar bills at month end, all written by hand.
By the end of 1966, the clubhouse had become a reality and was ready for the first touring team from Potomac, USA. A team from Barbados had played against Potomac the year before, and thus began long and lasting freindships and competitive tournaments with the Americans. Sandwiches and cakes were made by members' wives who provided and served afternoon teas. Back then, polo wives prepared dishes for the dinners served at the club house after tournaments with visiting teams. Casette tapes provided music for dancing, and the bar which was located in the centre of the clubhouse was solid! Children of polo players loved to run barefoot and wild on the field after matches and often had little polo sticks made for them to knock balls. Many of these children became players themselves when they grew up, and now several of their children also play polo.
When I came across an article tucked between Tony's scrapbook of 'horsie' stuff and read a visitor’s description of an afternoon at the Barbados Polo Club in 1969, it jogged my memory and senses. She had it exactly right. Fifty-five years ago, polo on the island was not yet the popular spectator sport it has become today. It was for many generations of Barbadians and their families simply a "polo afternoon”. Really, a wonderful afternoon. Many of us young mothers were juggling watching the kids and trying to keep an eye on the game so that we could be suitably excited when our man scored or mutter soothing commiserations when his team lost. There were spills and falls and fouls and sometimes we could hear some unmentionable language among the thundering hooves and clatter of sticks. And then there were the post-mortems of the game, the after-match banter in the clubhouse well into the dark of night, babies in their carrycots that slept blissfully throughout all the raising decibels.
Over the years, Tony served as Secretary/Treasurer and was a playing member of The Barbados Polo Club. He represented Barbados in several international tournaments. After my husband's untimely passing in 1984, I was granted Honorary Life Membership for his sterling contribution. This honour I treasure, and the memories make me smile.
‘THE POLO GROUNDS OF BARBADOS’
"Barbados is the Caribbean bastion of the very British sport of polo –
developed by the ancient Egyptians and named by the Tibetans."
From the Caribbean BEACHCOMBER, July/August 1969 with text by Carol Howland
Nothing indicated that this grassy plain might be a polo field. The field was empty, the grass a deep healthy green, joined by a mane of trees to a sky heavily laden with violet clouds. The October afternoon was warm, tropical, languorous. To the west lay the sea, fired by the late afternoon sun to a blade of blinding silver.
A gang of little Bajan boys came running up, laughing and tapping metal hoops over the rutted track that ran along the edge of the field.
On the theory that where there are horses – or about to be horses – there little boys are found, I asked them if this was Holder’s Hill, home of the Barbados Polo Club.
“Yeah, the horses, they goin’ to be heah soon now.” They continued on with their hoops to the end of the field.
It seemed a large field to an eye accustomed to American football. But how much larger it must have had to be to accommodate a couple of thousand Egyptians performing their springtime fertility rites – the alleged origin of the game. The Egyptians, using the ball as the symbol of fertility, divided themselves into “teams” representing the opposing forces of spring and winter, these “teams” sometimes numbering as many as a thousand each.
It was the Persians however, who in the first few centuries of the Christian era adapted the springtime rite of horseback. From Persia the game traveled East during the 5th century, gaining a name in Tibet as “pulu”. From Tibet it moved on to China and is first mentioned in literature of that country by the poet She Chaun Chi, who died in 713 A.D.
Polo is known to have been popular in India as early as the 16th Century. By the time the British arrived in the 19th, it had almost disappeared.
The British carried the game back to England, and polo was first played in the West at the Hurlingham Club of London in 1873, introduced by officers of the 10th Hussars. A year later the club men sat down and drew up the first rules of the modern game.
Teams were reduced from eight or ten players to five, soon further reduced to the present-day four. The field was drawn at 200 by 300 yards. Regulation mallets were to be made of cane or rattan, measuring from 50 to 60 inches long. Balls for outdoor play were to be made of hard willow root. And the game was divided into periods called chukkers, seven-and-a-half minutes long with three-minute breaks for changing ponies.
I watched the little boys, still driving their hoops, loping barefoot through the soft grass across the field. Then came the sound of a straining engine, and a horse trailer hitched to a station wagon appeared at the crest of the hill. It bounced over the track and came to a halt. A stable boy got out, lowered a ramp, and let down a sleek bay. He was a beautiful animal, gleaming in the sun, tossing his head cheerfully as the groom struggled down the ramp with saddle, bridle and other paraphernalia.
As if by signal, other trucks and trailers began to arrive. In now more than ten minutes the place was aswarm with wives chatting about children, clothes, and cane. Knots of men, dashing and lean-looking in their flared riding breeches and knee-high boots polished to a fine sheen, with here and there a mallet or a helmet in hand, discussed the progress of this or that horse. Each animal, in turn, had its crowd of boyish admirers. The grooms worked unhurriedly, as though the sun would hang there an inch above the sea like a spotlight until the play was finished.
What might well have been no more than a grassy pasture was now undeniably a polo field. Anxious horses, shanks bound, pawed the earth, snorted nervously, side-stepped and jostled their magnificent heads up and down in an arched motion that could only be interpreted as “let’s go.”
Heavy in the air were the mingled odors of horses, leather, saddle soap, polished metal, grass, earth and sea – a good rich aroma.
One by one the players began to break away from their groups to approach a slim gray-haired man who appeared to be an official. Margaret Dowding, who serves as official timekeeper for the club and is the wife of one of the players, explained that since it is always uncertain who will turn out to play, the club uses a handicap system of drawing lots so that the teams will be evenly matched.
The players began to don the team weskits. One of them swung into his saddle and galloped onto the field. More followed until a round dozen or so were swinging mallets and charging up and down.
“These are warm-up skirmishes,” Mrs. Dowding said. “They’ll take all the horses out for a minute or two to limber them up. Most of the players own two or three horses.”
There are about 30 playing members in the club and 40 or 50 horses. Most of the horses are either race horses which haven’t lived up to expectations, or show horses, or sometimes ponies, bought very young when their previous owners didn’t believe they showed promise.
Mrs. Dowding’s husband, Andrew, bought one such pony. Now, after much patient training, he is one of the best horses in the club, to the chagrin of the man who sold him.
It takes four or five years to properly train a horse for the game. He must learn to respond to finger-tip control. He must learn to stop short, turn sharply, twist and weave. But most importantly, he must become accustomed to having the mallet swung close to his head.
To my surprise, a woman took the field. “A lot more used to go out,” Mrs. Dowding said, “but not many now.”
I asked when polo was first played in Barbados. No one seemed to know exactly, but it is known that it was played on the Old Parade Ground in colonial days by officers of the British troops garrisoned in the still-standing red barracks buildings in St. James. Whether or not this was before James Gordon Bennet, publisher of the old New York Herald introduced it to the U.S. in Rhode Island, in 1876, is uncertain.
In any case, what began in Barbados as the sport of gentlemen soldiers has become the legacy of gentlemen planters.
The present Barbados Club was founded in 1937 by Henry A. Arthur, now owner of the Ridgeway Plantation in St. Thomas. (His son, Andrew, is currently a playing member.) Jamaica, with the only other club in the Caribbean, visited for a series in 1949. Barbados played a series against Caracas in 1951 and made a return visit to Jamaica in 1964.
A boost came in 1965 when Janet Kidd, daughter of Lord Beaverbrook, British publishing magnate, leased a cane field to the club. The cane was uprooted, the field planted in grass and inaugurated by a visit of the Potomac Club of Washington D.C. in January, 1966.
Photo on right:
l/r Rachel Carpenter, John Marsh, Hon. Mrs. Janet Kidd, 1966
The Holders polo field was still planted in sugar cane, and these photos were taken when some of the members went to have a look around.
The bell announced the first chukker of the day. Extra horses and players filed from the field, leaving ten men, four on each team, and the two referees. Another bell and the sharp crack of mallet against ball set the game in motion. How beautiful it was to watch – choreography as graceful as a ballet.
A fast-moving, exciting sport, it had none of the monotony of tennis or the incomprehensibility of football. It features splendid animals trained to reach to man’s wishes. Aside from the fact that only a man of some means can afford to keep horses, have the leisure to train them or the wherewithal to hire trainers, it is little wonder polo found favor among the British gentry.
Charging up and down the field they went, mallets held high in striking position. A long drive, the wooden ball whizzing through the grass; then the crack of a mallet would turn the pack off into a new direction.
Occasionally a player riding in hard from the side would reverse the ball. Almost by synchronization the horses would wheel and charge off toward the opposite goal. Sometimes a series of short intercepted drives would draw them into a tight, twisting skirmish, to be broken by a long drive out into the clear.
The bell rang again, ending the first chukker. This would give the players time to change horses.
Suddenly I realized I was probably the only spectator. Everyone else was either a player, a club member, or somehow related. I asked why it was so; weren’t visitors welcome? The answer: of course. But Bajans (as Barbadians call themselves) are avid cricket fans, and as it happens, cricket matches are also played on Saturday afternoons. And so, were it not for a few die-hard devotees, an elegant sport that started as a free-for-all fertility rite in ancient Egypt would languish for lack of popularity.
But in spite of the lack of glory, in Barbados every Saturday afternoon from June to January when the cane crop has been harvested and the sun is beginning its rapid descent, the planters don their helmets, grasp their mallets, mount gleaming steeds and ride out for a few chukkers in the grand old tradition of the gentlemanly sport.
H.R.H Prince Charles plays polo in Barbados - 1973
Published in the Bajan magazine, August 1973
"One of Prince Charles' real loves is the game of polo and while here on a visit to Barbados during the month of June aboard the H.M.S. Minerva he was invited to play several chukkas on no less than two different occasions as well as an afternoon of practise with members of the Barbados Polo Club.
The Prince himself a good polo player again met some of the same Barbadian players with whom he played against last summer in England.
Polo fans turned out in large numbers to see the matches and several had the good fortune of talking with the charming young gentleman who has the ability of immediately putting his audience at ease."
l/r Geoff Howell (backing camera), Paul Officer, the Prince's Equerry, C.O. Williams (pointing) H.R.H. Prince Charles, Ken Frost (President Barbados Polo Club), Tony Archer, Vere Davis and Owen Deane.
l/r Andy Dowding, Tony Archer playing #4, Vere Davis centre, H.R.H. Prince Charles, Roger Gooding playing #2
Typical after-match in the clubhouse, sometime in the seventies.
COW (now Sir Charles Williams) and Tony with his boot on the stack of old-time metal chairs.
Hot, sweaty polo team shirts had already been changed and it was time for socializing. I was somewhere there and our children were running around playing (running wild) on the polo field in the dark.
Barbados Polo Team to Jamaica - 1969
l/r: Tony Archer, Vere Davis, C.O Williams, Andy Dowding, John Kidd
Above: Our son, Wayne Archer - the current President of the Barbados Polo Club - 2021
Below: Wayne's son Joshua Archer
This page has been lovingly created in memory of John Anthony Keith (Tony) Archer