DUBAI // Notoriously stubborn, slow on the turn and prone to wandering off, a camel may not be the first choice of mount for a seasoned polo player.
However, two years of training has helped eight riders at the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club to get camel polo down to a fine art.
As the equine polo season prepare to kick-off, a lively 15-minute camel chukka was held on Friday to showcase the dromedary version of the game. While it has largely been treated as a novelty, there are signs that camel polo could soon become a popular sport in its own right.
"There's been a lot of interest by some individuals in setting up a camel polo league," said Adrian Sime, the general manager of Gulf Ventures, the Dnata Travel subsidiary that brought the sport to the Emirates. "We're looking at that in the near future."
Still, Mr Sime admitted that the use of such an ungainly looking beast in an elegant pastime usually affiliated with the rich took a bit of getting used to.
"Polo is very unusual for a camel because they have a mind of their own," he said. "In the middle of a game they often just walk off, sit down or decide not to do anything."
Camel polo was invented by Steve Thompson, the head coach at the affiliated Dubai Polo Academy, three years ago. He said he got the idea from elephant polo, a novelty sport in Thailand. The first match took place at the Jumeirah Bab Al Shams Desert Resort.
"We taped some polo sticks together and started to play," said Mr Thompson, a 41-year-old Briton. " [The camels] didn't seem to mind too much. The only problem we had was getting them to turn."
Eight riders were recruited from the subcontinent and they largely learned how to play the game on the job. They were set to work in putting the camels through their paces from 6am to 7.30am in a desert camp on the outskirts of Dubai. The learning process was gruelling to say the least, Mr Thompson said.
"It's relatively easy to train a horse," he said. "If you pull on the reins to try to get a camel to turn, its head just turns around to face you. "There had to be endless repetition. If the camel went two degrees to the right, you would give it a date. But the fact that they let us on in the first place showed that they are naturally subservient."
Newcomers take part in a two-man team, with a professional responsible for driving the camel. Their job is simply hitting the ball.
"It's really easy to learn," said Mr Thompson. "If we wanted to start a league we could just let people come down here on Friday morning and hire a camel."
The durable camels also lend themselves to more post-match activities than the average polo pony. Children were given rides on their backs at the end of Friday's 15-minute exhibition as dozens of tourists, many of whom had never heard of the sport, gathered around the animals.
"I didn't realise there was such a thing as camel polo until today," said Brian Ebrahim, a 36-year-old from the UK.
"We're hoping to get my daughter on the camel but she seems a bit scared."
Holding to the adage that a camel is only as bad-tempered as it is badly treated, the animals are lovingly cared for by the riders and are washed a well near their stables every day.
Abdul Kareem, a 25-year-old rider from Pakistan, said that while a firm hand was needed, particularly when directing the animal to turn, the stereotype of the camel as an aggressive creature was a myth.
"I don't think I've ever been bitten," he said.