x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Steve Thompson, who took up polo when he was a London broker in the 1980s, gallops us through his typical day.

Dubai Polo Academy owner and coach Steve Thompson at the 'Discover Polo Day' organised by Emirates Palace and the Dubai Polo Club. Silvia Razgova / The National
Dubai Polo Academy owner and coach Steve Thompson at the 'Discover Polo Day' organised by Emirates Palace and the Dubai Polo Club. Silvia Razgova / The National

Steve Thompson took up polo when he was a broker in London in the 1980s. He was terrible at the sport, but he persisted and eventually turned professional. Mr Thompson is the founder of the Dubai Polo Academy, where he also teaches. Here, he talks about his day from the early starts to making it to bed before midnight.


My alarm goes off as I’ve got some very cool dogs — a bulldog and a dachshund — that I have to take for a walk first. I do parrot rescue, so I’ve got a few parrots around too. They all come to work with me; I’ve got a very big truck that I can fit a lot of animals in. I eat a cereal bar on the way. I was in London in the late 1980s earning a fortune as a broker. Polo was not accessible then but you could buy your way in. I was rubbish; I was so bad it infuriated me. I was so furious that I quit my job and became a groom. I could ride and I was good with the horses, so they sent me round the world to train them. When you train polo ponies you have to play them in matches to get them used to the play, so people like us play young horses. You get better and better and then I turned professional. I always loved teaching, so I opened an academy. We got quite famous for how quickly we could make people play, so we started going around the world. I came to Dubai for two years, and eight years later I am still here.


We all arrive at the stables to do the vet check — that takes about an hour. We have 17 horses, although that number goes up and down during the season. Then we check the list for the day; we have all sorts of clients. Dubai is really busy — busier than any polo academy I’ve had before. Clients arrive before dawn — 5.30am or 6am — for a 45-minute session. Thirty per cent of our clients are Emiratis, the rest are expatriates. If the weather’s good then I will teach all the way through to 7pm. I play in tournaments maybe eight or 10 times during the season, October to May. I play two, three, four times a week — it depends. But my priority is the academy. During the summer, the horses have the time off and I go anywhere else in the world where I am playing: Singapore, Europe, Mexico, or Argentina.


I’ve been known to eat lunch. As polo players we have to keep our weight down, so we just don’t eat and when we do, it’s nothing glamorous. In Europe, I have a typical client base — wealthy, old school. Dubai is very aspirational, so we get a lot of people that could actually really never afford polo in the strict sense, but they can afford Dh1,000 to Dh2,000 a month. If they come along at the weekend, it’s great value. They have a lesson, they have lunch or coffee at the club, they sit round and watch a match, they get to know the players — all for that lesson (Dh850 for private, Dh600 for a group). The good thing about polo — unlike other equestrian disciplines like showjumping or dressage, for which you need to train your own horse to compete — you can hire one and walk away from all liability. That’s why it’s expensive. We do a lot of corporate stuff and host team-building days. If an office is not functioning properly, they send staff to us. Nothing strips people down like a near-death experience; you see people’s raw canvas being exposed. Suddenly the loudmouth is very quiet and his way doesn’t work; the quiet one at the back sneaks up, steals the ball and scores. Then the company will go back and reposition their staff. Here, it’s also used for client incentives — it’s not cheap, so if you’ve been invited, you are super-special or you’ve won a sales target.


We look at the horses again. I’ve got to handle a lot of sponsorship things and I’ve just written a book about how to play polo. We are opening in Abu Dhabi after Christmas at Al Forsan, so that’s very exciting.


I eat dinner. If we have a polo course in, they want to party — and we know where to party, so we go out. The people on the course get a lie-in, but I’ve got to get through my local clients before they come in at 8am. That’s when we get really sleep-deprived. If there is no one around then I just want to sit on the sofa with my animals and watch TV.


If you are in bed 30 seconds before midnight you don’t feel too bad when your alarm goes off at 4 o’clock: 30 seconds after midnight and it’s like, “Oh my God, my eyes are bleeding.” So I try to do midnight if I have a 4am start, which is general.