Rebecca Walters is one of the few successful women polo players in the world. Based in Britain, she’s constantly traveling and playing polo tournaments around the globe. Although traditionally considered a man’s world, the sport of polo is rapidly opening up, and becoming increasingly popular among women. In between tournaments and training her horses, Rebecca is involved with the Ladies Polo Foundation initiative to make polo more accessible to women in the UK.
Author: Charlotte Kingsman
Question: How did you become one of the few professional women polo players?
I came to polo a lot later than most professional players. I started with lessons in 2009 when I was studying at university. After that I went on to play recreationally whilst working and living in London. In 2016, I saw the world of women’s polo, including tournaments and professional players, really taking off. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to play more and potentially make a living from my passion. So I left London and flew to Argentina where I took a freelance job for the polo season in November/December. I made sure I was on a horse, learning and playing as much as possible. By January 2017, I started my career as a full-time polo professional.
Q: What is your handicap? Can you tell us briefly about the handicapping system and how polo teams work?
I hold a 6 Goal handicap in ladies and a 1 Goal handicap in mixed.
The handicapping system is a little bit confusing for those outside of polo. The rule of thumb is that every player has to belong to a club. Each of those clubs has a handicapping committee that will rate you depending on your skill level. That skill level will be measured against others of the same level in your club and compared with a handicapping system starting at -2 and going as high as +10. This means that -2 is a complete beginner and +10 is among the best in the world.
At the lower levels, the system requires a person to be able to perform certain things under pressure in a game, like specific shots, passes etc. How high your handicap gets is usually dependent on skills at speed with the ball, tactical play and the overall horsepower available.
Horsepower and skill are the most important factors. One without the other will never succeed.
The ladies handicapping system came into play because the actual level of women playing a mixed handicap between -1 and +1 Goals varied greatly. The mixed scale didn’t account for that disparity. The ladies system is based on the mixed system but starts with 0 Goals and goes up to 10 Goals. We currently have 3 women holding a 10 Goal ladies handicap, two of whom are British. None of the women polo players currently rank higher than a +4 mixed handicap.
Q: What is it like being a female professional polo player in a sport with mixed teams?
Ironically, I find myself more defined by my gender as an adult than when I was a kid. I grew up with two very athletic brothers. Because of that I never felt that my gender had anything to do with my strength or abilities. I could run, jump and throw further than both of them!
A few people have told me along the way that I wouldn’t make it as a professional polo player because I was a girl. But polo is actually one of the few sports where men and women are able to compete on the same level. It does remain a male-dominated sport at the top. But this is not due to a lack of women’s strength or ability. It is rather the result of a lack of opportunities.
When a male and female of the same ability are pitted against each other for a position, more often than not, teams have been inclined to choose the male player. The reasons are the many perceptions surrounding the physical strength of men versus that of women. I’ve been told stories of back in the day when women had to disguise themselves as men to play. Or they even had their male counterparts sign petitions to allow them to play the higher levels of polo because they were more capable to do so.
More and More Opportunities for Women Polo Players
Thanks to the global pro-female movement, however, this is all changing. Women are being given more and more opportunities in mixed polo as well as in terms of business, social and economic equality. Also, now, the women-only tournaments and leagues have given us a platform to show our skills. As a result, we are being taken more seriously than before.
So in many ways, I was lucky enough to come to polo at a time where women were much more accepted and given more opportunity than in previous years. It’s interesting and exciting being a woman in polo right now. There are tournaments and events popping up all over the world for us and it’s growing at a very fast rate.
This season I am working in Thailand at King Power Polo Club, one of the largest high level teams in Europe. I am the first female professional they have ever hired and one of the very few females in such high level set-ups. They see my abilities as a horsewoman and player and the added benefit of having both female and male professional players in the team. They are also hoping to attract and inspire the large percentage of female players at the grassroots levels.
Q: Polo seems to be dominated by South Americans. How have you adapted?
Polo is very much dominated at all levels by the South Americans due to their understanding of and general culture surrounding horses and breeding. They also have the space and patience required to make some of the best horses in the world. When a sport is 70% horse and 30% rider, breeding the best horses in the world is not a bad starting point for success!
I was 21 the first time I went to Argentina and I have been back every year since. I fell in love with the culture and lifestyle. My mother was born and grew up in São Paolo, Brasil so I was surrounded by South American culture from a young age and I immediately felt right at home. I’m proud to be British but also very grateful that they have shared their culture and love for the sport with me. A lot of my experience and skills have come from the hours spent in the saddle in Argentina.
Q: What’s the lifestyle of women polo players like you?
It’s exciting, rewarding but also sometimes tough as I have to travel a lot all year round. I travel almost every month during the European summer and in the winter too depending on whether I have a fixed job or dotted tournaments.
To give you an idea, in 2019 I was in Thailand in January and February. I went back to the UK, then to Argentina for the season and back again to the UK. In May I flew to Ibiza to play a ladies tournament which was followed by a series of ladies tournaments in the UK. Then Switzerland in June, along with Sotogrande in Spain and Deauville in France in August. I came back to the UK in August and September to play some more ladies tournaments before heading to China for a month. I had a two weeks break before going to Thailand at the end of October where I will be until mid-April when the UK season will start again.
The sport feeds my love of travelling and cultural curiosity but also means spending a lot of time away from loved ones which can be tough. Overall, however, I love seeing new clubs, meeting new players and people and riding different horses. I really feel that the professional players in the industry right now are spearheading the future of ladies’ polo and it makes me very proud to inspire others along the way.
Q: How important are sponsors for women polo players?
I work with two brands which have helped me really increase my image and profile as a player. The first is Stick & Ball, a brand originating from California and owned by Elizabeth Goodwin. Elizabeth has since become a friend and inspiration of mine. She is not only a great polo player, she’s an advocate of sustainable fashion, a culturally curious world traveller, fantastic chef and event host to boot. I have been working with her for almost two years as a model and ambassador and hope to continue well into my polo career and beyond.
Another important sponsor of mine is Hook Polo. It is an innovative polo equipment brand founded by UK designer, polo player and entrepreneur Rob Cameron. They make fantastic quality gloves along with caps, travel bags and much more. Items for both brands are available through me as an ambassador or online.
Q: What is the world of polo doing to encourage female participation?
Women currently represent a higher percentage than men at the entry-level and women’s polo is also the largest growing sector of the sport in every country. There are some organisations in the UK and USA supporting grassroots polo at schools and universities. I started at university in the SUPA leagues and without them, I would never have found this sport. Women’s polo is getting bigger. There are more ladies tournaments every year and more sponsors getting involved which helps increase our platform.
I’m so so excited about the future of ladies polo that I became an ambassador for the Ladies Polo Foundation – an initiative that helps support and harness the future of ladies’ polo in the UK. The idea is to host affordable training days for women, giving them access to top coaching, training and also providing a supportive community where they can seek help and advice about all aspects of the sport. I lend my time as a professional player to coach, train and I offer support to all of our LPF initiative ladies. We also have a group of sponsors who support the initiative. They allow us to offer low-cost experiential days through discounts and by donating to the foundation with their product sales.
Q: What’s your favourite thing about the sport, and perhaps a side of it you like less?
My favourite thing about the sport is the horses, by far. I’m in this for the competition, the adrenaline, the adventure but more than anything I’m constantly craving that connection you get when you’re playing and you really are one with a horse. Win or lose, you cannot compare that feeling.
There are always downsides to any sport. For every high, there is a low, be it injuries, politics or large vets bill! But thanks to my Equine Science degree I look after my ponies well and ensure they are performing at their best. When I started off, I bought horses that needed some training and care and then sold them off. Today I have a very talented string of horses.
All in all, the pros ALWAYS outweigh the cons. I will keep on going for as long as this lasts!
Q: What are some of the most incredible destinations you’ve been too?
I have so many favourite destinations but one of the most fun tournaments is the Nuestra Tierra mixed cup in Argentina. Each team has three ladies and one male professional player. The polo fields are lovely and there’s always such a great atmosphere. The owner, Claudia Sorbac, does a fantastic job with the organisation. In terms of competitiveness, King Power ladies have the best fields and tournaments. They invite teams to play and mount them with some of the best horses in the world. Spain too, with Sotogrande and Santa Maria Polo Club, offers fantastic polo. The fields are stunning, the ball runs fast, allowing for wonderful open polo.
Q: Any other equestrian adventures on your bucket list?
My dream is to play in the women’s open in Argentina. It’s the highest handicapped tournament for women in the world and is hosted at PALERMO, the cathedral of Argentine polo. One day it will happen, in the not too distant future.
Otherwise, I want to see the world on horseback. Maybe do an African safari, cross Patagonia or swim in the Caribbean Sea with horses. I’m also very interested in horse breeding. I’d like to see and admire as many breeds in the flesh as possible, I’m intrigued as to how the horse evolved in different parts of the world. Whatever my plans are in the future, they will be sure to involve horses!
Did you enjoy this story about women polo players? Don’t forget to have a look at the second article in this series!
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