They breed them tough in the country, for sure. I guess if you’ve spent all your high-school years doing a three-hour round trip every day of the week to go to school, riding horses after school, plus doing homework, then training and travelling 25 horses all the way from Holbrook in southern NSW to Warwick in Queensland to compete in the Polocrosse World Championships is a mere bagatelle.
In rural Australia the name Grills is synonymous with two things – the beautiful Berragoon Stud, a 4,000 acre Australian Stock Horse breeding property, and polocrosse.
It’s the latter that I’m talking about with Jim, 24 (otherwise known as Jimmy), who was part of the Australian Team to take out the World Championship, (as was his sister Lucy, 26 and their cousin Abbott). Jim recently came back from an invitation tournament in South Africa where both he and Lucy were awarded MVP (Most Valuable Player) for their part in the prestigious Landrover Durban High Goal Championship.
According to Jim, he was a “late” arrival on the horse scene. By that, he means he was six-years-old before he played in his first polocrosse match. “I remember being very small and people trying to make me ride,” he says, “but I was really more interested in playing with my toy trucks, but then mum and dad threw me on a horse when I was six and stuck me in a polocrosse match, and I won a trophy at the end of the day – even though I don’t think I went near the ball the whole day – and I was hooked.”
I mention that six doesn’t seem exactly old to me, and he laughs. “I suppose not, but Lucy was obsessed with horses from the word go,” he says. “It wasn’t until I got the competitive element that I got interested.”
Lucy, who also works at Berragoon, alongside her parents Sara and Charlie Grills with the extended family of her partner Matt Davison, Jim’s partner Katie Wills, has a clear memory of her first time on a horse. “I remember I was in my grandparent’s garden,” she says, “I was about three-years-old and my grandfather was standing beside me while I sat on a horse. I just loved it straight away. I was instantly obsessed with horses, and it’s never gone away.”
Both Lucy and Jim are aware of the massive honour bestowed on them at the recent World Championship. “To win best female and best male player on a winning World Championship team is as good as it gets,” says Jim, “it was a huge honour.”
Polocrosse is often considered an Australian game (and in the past occasionally referred to as the ‘poor man’s polo’) but in fact it was based on the UK game of Polo Crosse and was brought to Australia by two keen equestrians and breeders, Mr and Mrs Edward Hirst. In 1938 the Hirsts read an article on Polo Crosse in an English magazine, and decided to visit the National School of Equitation in the UK to find out more about this new sport, where two instructors had created an exercise to help young riders gain better control of their horses by playing a kind of squash on horse-back, which was even played indoors.
Realising the potential of the game to transfer to outside, and the advantage for Australians that the game only required one or two horses per rider, rather than polo where each player requires six horses per game, the Hirsts came back to Sydney with sticks, balls and a rule book. They asked a well-known polo player, Alf Pitty, for advice on how to set up the game – transferring it outside, and creating the game of Polocrosse.
The care the couple took in setting up the new game meant that it became almost instantly popular, first in Sydney, then in regional and rural Australia. In 1958 South Africa became the second country in the world to take up the sport, and in 1978 the game finally made its way back to the UK, to its country of origin. Now, it’s played around the world, and the sport continues to gather momentum.
For those who might not understand exactly what the game is, polocrosse is a team sport that is a combination of polo and lacrosse. Each rider uses a stick, which has a raquet head attached to it, with a loose net, in which the ball is carried. The ball is made of spongey rubber and the objective is to score goals by throwing the ball between the opposing team’s goal posts.
The Polocrosse World Cup is held every four years, with Australia the clear winners of the first tournaments in 2003 and 2007. In 2011 and 2015 South Africa nabbed the World Championship title, and earlier this year, in April, the Aussies won it back.
Jim and Lucy are pretty clear as to why the Australians lost their initial advantage to the super-competitive South Africans. “Every country has very slightly different rules,” Jim explains. “In Polocrosse in Australia the original rule was that we couldn’t use overhand throwing, so to score a goal you had to effectively get your horse and your racquet on the correct side to be able to throw underarm, and therefore you could only use one side of the goalpost. In South Africa – and some other countries – you can throw over overhand, which allows you to score from both sides of the post. We’re the only country that doesn’t play overhand, but it is creeping into the game, and we’re seeing a few juniors using it. We think it’s a really positive step forward because it means your horse doesn’t have to stop and turn nearly as often, so there is much less wear and tear on them. The throw is allowed under international rules, and this year’s World Championship was the first time we’ve really adopted it. It certainly worked for us, we won by our biggest margin ever – 34-21.”
On the back of their World Championship win the siblings were delighted to be invited to participate in Durban, with Lucy as part of the women’s team, and Jim invited as a wild-card.
“We’ve been there five times now,” Lucy says, “and it’s always a thrill because the whole sport is treated much more like polo over there. It’s pretty flash – black-tie balls, and a faster style of Polocrosse with much more open-running on the field.”
Which brings us to ‘those’ horses. The wonderful Berragoon mares, every polocrosse competition mare named after the stud – mares like Berragoon Lipstick, a Thoroughbred Stockhorse cross, currently carving up the field as one of the most athletic mares out there. The horses have evocative names such as Berragoon Favours, Berragoon Percussion, Berragoon Waves, and the perhaps slightly less fortunate sounding Berragoon Off Key.
“We have 200 mares at the stud,” Lucy explains, “we only play on mares, and for our breeding we embryo transfer our best competition mares to one of our recipient mares. We generally use Standardbreds, because they’re good mothers, and good milkers, and for the horses to come and have a comfortable life post-racing, living in a large herd, it’s a good life for them.”
Jim explains that the Stockhorse mixed with a little Thoroughbred is a good mix. “It gives you stamina and strength mixed with a little heat and speed,” he says.
The stud was founded in 1974 by Lucy and Jim’s grandmother, Pam Mills, at Burrabogie Station, in the heart of the Riverina, east of Hay.
A select group of primarily Thoroughbred mares were mated to a first cross Quarter Horse Stallion, ‘Retford Quarter Inch’ (by Mescal), and it was the progeny from these that were classified and entered into the studbook of the ASH Society, still a fledgling society at that time. Later, the family moved to Holbrook and the stud has been on that property ever since.
Sara Grills, Lucy and Jim’s mum, joined the business in 1979 when she finished school. “I’ve been involved in breeding for nearly 40 years,” she says. “My husband Charlie, sister Debbie and I took over the business in 1987 and we’ve been running it ever since. Polo and Polocrosse have always been a big part of both Charlie’s and my family. It probably dates back to the late 1800s when my great grandfather was a member of the very first polo team to play for New South Wales. We still have his silks today! Mum was always interested in polocrosse but my Dad wasn’t allowed near a horse because he was the heir to a large family property and it was seen as too risky. I started playing polocrosse when I was a young adult, and Charlie started when he was nine. We’ve both played at national level for New South Wales. Charlie is still coaching and playing. Me – not so much these days!”
The selection of horses is a careful process. In the year leading to the World Cup, three Australian scouts start to attend matches in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria to see which horses are performing well – looking for toughness, speed, endurance, resilience and agility – all things, thanks to the careful breeding program that the Berragoon Stud horses have in spades. Horses are then chosen for the men and women’s teams to ensure all teams have a good spread of graded horses.
Loaning horses out for competition is part and parcel of the process says Sara. “Of course we’re lucky to have some good polocrosse horses, which means we can loan out ‘A’ grade horses while we keep a few our valuable breeding mares back at the stud. It’s really important that the loaning of quality horses is reciprocal. It keeps everybody being able to perform at their best.” Of course, Sara is immensely proud of Lucy and Jim, and of their cousin Abbott, also part of the World Championship team. “We are truly a family business,” she says.
The games themselves are divided into six six-minute chukkas, with the finals being eight six-minute chukkas. “At the World Cup, with two horses per player, there were sixteen horses in each pool – two horses per player, eight for four boys and eight for the girls,” Jim says. “We took 25 horses because I had two horses in each pool, all going into eight pools, so I matched my best mare – number 1 – with number 16, 2 with 15 and so on, so that whichever card I drew I would have a good combination. We draw our horses after breakfast on the first day, and I drew my second choice mare, so I was happy. Then the visiting countries have an hour and a half to practice, and off we go.”
Getting horses fit for something as fast and furious as polocrosse isn’t an issue at the stud, where they have an 800 metre training track. “We train the horses six days a week,” Jim says. “We start with the three-year-olds training them to take the racquet, from four, five and six, we get them used to chukkas. After six they’re ready for a competitive life. We do four laps of the 800-metre track, 400 metres at a trot, and 400 metres at a sprint, so they’re fit and ready for competition day.”
It’s not just the horses that are fit. Jim also plays AFL and teaches part-time at the local gym, as well as working at the stud. The idea of both the horses and the riders being emotionally, physically and mentally fit, resonated with Lucy, who has recently started a business called ‘Girl Talk’, specialising in workshops for three ages – junior, intermediate and open.
“I’m going to run clinics based around physical, mental and emotional health, and using polocrosse as the base for it,” she says. “We cover all sorts of subjects – things like bullying, social media, confidence issues, over a workshop that lasts three days. I’m planning the first one now. I’m hiring professionals to do the sessions, and obviously I’ll teach the polocrosse component. I really want to see more girls and women become more aware of their inner strength.”
Inner – and outer – strength seems to be a family trait.
You can contact Berragoon Australian Stockhorse Stud here: http://www.berragoon.com/wordpress/