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Horsepower Proves A Potent Pull For Students

Hawke’s Bay’s inaugural Polo Programme aimed at students is enjoying its biggest year yet of enrolments with founder Richard Kettle setting his sights on expanding it out to more schools around the region.

Since saddling up the Birchleigh Polo Programme in 2009, the course has introduced more than 80 youths to the sport of polo, some of whom have gone on to fulfill a career in the field. This year, with support from a donor directed grant through Hawke’s Bay Foundation, the programme’s intake will see 13 students from Hastings Girls High School and eight from Flaxmere College take part with students referred by school counselors or teachers.

Hawke’s Bay Foundation Executive Officer Amy Bowkett says the programme’s objectives align well with their own.

“As a community foundation our mission is to connect people who care with causes that matter, to help strengthen our local community. By offering students the opportunity to be part of Birchleigh’s Polo Programme, participants are learning new skills but more importantly they’re learning powerful life skills and that’s incredibly enriching.”

Birchleigh Club Manager Richard Kettle is looking forward to their busiest summer yet.

“Going from ‘shall we try this and see what happens’ to the structure today’s programme offers, it’s been really rewarding. Faced with the challenge of working to win the horse’s trust, respect the animal and then on top of that, learn the sport, it’s a good leveller for these kids.”

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For twelve years, Richard Kettle’s open-gate policy has exposed students to a sport and an animal many of them have never come into contact with. Kettle says success is measured by a rapid change in attitude, with the students quickly becoming more respectful as they relish the opportunity of being involved.

"They know that if they don't toe the line, they don't stay on the course," he said.

But forging a path not previously trodden hasn’t come without its detractors.

“When I started there were some people out there who were very opposed to what I was doing, but that’s just made me more determined to carry on. There is a misled perception that polo is elitist but behind all that you can use it for so much more, like what we’re doing and it’s impacting young people’s lives for the better.”

To be part of Birchleigh’s Polo Programme students must commit to turning up once a week for two hours after school, with Club Day Saturdays an optional extra. If they can see the course through from October to March caring for, feeding, grooming, riding and ultimately playing Birchleigh’s 16 polo ponies, graduates end up with an NZQA level 2 equine certificate.

Return graduate, 17 year old Hastings Girls High student Pamela Haycock arrived on the course two years ago and admits she was ‘going through a difficult patch’, struggling mentally at school and lacking any self-confidence.

“When I turned up I was very nervous but I soon discovered it was easier to talk to horses than people. Being here has provided an outlet to take my mind off everything else, to push myself outside of my comfort zone and meet new people. I’ve really come out of shell and find polo a lot of fun. I played my first tournament last year and enjoyed it so much I’m now hoping to pursue the sport after I finish school.”

Seeing such positive transformation is largely why Richard Kettle does what he does. But it comes with a reliance on trust funding and considerable financial input of his own, to keep the Club afloat.

“For the Club to be where it is now, funding from the likes of Hawke’s Bay Foundation is vital. For those who said we couldn’t do it, we’ve proven them wrong and we’ve grown to become the second largest polo club in the country behind Christchurch, with an overall membership of 32.

“It hasn’t always been easy but I’m proud we’re making the game of polo accessible for anyone keen to give it a go, I just knew it was something I had to do.”

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