At the height of the drug-fuelled violence that ravaged Colombia more than a decade ago, even the country’s horses suffered. As drug lords sought status, entering the equestrian world by owning one of the most prized breeds of horse, the Paso Fino, they became a target for rival gangs engaged in vendettas. Stallions were castrated and massacres took place in stables. However, drug kingpins knew to stay away from Colombia’s polo clubs and polo ponies.
“For whatever reason, narcos never even dared to ask to be members of a polo club, and nobody was keen on selling them horses,” explains Felipe Uribe, a two-goal (low handicapped) player who used to administer polo for Club Campestre of Cali – a city that was controlled by a powerful drug cartel. “They knew this was no place for them, that they were never going to be welcomed, so they simply stayed away,” he says.
In the early to mid-1990s, polo was relatively successful in Colombia, so much so that clubs would attract star Argentine players of the time, such as the Heguy brothers. But by the late 1990s, an escalation of violence and an economic crisis crippled the sport’s development beyond the main clubs near the biggest cities of Bogotá, the capital, and Medellín and Cali.
“Over 10 years ago, people that had horses on their ranches decided to stop breeding because it was too dangerous to be out in the countryside on their own,” says Uribe.
But with sustained economic growth, leftwing guerrilla groups in decline and drug gangs no longer a security threat, there has been a turnround in Colombia’s quality of life – and polo has followed. “Polo in Cali and Medellín and Bogotá is growing again,” says Carlos Alberto Gómez, one of the very few veterinaries for sport horses in Colombia, who works at the Cali club. “Those people that were scared have come back, their sons are playing and breeding now with the best blood imported from Argentina,” says Gómez.
Despite being a nation with extensive grasslands and cattle ranchers, especially close to the border with Venezuela, most of the population lives in the Andean region. There, three mountain ranges make it hard to find flat land to set up a polo pitch. Nonetheless, the Bogotá polo club, the country’s oldest, recently moved to a new and expansive location in a valley on the outskirts of the capital. The club now boasts eight spotless fields and 650 stables – 850 during the season – which highlights the recent growth of the sport in Colombia.
“During the weekends in the peak of the season, there are horses and players everywhere here; this is a feast,” says Alejandro Montaña, the club’s vice-president. The number of younger members has grown by about 20 per cent in recent years.
The season runs during two dry periods – from January until March and July to September. During the season, the club hosts the country’s two most important tournaments – the 18-goal handicap Uribe Cup and 20-goal handicap Strong Cup.
In an attempt to professionalise the sport, both are based on the patron model, in which individuals fund a squad of players and ponies in return for a place in the team.
“Even if security is much better some people are still hesitant to be identified as polo patrons. It is understandable, because they could be targeted as the richest among the rich,” says Felipe Márquez, a seven-goal player and the country’s number one.
“Overall, there is still a reluctance to professionalise the sport here, it is still seen as something very familiar, so it is quite amateur,” adds Márquez. “But I am working on breaking that traditional scheme.”
He helped set the new trend of professionalism and horse breeding. Now, teams are bringing in Argentine players and stallions. Because of the lack of good Colombian trainers and grooms, players such as Márquez take charge. Today, a Colombian pony costs between $4,000 and $25,000. “The level of horses here has grown a lot in the past 10 years, same with the players,” Márquez says as he trains a young sorrel mare he bred, whip in hand. “I think little by little, we are heading in the right direction.”
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