Claire and Luke Tomlinson
The former No 1 British female polo player, 65, and her son, 32, captain of the England polo team
CLAIRE: Luke wasn’t keen on riding when he was young. I don’t know whether it was a reaction because his older sister, Emma, was on a horse all day long. I wanted him to enjoy riding simply because it’s a family thing. I started playing polo seriously in 1963, then I captained the Oxford University team and the English women’s team, and now my husband, Simon, and I are the biggest breeders of polo ponies in Britain. I was riding up to 24 hours before Luke was born. But you don’t want to push your children into it so hard that they go the other way and reject it.
A friend of ours suggested he try the tetrathlon, which is shooting, running, swimming and riding. Luke loved the idea of shooting, and he’s a natural runner, and when he did those two things well, he began to realise he had to do some riding too. So we got him what we call a “schoolmaster pony” — in other words, a good pony for children to learn to ride on. Emma persuaded him to do some hunting. At first, if they came to a fence, she would jump with her pony and then come back and take his over. But then one day Luke’s pony decided to jump and Luke obviously thought: “Oh, my goodness, that was amazing!” And that was it — he was hooked.
If your children are going into the same activity as you, you naturally want to help them, but inevitably you have to accept there’s going to be a stage when they’re not going to listen to you any more. The clever thing to do, I think, is to direct them towards other people who you know can help them. That’s what I’ve tried to do, but the problem is I can’t always restrain myself. So often, as well as saying “Well done,” I’ll ask: “But what went wrong with…?” You’ve got to be careful — it’s a bit like having your mother or father teaching you to drive.
Luke is very self-critical. I’m like that too. He’s the sort of person who’ll play a good game and then always say: “Well, I should have done this or that…” It can be quite frustrating sometimes, because you just want to keep saying to him: “No, you did really well.”
The thing about playing polo is that you’re not only training yourself, but you have to ensure that your ponies are well looked after too. And that requires a lot of work. We had a lovely Argentine chap working in the stables who deliberately didn’t do everything for the young ones. He’d say to them: “Now that you’re enjoying the riding, you’ve got to do the work as well.” I have memories of Luke when he was too small to carry his saddle, putting it on a wheelbarrow, wheeling it to the stables, and then having to be nice to someone to persuade them to put the saddle on the horse.
In the first games we played together we were on the same side. It’s easier in some ways for Luke and me to play together, because we each understand what the other one is going to do. Also, we had experience in Argentina, where it’s totally natural for families to play together. But these days he’s a better player than me and he probably thinks I’m completely over the hill. I just do what I’m told and try and keep quiet.
Luke isn’t the beefy type — he’s quite light and athletic. When we saw his fluid, relaxed riding style, I think we began to realise he could go places. Now he’s determined that he’ll make his own way in polo, and he’s succeeding. And, like me, he believes it’s important that as polo players we open our arms and welcome more people to the sport. I want to see it reported in the sports pages of the newspapers, for instance.
We’re encouraging more people to try it out. The truth is that anybody who has tasted polo can’t resist it. There are so many skills involved, including the team aspect. You’ve also got the relationship with the animal: how you ride it, look after it.
We’ll go out riding and hunting together. Luke was involved in the demonstration at the House of Commons in September 2004 to protest against the fox-hunting ban.
I knew nothing about it at the time — I was in France coaching the English team in the world cup. But we were assembled in the foyer of the hotel, waiting to go out for dinner; there was a television on and one of the other people suddenly said to me: “There’s Luke.” I said: “Don’t be daft!”
But then I got a phone call from The Daily Telegraph about it, and a text from Luke saying “Don’t worry, Mum — I’m staying at Her Majesty’s pleasure tonight.” The point was, somebody had to do something, and I think they did so well, because no one got hurt and they made it clear they were not going to be aggressive.
Just like when I see him play polo, I suppose, I felt very proud.
LUKE: I started riding around the age of four or five, but then I remember losing interest for a few years — my BMX bike didn’t need mucking out and feeding and things, which made life much easier. But I was very lucky, because my parents bred horses on the farm, and after a while, around seven or eight, I thought it would be a big waste if I didn’t at least have a go. Horses have always been very much part of the extended family, and when I was 14 or 15 we went to South America and I saw the respect that so many people had for my mum there. That’s when I began to realise she was something special in the world of polo.
I always knew that my parents were keen for me to play too, but there was a certain amount of discouragement of my doing it professionally, because it wasn’t seen as a career. It’s really only in the past 15 years that it’s been seen as a profession rather than just a sport. My parents were keen for me to go to university, so I did a degree in property valuation and estate management at the University of the West of England. And I’m very grateful that they encouraged me to do that because it means I have it to fall back on.
When I left university I gave myself three years to be good at polo or concentrate on something else instead. The rating of players ranges from minus two for the most inexperienced to 10 for the very best, and I thought that if I got to seven I’d carry on — which I did, and which is what I am now.
My mum gives a lot of advice.
My brother and I might easily be playing now with two other players who aren’t part of the family, so it’s usually better to have a coach who doesn’t have a family relationship. But Mum and I do discuss tactics and she imparts a lot of very valuable knowledge and experience. She and I have regularly played together, on the same side and against each other. I’m not afraid to tackle her because when I was younger she was much better than me. We have similar styles, I think — watching her has influenced my style. Of course, we disagree sometimes, but when you’re working out your strategy during a game or at half-time, the more opinions that go into the mix, the better. People have said to me that my mum’s quite a strong personality. I’d say that that was the understatement of the year.
Polo is a very physical game. There’s a lot of wear and tear on your body, and it’s very imbalanced, which has an effect on your spine and shoulders. When I was 18, just before I went to university, I had a bad accident during a match and broke my leg. Mum was watching. My horse’s front legs got taken out from under it, and as it fell, my leg hit the ground and I broke it. The fall was quite impressive, I think, and I was lucky not to get my head rolled on. But Mum never questioned whether I should carry on playing, I don’t think. We both take the view that you can’t keep yourself in a padded room. You have to live life without that fear. She encouraged me to get back into the saddle as soon as possible.
When the hunting ban came in, I felt it was important to do something to try and stop it. I realised it was going to affect a lot of people I knew and their way of life. The ban was very much a political act. The waste of police time and money it’s caused is laughable. If you spend time in a country like Argentina, you see how they deal with things that really matter, like crime and education — not trying to ban hunting. So I felt quite strongly about it. But the demonstration itself was pretty well spontaneous. A group of us just got together. To be honest, we never thought we’d get past the first barrier at the House of Commons, let alone to the floor of the House. I’m happy to have done it, because we also pointed up a lapse in national security that has since been dealt with. At the time,
I texted my parents to tell them what had happened and then rang my mum as soon as I got out of jail. I knew they’d support me. We had hundreds of letters afterwards saying what a good thing we’d done. I had one letter from a lady in the village who didn’t approve, but that was it.
A lot of people still think that hunting is a thing for toffs. Cars are also something for toffs — but also for everyday people, if you look at it like that. We both felt that people involved in hunting simply weren’t being listened to, and that something had to be done. My mother and I might not always have the same views on a game of polo, but this was one thing we were both completely in agreement on
Luke Tomlinson will be captaining England against Argentina in this year’s Cartier International, on July 26 at Windsor Great Park
Interviews: Simon Brooke