Inspirational people: David Ashby
An intimate look into what makes David Ashby the person he is today.
David Ashby Polo
We had the pleasure of spending the morning with professional polo player, David Ashby, on a glorious sunny morning at The Oxford Polo School (AKA TOPS) to talk all things polo and pampeano. He greeted us outside the busy stables looking effortlessly chic in pair of mirrored Ray Ban sunglasses and we were delighted to spot the hints of red from his Principe pampeano polo belt which seamlessly co-ordinated with his bright TOPS polo shirt. We set up camp in the sunshine, in line with a row of polo ponies that were being prepared for their first lesson of the day with the Oxford University students and had what turned out to be a very inspiring chat.
David Ashby, professional polo player, husband, father and the man behind Oxford Polo School, grew up just east of Daventry on his family’s rural farm. His family have been farmers for years; “Life was truly fantastic. I mean I’m biased, but there’s no better way to grow up, you’re outside the whole time”.
Horses have always been a part of David’s life. He started riding when he was a small boy and growing up, got into it more and more. He used to everything from hunting and tetrathlon to show jumping, until one day he found polo. “To be honest when someone gave me a polo stick for the first time I never really looked back at the rest of it. I’m a very sporty person, so sport on a horse just married two of my great passions together”. “Hunting was brilliant, getting muddy, going fast and jumping anything you see, and polo is similar. As a young boy I wanted more adrenaline from my horse sports than the precision of dressage and show jumping”.
One day his father decided to diversify part of their farm into a corporate hospitality venture running go carts and a professional cart circuit. “That was 30 something years ago and it has all moved on a huge amount since then and we now see the formula one teams going there on weekends to scout the talent, so it’s a far cry from where the farm used to be”.
The rest of the family farm is now an animal farm with a lot of green energy and solar panels and amongst all that is the base camp for David’s polo operation. “So in summer time we’ll have 30 odd horses, and then in the winter everything goes to the family farm for the winter break, we do a lot of re-training of young horses, breeding is there also, and all of the horses we bring off the racetrack will get trained and as and when they effectively graduate, they are then ready to come over here to Oxford.”
David began playing polo as an eager eight-year-old. “You ride tiny little ponies. We don’t have any here, they’re nicknamed 'fluffys' – little ponies that can do everything. One day you can take them hunting and then the next day you can play polo on them. So we were just heading around on these little ponies and then through the English Pony Club system, which is fantastic. I think every English professional polo player today will have grown up through this system. It is where we all started."
The Pony Club
The Pony Club is an international voluntary youth organisation for young people interested in ponies and riding. Founded in England in 1929, and granted independent charitable status on 1st January 1997, there are around 345 Branches and 600 Centres in the UK alone. The Pony Club has been the starting point for a large majority of equestrian team members and medal winners. The Pony Club is represented in no less than 27 countries with a worldwide membership exceeding 110,000 making it the largest association of young riders in the world. (www.pcuk.org)
“The English Pony Club has every sort of discipline there is, the polo side of the pony club is brilliant and then you’ll get together with three/four friends, my brother was one of them. We grew up together playing the same team and it was probably when I was about 13 my mother had enough. She said she was only going to keep our horses in work for six months of the year, not 12, so that’s really when polo went on its own. I left hunting and all those other things behind and just concentrated on polo in the summer.”
“Both my parents have been amazingly supportive, but they only wanted us to do the horses for six months of the year. They would rather that I’d done the hunting and got a real job rather than this [Laughs] because hunting is always obviously a hobby where as this, there is a professional side of polo which I have now fallen into.”
David started as a professional when he was 18 but from the ages of 13 to 18 he was at Stowe School in Buckingham, which had a very strong polo set up and still does to this day. “My polo school here runs the A team at Stowe school, so they come back to me for training now”. Through the school system in the summer term, then through July, August in the pony club system, David was able to gain great early polo experiences. He left school at 18 and went straight to Argentina for a gap year and came back a much better player and with some equally better horses. “Argentina was very much about investing in yourself, you go there and make next to no, if any, money but you were doing it on the basis of training, you were improving. You would come back to England better: better horseman, better player”.
David came back and played his first season the following year. The 2003/2004 season was his first year as a professional and he hasn’t looked back.
“I did go to university. I wanted a backup plan more than anything else. Polo is a dangerous sport, you can have a fall or you can do anything so I did need an alternative just in case. Sadly the job offers I was getting during my time at university were just too attractive to turn down and I ended up not finishing university which I don’t regret yet. So then I was travelling, six months in Argentina, six months here playing as a pro and that cycle went on for five years.”
Being a Pro
David admits the lifestyle is pretty good. “So on a daily basis, I like to train, so I do a lot of gym work, Pilates mainly to keep myself fit. Polo is a very harsh sport on your body. You are very much one sided and your body can soon compensate for the lack of mobility, so you’re constantly battling to keep yourself correct as polo tries to knock you out of it. Obviously being a right-handed only sport and you’re predominantly always twisting to the right to hit the ball, my right arm is bigger than my left, it does more work and all those kinds of things, so yes, I do like to keep myself fit. Then there’s obviously training and practising. My top 12 or so horses that I play on as a pro are kept by my two grooms, same guys I’ve had now for 8 seasons, and I’ll chat to them every day, how are the horses getting on, which one’s doing what, how did they come out of yesterday’s game or which ones need extra work, extra this and that, and there’s always constant dialogue between us, working to make sure the health of the horses is fundamental”.
“I will either school the horses which is effectively training for them and then sometimes that happens at the same time as I train myself and we’ll go on a stick and ball, which is our terminology for just practising and then we can go out and hit penalties, a fundamental part of the game, and then you might have a match in the afternoon or a team practise or whatever it might be”.
“Polo is a very funny sport, your horse means everything to you. There are maybe the not so naturally talented polo players that have the access to the very best of horses that become good polo players. Then there are insanely talented polo players that do not have the access to the best horses so do not reach their full potential as players. It is not as simple as putting on a pair of football boots and then everything is level. It all comes down to resources, if you have the best horses, you will be the best player. As a professional polo player you are constantly striving to get the best possible horse you can”.