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09 December 2023

Apres-ski, how about some snow polo?

British personality Katie Price on a horse arrives at a prize ceremony during the 7th Snow-Polo event on January 23 in Klosters (AFP)


Klosters, the village in the Swiss Alps best known as a winter getaway for British royals, is also host to polo, the game traditionally played by kings.

Except that here, in temperatures plunging to minus 13 degrees Celsius (nine Fahrenheit), it is played with a winter twist, by riders mounted on ponies charging after the ball through snow rather than across a grassy pitch.

In addition, games in the Berenberg polo tournament take place in the evenings and into the freezing night, with beverages and dinner served in heated tents by the snowbound pitch in an "apres-ski" atmosphere.

Started just seven years ago, the event has already attracted the attention of Princes William and Harry, who attended the games "incognito" a few years ago, organiser Daniel Waechter told AFP.

In all, polo on snow is a rather "eccentric" experience, according to Jeremy Hackett, who owns the eponymous British fashion label.

"I think it's more fun. It's very different. I think it's quite eccentric really, and that's an English trait," said Hackett, a sponsor, who is in town for the first time in seven years to watch the game unfold.

"It's a really nice way of showing Englishness in the snow," he added.

The event was the brainchild of Waechter, the village's former tourist director. "Klosters has a large contingent of British guests, so we thought polo would be nice and snow would be nice," he said. "Winter is the major season and polo on snow at night is something that didn't exist before. So we wanted to create something different, something new," he added.

The logistics are complex, with some 180 tonnes of materials -- including flooring for guest tents, office containers and storage material -- carted up to the mountain village more than 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) above sea level.

And there is the challenge of building a pitch out of the snow.

"When you see it in the summer, the playing field is very uneven. From the top to the bottom, there is a one metre 60 cm altitude difference," said Waechter. The snow, however, allows the slope to be partly levelled out by 30 cm (one foot).

The problem comes when there is not enough snow, like three years ago, recalled Waechter.

Organisers then had to truck in 137 lorries of the white stuff to fill the pitch. "That was close. This year was close too," he said.

But efforts to create the pitch in mid-December paid off, noted Waechter, as rain did not damage the layers of compacted snow too much.

"Now it's perfect, we never had such a perfect pitch," he said.

While the ponies have no problem in adapting to the cold, some need a few days to adjust to the snow, said Waechter. "The first time they see snow, they'd be careful. Most need about 10-15 minutes and they are adapted," he said.

They are fitted with special snow shoes with a plastic inside shoe "so the snow doesn't stick," with studs in the front and back to give them better grip.

The outdoor pitch in the centre of the village has also helped attract locals.

One Brazilian horse-lover, who spends time in Klosters every winter, said she is delighted by the spectacle. "I adore horses. I have two horses in Brazil so I ride a lot. So now the combination of horses and snow, it's perfect. And we live on the edge of the pitch," added the onlooker, who declined to be named.

Beyond the horse lovers, it also gives others who have never seen a game a chance to experience it.

If summer polo is often a chic affair with obligatory hats for the ladies, the Berenberg tournament has no dress code.

"We have tried to bring the sport more to the public. So there is no dress code, we don't care what people are wearing. It's all casual and that's the way it should be," said Waechter. "Polo is a fascinating sport even if you don't play it. It's like car racing but how many people can afford to race cars? Nonethless everybody loves it and that's the way it should be with polo."

Despite the growing popularity -- paying guests have grown from around 5,000 in the beginning to about 9,000 now -- Waechter said it is not a money-making venture.

Nevertheless, he hopes that the British royals, who are regulars in the village over winter, might join in.

"We know that they watched it a couple of years ago and they liked it very much. It would be a dream come true if they played here," said Waechter."William spent his holidays here and we were just building up the arena. He watched us building it up and he actually said to one of his bodyguards 'well one day I want to play here.'

"So you never know. They are certainly welcome to play here," he added.