When the school year kicks into high gear in September, four students at the Sotogrande (Spain) International School will split their schedules between classroom time in the mornings and polo school in the afternoons. These four will compose the first class of the Sotogrande Polo Academy, or S.P.A. for short.
S.P.A. is the vision of Christian Byrne, a second-generation Sotogrande expatriate whose family has visited and invested in the local area for decades. Sotogrande Polo Valley, an exclusive polo community and resort, hosts the S.P.A. on 100 acres with three polo fields, 150 stalls, three on-site coaches, eight pros and grooms, four concierges, five groundskeepers and 70 horses, all developed by Christian in the last six years.
It’s fitting that Christian has chosen Sotogrande as the center for the S.P.A. since it was here where he learned to ride and play polo as a teenager. “I’ve been coming to Sotogrande for years and years,” he said in a telephone interview with Polo Lifestyles. “I took my first polo lesson here in Sotogrande when I was 14 years old.”
From there, he spent a year in Argentina, living and learning about the sport, but also the business around it. He returned to the United Kingdom, but quickly settled into the Andalusian countryside of Sotogrande, where he started by renting a small ranch and acquiring horses when he was only 23 years old.
“There are over 300 days of sunshine in Sotogrande,” he said, beaming through the telephone. “The lifestyle element – golf, tennis, sailing, polo – is all at your fingertips. Outdoor activities call for sunshine and Sotogrande’s geography happily provides that.”
Byrne’s dream for the S.P.A. grew from a desire to make polo more accessible, outside of the nearly impenetrable polo communities that exist within different geographic pockets. “The biggest feedback we received when we started talking to families about the program was that polo was far too difficult to access, so it wasn’t really being considered as an option, even within equestrian families,” he said. Byrne spoke to over 25 families interested in the fall term with the S.P.A. before narrowing the selection of inaugural students to four (as of press time). “We feel that the program, as it’s staffed right now, can really accommodate up to eight students. At that number, we can give the attention and focus necessary to start grooming polo players,” Byrne said.
The schedule calls for a morning of classes at the Sotogrande International School, followed by four hours of training at the S.P.A. in the afternoons. “To get to be a three-goal player by the age of, say, 14, you need to be riding every day. This program is focused on that, but also very high standard of service with a family-oriented, down-to-earth basis.”
This term’s classmates range from 13 to 16 years old and come from Switzerland, Spain and Russia. In addition to school and training at the S.P.A. they – along with their parents – will have access to the networking that makes Sotogrande so attractive.
“We attract a pretty interesting array of polo personalities here in Sotogrande – from Middle Eastern sheiks to Argentine high-goalers,” Byrne said. “Plus, we will start bringing in other youth teams eventually to play chukkers and matches against our S.P.A. Team.”