Story by Sofya Khizhik / Photos by Sofya and Dmytry Khizhik
In Russia, polo couldn’t exactly be considered widely popular. After a nearly 100-year absence during the communist party’s dominance, the Moscow Polo Club reopened and re-introduced the sport of polo to Russia in 2003.
The Moscow Polo Club, by far the country’s most-popular locality for passionate polo people in the capital, is in no way inferior to the best venues in the world. This Russian polo oasis is one of an exclusive handful of clubs in the world that also hosts a snow polo season.
Under the leadership of its owner and president, Alexis Rodzianko, the Moscow Polo Club is making an incredible contribution to the resurgent development of polo in Russia. His son, Misha Rodzianko, is one of the top polo players in Russia and also manages the club’s affairs as its director.
Polo Lifestyles’ Geneva-based contributor, Sofya Khizhik, spoke to Misha after one of the season’s main events and to discover more about polo in Russia.
SK: “Polo Lifestyles” readers aren’t very familiar with Russian polo at the moment. In Russia, there have been no polo clubs for a very long time, and it is particularly curious how did you establish this polo club?
MR: Well, we were one of the first members of the Moscow Polo Club. Moreover, creating this first Moscow Polo Club wasn’t our idea, even more than that, we had very little to do with horses. For us everything started with my younger sibling. The year before the Polo Club appeared in Moscow, my sister fell in love with horses and started begging our dad for riding lessons. Of course, he couldn’t resist and he started driving her to those lessons. Later, the trainers there managed to persuade him to get on a horse, too.
They attempted to draw me into it, too, but at 13-years-old, hockey seemed to be way more interesting, more adrenaline-filled. I thought back then that horses weren’t really my thing.
Then a year later, an acquaintance of my father from the financial world received a request for sponsorship from the Moscow Polo Club. At that time, my Dad was chairman of the board at Deutschebank, which was already sponsoring a team in Argentina. And polo fit in with them, so they became official sponsors for the newborn Moscow Polo Club. As the main sponsor’s family, we were invited to the club and I remember this day particularly well. We came there right after church and I was still wearing church clothes, in sum - an outfit that had nothing to do with horses. Nevertheless, I found myself on a horse and they gave me a stick. I fell off that horse about seven times during that day.
This time, the sport seemed more attractive to me, due to the team sport excitement. Together with Argentine riders, I took the horses for a ride after school and I found a strong desire to learn and make progress.
SK: I admire how, with age, it slowly but surely turned into a professional hobby. At the very beginning of the Polo Club process, what is the most important: finding like-minded people or sponsors? What is your opinion about this?
MR: Finding like-minded people and confident and adequate sponsors are both key. Both are important, both are primordial. A few years after its creation, the Polo Club was overtaken by the first crisis. The very enthusiastic founder quarreled with money. My dad received an offer to buy out the club, as at that time, almost half of the polo club members were from our family: me, my brother, my younger sister and, of course, my father. We were our own team.
During the two years after my dad bought the club out, we became more engaged in polo. Most of the players at that time were expats, who already had an experience playing abroad before Russia. Talk about like-minded people, people who are as passionate with this sport. They are, of course, one of the key elements, without which there can be no development.
But the sponsor and patron are mandatory characters for the stability of any Polo Club. Two years after we took over the lead, the Polo Club endured another crisis in 2005, which unfortunately wasn’t the last. We went through various situations, the government attempted to sue us under a pretext that we were enriching ourselves at the expense of the state.
It was quite a challenging time here in Tseleevo, but the club was always saved by the fact that my father treated this matter with love, passion and understanding. Even when there were only me, my father and two grooms continuing the trainings, we never delayed payments for hay, rent and the main necessities. In my opinion, today, after a significant number of challenging moments, we finally reached a level of flourishing. There are more and more people getting involved into this royal sport in Russia. There’s more interest in playing, in horse commerce, in importing horses with potential.
SK: You are breeding your own horses, but also buying horses abroad. What are the main traits and characteristics you are paying attention to when choosing a next polo pony star for yourself or for the members of your team?
MR: When choosing horses, all the requirements depend on the person who will be working with this horse. But in sum, the most important in any horse is a good temperament, smooth head and safety. Because horses that are not adequate, even if they are super athletes, will only cause problems, not only on the field but also in everyday life. We have already crossed paths with such horses and it is much easier without them.
SK: I can agree with that, too much “blood” in horse’s temperament can sometimes be a hard issue to handle, especially in a team sport when all the horses are turning on each other.
MR: When talking about our own breeding, it’s now a new thing in our club, but I’ve become much more serious about in the past five years. Now people are starting to wait for my foals until they’re born. Genetics are very important. Most of our foaling mares take their origins from Argentina. They are ex-athletes who stopped playing due to multiple reasons, such as long-term healing injuries for example.
Nowadays, Moscow Polo Club is home to over 70 polo ponies. There we can find a range of excellent horses imported from Argentina, Europe and USA. We use this fine imported stock to be the first polo horse breeding organization in Russia. Russian horse breeds, such as the Akhal-Teke’s of Turkmenistan and Karachaevsky horses, trained at the club, have already proven themselves as high level polo ponies.
SK: The pandemic that has turned the world upside down since 2019. How was the polo club’s life affected?
MR: In 2019, we played an exclusive Russian Championship on 12 goals. I invited my friend Nacho Badiola who came to Moscow together with Sapo Caset. It was unforgettable and inspiring to see players of this magnitude here, among our club members. Right after the pandemic crashed a lot of plans and made it unrealistic to invite international polo masters. Due to this we’ve been mainly playing inside-competitions with each other. In a certain way it has been an enriching experience. I have given a lot of classes myself and I think that for a lot of riders it is easier to receive information in their native language.
SK: Ironically during the last two years of the pandemic the number of polo players at Moscow Polo Club has significantly increased!
MR: I truly believe we will see a large number of new Russian professional players and teams on the competition field soon!
SK: During the pandemic how did you work to progress within the team, as after all, progress is achieved through competitiveness and new acquaintances.
MR: There is always something to work on in your self-organization. We have a lot of horses, some of which I must work myself. Thanks to this I gained a good physical shape and developed more bond with my horses. We had to give more riding lessons and do more unusual work with polo ponies. Instead of 15 minutes intense work routinely, for example, I started to take some of the most difficult horses on walks for an hour. Riding during this pandemic forced us to bring more variety to our trainings. Since I started giving more lessons, I noticed that when you teach a lot, you start to spot more mistakes that you yourself make, and think more about how we ride, compared to when you’re just competing.
Through this, my technique also improved and established some goals to achieve to make my body more in shape for the game. The pandemic gave us a moment to pay more attention to small things and corrections that need to be made.
SK: When the sanitary situation improved in Europe, Moscow Polo Club had an opportunity to participate in the inaugural POLO RIDER CUP hosted by Chantilly Polo Club in France. The Russian team made their international level debuts with a lineup comprising two Russians and two Frenchmen at 10-12 goals handicap.
MR: This year, with difficulty, we managed to “escape” to Chantilly, which was a very fulfilling experience for us and our patron. Despite the fact that he has been playing polo for a long time, this was the first time that he has presented a team on the international stage. We weren’t the strongest team, nevertheless through this tournament we have learned our mistakes and aspects to improve, plus we finally met up with the level we need to prepare for.
SK: You had an experience to visit different international and European Polo Clubs. Which polo club took a special place in your heart?
MR: Well, there are many clubs that I appreciate, each is special in its own way. Chantilly’s location still remains one of my favorites. I really enjoy its format and scale, and the infrastructure that welcomes so many polo athletes. The one I would highlight with no doubt, is Campo Argentino de Polo, the one in Palermo, definitely the Polo Cathedral. I also look up to International Polo Club in Wellington, Fla., and the Guards Polo Club in England. Grandiose-scale clubs are impressive but the small ones are inspiring as well. For example, there is a private Argentinian club, La Picasso, which aims at the highest sport level possible. There are four of the most beautiful fields, a small cozy club house, and the owner lives on the property. Everything there is as it should be: breeding, training and professionals of a good level in a home-like atmosphere. That’s where I’m aiming. At the same time, I understand that there’s a necessity in Russian Polo sport for a club that resembles more to Chantilly.
SK: In your case, the equestrian sport is a family affair, and for many, working with family can be difficult. How do you manage to work comfortably and to juggle between family relationships, business and sports all united in one?
MR: Of course, you meet difficulties when working within the family, but at the same time, it seems to me that the support and understanding that you can get from your family – can be found nowhere else. Especially in our history here, where we did everything from scratch. We had no neighbor here to ask for advice or borrow some piece of equipment. None of this would exist if we wouldn’t have worked together with our family. This year, my wife took on her shoulders everything concerning the event and tournament organization. When she took over the guest part management, she made my life much easier. Despite the duties with children, I think that she really enjoys her new role.
SK: When did your father pass the direction of the club to you?
MR: In 2013 I graduated from University, I thought I would leave Russia and head to Wellington in America. We discussed with my dad who told me that if I leave, he will be alone with this stable, and it would be better to sell it out and try reorganizing in the USA. At that moment the Polo Club had already existed with us for many years and by that time and we had invested a lot of money and effort into it, and somehow I did not want to see it all fall apart. So, I decided that I would try to do something about it on my own and now it’s already the 13th year since I have been running the club.
Of course, in the beginning my dad was guiding me a little bit which indeed was needed due to my inexperience in both management and work there. Now my father comes to play, like one of the club members.
SK: As a professional polo player, what do you think are the five main traits of character that are primordial to succeed in polo?
MR: In my opinion the first and most important is a realistic understanding of the risk. Because a person who does not take risks at all, his life will be boring, and a person who understands how to take risks correctly, can definitely find his way in polo. Because this is a particularly dangerous sport, even though everyone makes efforts for safety. But still if you want to get the first to the ball you have to take risks sometimes.
For the second important point I would say that people getting involved with polo should have a lot of free time that they will be ready to completely dedicate to this sport. People give their best in different ways: someone distributes the work very well and can easily organize their time, whereas others always end up being late for half hour, then an hour and then never come. Polo requires proper time management. Believe me, this subject is also tied with respect to the sport as well as to the other players.
I would say respect as a third necessary trait. Also, the balance is important: effort balance. Something aiming to give our best we aim to go faster and hit stronger, but if you look at the best players’ technique, the objective is to achieve the maximum with minimal effort or both you and your horses. It’s not about force, it is about smoothness and technique. During the first 10 years of my career, my main issue was that I was always trying to do everything as fast as I could and as strong as possible. Now I realize that strength and speed aren’t always your best tools, they make you very predictable.
The last character trait to highlight would be the ability to work in team. In polo, the winner doesn’t have to be the best, but you need to be better at playing as a team than the competitor team members. No matter what level professional you meet, one player can never drag down the whole team. That’s why the ability to control your emotions in the relationships of other members of the club, is critical. It is very important for the captain to understand the strengths and weaknesses, what can be expected from the player and how to motivate him up so that he shows the maximum result. Because if you shout and denigrate your players, they will only play worse. Sometimes when the game is right on the line and you need to get together as a team to score this last goal in the last 30 seconds– this is done at the expense of positive energy, and not at the expense of self-control loss.
SK: On the opposite, what are the character traits that you have to eradicate in order to reach this professional level in this game?
MR: Fear is the worst enemy. Fear is often irrational and leads to pinching. When you are all crisped and pinched it is impossible to feel your horse, nor see the game and other players. The most offensive thing is that usually people who experience this, earned this fear because someone stupidly put them on a horse of an unsuitable level, or didn’t explain well enough how to act in various situations. This leads riders to lose the ability to relax and enjoy the process of the training or the game.
SK: Absolutely, it is very difficult to gain back confidence in ourselves and believe that this time will not be all bad. It is much easier to teach correctly from the beginning than to retrain and relearn. Unfortunately, this is a very common situation all around the equestrian world and disciplines. What distinguishes your polo club from others? What is your particularity?
MR: Above all I think that our Polo Club is unique and presents a real oasis for riders as well as horses. We have world-class fields. I can proudly say that we have one of the best fields in the world.
Moscow Polo Club is situated on a 32-hectare property, which boasts two impeccably kept regulation-size polo fields designed by Alejandro Battro, one practice field and an outdoor arena with a one-kilometer exercise track. We have always strove to meet the highest international standards and today our playing fields are among the top fields in Europe.
The building process is worth a whole story, because in Russia construction never goes right as planned. We had to reassemble our underground aeration system several times. But it definitely wasn’t in vain! Now it’s been 11 years since we built the actual fields and with the appropriate care and sanding, they are providing us with an incredible training platform. This high quality supports our mission to develop the sport of polo, train new players and expand on the breeding and training of polo horses in Russia.
Polo really is a sport that can be enjoyed by anyone, as the speed, skill and courage that players demonstrate on the field makes for the most exciting leisure pursuit in the world. I sincerely hope that polo will become a popular sport in Russia, not only among players but also for spectators!