Mahnum Khan has been playing polo since 2014, when Marcus Hancock, an accomplished player from England, visited to coach and she was part of the three-month polo academy.
She has played and trained under Matias De Olmos, a distinguished player and coach from Argentina. She just finished her A-levels and is applying to universities which have well established polo clubs so she can continue to play inter collegiate tournaments at university level. Dawn caught up with her to talk about the future of polo in Pakistan and the challenges she faced playing the sport.
Q: What drew you to polo?
A: Many hesitate to play polo due to the risks involved but once you get into it, you will not back out. It is an addiction, a lifestyle. I played tennis for a year before I started riding and played golf with my dad as well. However, the thrill of riding a horse is unmatched. Riding and polo is all about learning, challenging yourself and having fun with people with the same passion.
I now have the opportunity to represent female polo players in sports with three other athletes, including Asmara from football, Fatima from skiing and Noreena from squash at a Serena Sports Diplomacy event in order to convey the message that girls can also set high standards in sports.
Q: Did you face any challenges in pursuing sports and for that matter a sport like polo?
A: I think that girls and women around the world face unique challenges when participating in sports, ranging from personal to economic, political and cultural.
Though I received a lot of love and support from family and friends, I did face challenges. My wearing a scarf was a point of contention and would get asked every day how I play polo in a hijab. Riding is considered an inappropriate activity for girls and in Pakistan, polo is a male dominated sport. We have eight or nine girls at the polo club at present, which has challenged the perception that girls are not capable to take part in this sport.
Polo is a high risk sport and is unpredictable and you need to learn how to be in complete control while at the same time in complete surrender on a 1,200 pound animal, which has a mind of its own.
A year ago, I quit for over two months after a fall off my favourite thoroughbred, Jugnoo. I was on bed rest for three weeks and getting to the arena after two months was a challenge as well. I had lost my grip over the horse, and I was back to square one.
I had to undergo abdominal surgery in 2015 and was allowed to resume riding after four months, as riding required abdominal strength. This was a major setback for me as I had lost the hang of riding and my strength and fitness was nowhere near how it was before and I had to start all over again.
Q: Is Polo a sport with potential in Pakistan?
A: Polo originated in the subcontinent and was popular here before it was adopted by the British and then the world. In fact, Lahore was one of the first cities where polo was introduced. Pakistan has produced remarkable polo players who have played on the international level including Hissam Ali Haider and Hamza Mawaz.
Polo has been popular in Lahore and Rawalpindi for years. A very niche community plays and watches polo, since its an expensive sport. Unlike most other polo clubs in the country, the Islamabad Polo Club has picked pace since its establishment just three years ago and holds tournaments in which players from across the country participate.
With the facilities available at the Islamabad Polo Club, we hope more and more young people will join the sport, especially girls.
Polo has great potential in Pakistan and its popularity will continue to increase in the capital as promising polo players are likely to emerge from various polo academies, provided the high quality of coaching is sustained.
Published in Dawn January 5th, 2017