From Lusaka to Edinburgh: A Polo Journey

Zambia U21 polo captain Jamie Henderson sits down with Ross Sanderson to talk all things horse polo, captaining his country, and setting his sights on a new challenge of playing the game here in the UK.

Introduction into the article

Although born in South Africa, Jamie Henderson and his family have lived in Zambia his entire life. Growing up with a love for horses, Jamie quickly got involved with the sport that was on offer around him. “I mainly started with show-jumping when I was younger, but a mate said to me that I should come along and play at the polo field just along the road from my house and so I went along, borrowed a horse and have been hooked ever since,” he explained.  

(Jamie’s early days of playing polo)

Jamie went to school in Zambia until the age of 15 when he moved to boarding school in Edinburgh. During his time in the Scottish capital, Jamie played cricket, football and rugby, all to a high level, but still, his passion for the game of polo never left him. “It is a very exciting and fast-paced sport which is very addictive. It’s also mostly based on the horses you ride. People say that polo is 80% horse and 20% player skill so in that way its very dependent on the horses, not just the player and the team itself.” 

Over time, Jamie not only fell in love with the game on the field but fell in love with it off the field too. Polo is a highly competitive sport but is also one that is very socially inclusive and welcoming. “People that play are very friendly because when you travel you don’t normally take your own horses so you need to borrow other peoples and look after them so in that way everyone is normally so welcoming in polo communities, Jamie said.

“Also because it’s not such a huge sport around the world, a lot of people know each other through polo. If you go to South Africa for example, someone there will probably know someone from Kenya that you’ve met as well so its quite a nice tight-knit community, which is very comforting.”

After just four years of playing, and at only 14 years old, Jamie was recruited for the Zambia U21 side to play in a home match against South Africa: “It was a fun experience getting to play with an older crowd which then led me into the Zambia team for the years to come. We had one of the top players from South Africa playing against us who was a 3 handicap player when our highest handicap player was a 1 so it was a challenging side that came down.” 

(Zambia U21 side team talk before playing Kenya in 2017)

From there, Jamie flourished as one of the most exciting prospects in Zambian polo and his performances as a young teenager continued to impress the international coaches. In late 2017, his hard work paid off when he was named as captain of the U21 side or Kenya’s tour of Zambia. “I was quite nervous to be fair because captaining your country comes with a lot of pressure placed on you to play well and lead by example but I was very excited because it’s an honour and privilege.”

In the dying seconds of the game, Jamie stepped up and slotted a late penalty to win the tournament by just a point, and bring the trophy back to home soil. “It was great especially because the year before, we went out to Kenya and we lost so when they came back to us it was a good feeling to beat them on home soil to kind of get one back on them,” he remembers.

Jamie’s younger sister, Gillian Henderson, has also played polo her whole life and their strong sibling relationship has played a vital role in the success of each other’s polo.

“Jamie started playing polo a few years before me and is actually the reason I started playing. Therefore, with regard to polo has always been a role model for me. He has always helped me and taught me right from the beginning,” Gillian said. 

“Seeing Jamie get better and move up on handicap has always made me push myself to become better. Since he’s my brother there’s always been that sibling rivalry between us. So when he gets better or people tell me how good he is, it just pushes me to better myself and hold my own against him. People always say I play better when I play against him as it brings out my competitiveness. Although I really do enjoy playing with him!”

Gillian has played numerous times for the U21s while Jamie has been captain, and says her older brother always “gets the best out of all of his team-mates.” 

(Zambia and Kenya U21 sides. Jamie – second-row second from the left and Gillian – second-row sixth from the left)

“Representing Zambia was definitely a highlight in my polo career. Jamie being captain in the first year I made the team made it even more special and gave me the confidence I needed to play the best I could. Since Jambo and I practice/play together a lot we know exactly how the other player plays and can often anticipate what the other will do without saying it. This made for an even better team.”

“He’s a very encouraging player. He doesn’t need to be the glory man. Jamie makes everyone come together and play as a team, he has confidence in us and never makes anyone feel like they shouldn’t be there or that they are any less important. He rarely gets heated on the field and keeps a calm head even when things aren’t going the teams way.”

“Jamie was very instrumental in helping the Zambian side beat Kenya. Not only because he was a great captain and got the best out of the team, but he himself also played extremely well.”

Now at Edinburgh University, Jamie hopes he can bring the talent he has nurtured in Africa over here to the UK and challenge himself on an even higher level. 

“In Zambia and Kenya, it is mostly amateur which means everyone owns their own horses and pays their own way to play whereas in the UK it’s a lot more professional.”

“Honestly I just want to keep taking it as it comes and try and get better and better as a polo player. I can’t imagine I’ll be going professional because I don’t think it would be very sustainable, but definitely just want to keep increasing my talents and hopefully continue to represent Zambia later on in life.”