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Firmly In The Saddle

Nothing can easily throw this man off his saddle, especially not when it comes to polo. Thomas Winter is the only German who has ever reached handicap +5. And he’s not just successful in Europe, but also in international tournaments in countries like Argentina, Mexico, the USA, or Thailand. His commitment to polo is multifaceted, with youth work being particularly close to his heart.

Das Gespräch führte Ruth Eberhardt, Photos By Iris Winter.

Mr Winter, you’re the best German polo player. Rumour even has it that you’re the only German polo player who’s competitive on the international stage. What does it take to get anywhere near as far?
It’s very important to start early and ride a lot – in all situations and with different horses. It’s all about accumulating plenty of basic knowledge and experience in dealing with horses. A bit of talent in ball sports would also be helpful. And finally, you should be able to keep track of everything that’s happening on the polo field.

There’s certainly more to it in your case. What’s the secret behind your personal success?
I was fortunate enough that my mother was a riding instructor. She taught me to ride at the age of three. I first came into contact with polo as a five-year-old, when my father, who used to be a show jumper, switched to polo. He used to take me to training sessions and matches. I started playing polo myself at the age of eight. It takes a certain degree of physical maturity to ride and handle the mallet at the same time.

At the time, your family was still in Africa. What happened afterwards?
When I was ten, we moved to Germany. My father discovered a polo club in Hamburg. I got to play my first tournament at the age of 16. And then, one thing came after the other. I found my polo mentor in coffee entrepreneur, horse lover, and polo fan Albert Darboven. I was lucky enough to have had the opportunity to train for him and with him. This also meant that I was riding excellent horses. That’s basically how my breakthrough started. One of the highlights of my career was winning the title of European Vice Champion with my team – Gerd Hölter, and Sven and Jürgen Schneider – in 1994, with whom I had also participated in the qualifying rounds for the World Cup.

That was a long time ago…
That’s true. Since 2001, I’ve been playing with the highest handicap any German has ever had: handicap +5. But that means that I can no longer participate in the European Championships. In 2016 I was demoted to handicap +4. I’ve been playing almost everywhere in the world since, but I haven’t been to Australia and New Zealand yet.

Your life and your family history sound very cosmopolitan. Where do you feel at home – throughout the world or in Hamburg?
Hamburg is my primary home. But meanwhile I also feel at home in Argentina. I travel to this beautiful country two or three times a year. It’s the epicentre of polo. The world’s best players and breeding horses can be found in Argentina.

About Thomas Winter:
Thomas Winter was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1968 and lived there with his family (his Danish mother Lena, his German father Klaus, and his two younger brothers Oliver “Nolly” and Christopher “Niffy” Winter) until 1977. After graduating from high school in Hamburg, Thomas completed an apprenticeship as an energy systems engineer, followed by a university degree in Business Administration. A few years later, he took over the management of Hamburger Pologestüt, a breeding farm for polo horses, where he also runs his polo school.
Since 1989 up until today, Thomas Winter won numerous German Low Goal, Medium Goal and High Goal (highest category) polo championships, as well as the title of European Vice Champion (1994). He has been playing international tournaments with the highest German handicap of +5 since 2001 (until 2016). In 2001, he was captain of the German national team in cycle polo (5th place). In 2002, he became World Champion in elephant polo together with his brothers.
In England, Thomas Winter achieved the highest trainer status in polo, the HPA Qualified Coach Standard of the English Polo Association. In addition, he’s in high demand as a “Grade A”-qualified referee. In 2016, he coached the German national team for the European Championship, where it came third. He’s also involved in breeding polo horses. His main focus these days is on supporting youth work in German polo.

Listening to your stories, I get the impression that you spend most of your time on the back of a horse?
You have a point there. When I go riding, I easily spend four or five hours a day on a horse. On average, that’s two to three hours a day per year. To keep fit during the winter, I play ice hockey.

What do you find so fascinating about polo?
One of the biggest challenges in polo is to form a unit between man and horse – without physical action. The horse is basically the extension of my legs. What’s more, it’s a very versatile sport: it requires skill and speed, and it’s both a ball sport, a team sport, an equestrian sport, and an outdoor sport. You won’t find that anywhere else.