Flying horses

Bernhard Niederhammer is a keen polo player. His ponies come from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Lufthansa Cargo transports them to Germany

The horse charges across the field at full gallop. Its rider is leaning so far forward that he’s almost lying on the animal’s back. He holds the reins in his left hand and the polo mallet in his right, with eyes fixed on his opponent all the time. And on the ball, which flies over the playing field that is 270 meters long and 180 meters wide. The rider intercepts the ball’s trajectory and regains it from the opposing team. His pony stops abruptly, turns within seconds, and gallops towards the goal posts. After moving into the right position, the rider swings his mallet and strikes the ball perfectly. It soars beneath the neck of the opponent’s horse in a high arc – straight into the goal. “Shots like these, when I surpass myself, make polo what it is for me. Not the winning or the prize money,” explains Bernhard Niederhammer. The man from Munich discovered his passion for playing polo during a trip to Hawaii in 1993. The horse lover was captivated by the fast sport.

Seven years later, he started to take a closer look at polo – and began searching for suitable ponies. He found them in South America. The spirited criollos with their relatively small stature are excellently suited for the game. They are mainly at home in Argentina and Uruguay, where they are used for cattle driving. “Polo is all about the perfect interplay between horse and rider. If you no longer have to concentrate on the horse while you’re playing, then it’s exactly the right one,” says Niederhammer. He brought the first two ponies from Uruguay back with him to Germany in 2003.

Today, nine criollos stand in his stable at Lake Chiemsee, with such exotic names as “Pampa Opera”, “Aragan Cash” and “Carancho TomTom”. Only recently, he was in South America to look for new mounts and to play polo. “Pilar and Lobos are the polo cities in Argentina. The playing fields there are marvelous and the grass is exactly three centimeters high and as compact as a plush carpet,” enthuses the 49-year-old, who works as a freelance IT expert for corporations like Siemens and Telefonica. When Niederhammer is not working he can be found on the polo field, at the paddock, or on the Chiemsee gallop track – at least when he’s in Germany. He trains his horses himself and even breaks them in. “Only when starting, stopping, and turning have become second nature to the horses can you pick up a polo mallet,” he explains.

It takes one to two years of training before Niederhammer rides them in polo matches. The animals also enjoy it. “In show jumping and eventing the horses have to complete a predefined course. In polo, on the other hand, they can really show pace in the herd, and that’s much more exciting for them.” To make sure that they can endure the sprints, during which they reach speeds of up to 45 kilometers per hour, throughout the match, Niederhammer trains their stamina and muscle building.

Personal grooms, professional handling

Niederhammer also meticulously prepares the criollos for the flights from South America to Germany. “Such a long-haul flight is strenuous for horses, yet essentially unproblematic if they are healthy,” he says. He has had animals flown from Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay to Frankfurt/Main – and he was the personal groom on every flight. “Such a journey can easily take 48 hours. So I prefer to personally keep a close eye on my ponies,” he says. By the time the four-legged polo players are in the special transport containers at the airport they have usually travelled hundreds of kilometres on the road. The containers, measuring 2.40 by 3.15 meters for three horses, are windowless to prevent the animals from becoming skittish. The light metal walls and the ceiling are padded, the floor is covered with non-slip rubber, the chest bar is made of foam rubber and plastic, and there is a plastic protector at the front. “The animals are closely tethered with a rope during take-off, that’s safer,” says Niederhammer.

During the flight, he regularly visits the container, checking whether the horses are drinking enough and whether there is a sufficient amount of hay. He only takes a seat and fastens his seat belt in the passenger cabin during take-off and
when landing. “I always fly with Lufthansa Cargo. The pilots are outstandingly qualified, the crew is very helpful, and the animals are also given first-class, professional handling on the ground,” explains Niederhammer. This begins with the fact that horse containers are loaded directly over the wings of the cargo aircraft, as this is the most steady section. In addition, the pilots coordinate the humidity and temperature with him. “Before the intermediate stop in Dakar the crew lets cold air enter the cargo hold. The cold air prevents the horses from overheating.”

About six hours later the aircraft arrives at Frankfurt Airport. The ponies are taken to the Animal Lounge there and thus to one of the world’s most modern animal stations. On an area of approximately 4,000 square meters it houses, among other things, 42 spacious horse stables in different sections. As soon as veterinarian clearance has been given for onward transportation the ponies begin the last part of the journey to their new home: they are transported to Lake Chiemsee. Niederhammer: “On arrival there, they are taken to the paddock, given feed and water and are able to relax.”