Inspired by his dedication to living out his passion in life, we are here with Uwe Zimmerman, a sportsman, family man and businessman.
First, we just want to say thank you so much for having us. I am so delighted and honored. I love Budapest. It used to be home and I think it could become my second home again.
It would be a good choice. It’s a good place, very positive. With the improved infrastructure of the highway, the bus, or train, it takes just a few hours to get here from Vienna and it is inexpensive, as well. You can come for the weekends with your family.
Absolutely! FabL’Style is fascinated by the history of Polo. It is one of the most ancient team sports in the world as it dates back to before Christ. It was often played by nobility, the kings and nobles of Persia, as well as the women; and so it is today. How has the sport evolved?
You know the sport has enjoyed a large development in the past 20-25 years since I started. It became very fashionable because of the sponsors and of course certain celebrities related to the sport, for example Sylvester Stallone and Tommy Lee Jones are Polo players themselves. Of course, the British royal family helped a lot to promote the sport and make it more visible. I have to say it isn’t on the up side anymore; its stabilizing or maybe even going down a bit in popularity, due to the commitment. People have realized how much it has to do with the social environment, as well. Not everyone is ready to spend a lot of time or money. Look at young people today; they have so many options, my sons included. They like to play Polo and enjoy it very much, but there are so many choices. One can do ten different things every day and there is so much to choose from. So, at the end of the day, it is about what is most important to you. It is very hard to find someone who trains 3-4 times a week and you have to have a large infrastructure, which is related to manpower. To find people to maintain the fields, etc. It isn’t so easy. It is still a fantastic sport and it’s unique. Tennis started out similar, and golf too, but Polo will never become a public sport, because the commitment is so enormous for people. You have to have the time for it and the understanding.
So you believe we should do things that are unique because of their uniqueness?
Nowadays, through globalization you can find things to do everywhere. You don’t need to travel anymore to buy Levis jeans from the United States or clothing from Italy. There should still be some things unique and difficult to get to. It is one of the few things left that isn’t open to everyone.
Argentina is credited globally as the capitol of Polo. Why is that so since it isn’t the origin of the sport?
They have very fruitful soil. Polo came to Argentina in the early 19th century because the English engineers who built the Argentine took the sport from England to Argentina. And of course Argentina is well known for a lot of open landscape. They also look after their land agriculturally. People had much time and open space and were skilled in horse riding. Now, Argentina has the best Polo fields, tournaments, and players from all over the world. It is fantastic, but it’s an industry.
I always thought of Argentina as having good steak, tango, soccer, and of course, Polo. I didn’t think of it as being the capitol of Polo though, because it didn’t originate from there. How has Hungary embraced the sport?
Hungary had a long tradition of Polo before World War II. It was one of the largest Polo nations in Europe. It had 16 different Polo clubs, with one of them being on Margaret Island, which is now a swimming pool. So World War II changed things and Polo died in Hungary. It was not allowed or welcome because it was an aristocratic sport. But Hungary remained a horse nation. So, after the economical shift during the ’80s and early ’90s there was an initiative to reinstate Polo through the foreign ambassadors coming into the country. There was a very small group of us in 1993, some from Argentina and some from the Netherlands. It developed slowly and now we have four operations of Polo clubs in the country, at a good level. We already have close to one hundred horses in the country and young people coming to play, which is very nice. Polo has always had something to do with the social environment. Now after doing this for more than 20 years, one can see that the country is really ready for it. They define themselves by what kinds of sports are being played. Hungary was always an equestrian nation. On the 28th of July we will have a promotional day of Polo, to show the people something many don’t even know about. It’s a big secret.
That takes us back to you coming over to re-introduce Polo. What attracted you to Budapest or Hungary in general?
Well, I came over in the early 1990s during the time of privatization to run an Italian company here in Hungary. Myself, having come from Eastern Europe, it was not an easy decision to relocate after escaping Eastern Germany. I thought of Paris or New York because I enjoy very much the developing markets, but the job that I was offered was very promising and interesting, so I decided to come to Hungary. I also thought of myself as a pioneer and I wanted to start something from scratch. Normally you get into a market to fight for a market share. With this opportunity there was a large percentage to develop in the right direction. In 2000, I sold my share and went into a sort of semi retirement, working then with smaller businesses, as well. Of course, I also met my wife here and my base is here. My boys went to school here.
Would you say you found your dream destination here?
You know, you have to adjust yourself to what you have and deal with the circumstances. There were difficult times and there wasn’t a lot available here in the 1990’s. It was a lot harder to attain what you could in Western Europe back then, but there were a lot of opportunities to build something up. I am very grateful to the people of Hungary and those who supported me back then. I’m a cosmopolitan. I also live in Switzerland and travel between here and there, so I also consider Budapest as my second home.
Ah, a very International lifestyle! How where you first introduced to Polo?
I had always been doing equestrian sport in a light way for fun. I was introduced to Polo by having been invited to a match. There were such beautiful horses and more important such beautiful women. I thought, that is my sport! Let me play that sport! It is one of the few equestrian sports that you can play with a team. There are players with different ages, sexes, and nationalities, even legions, all playing together. It is also a very elite sport. There are only 15,000 Polo players around the world. If you play as I do, you know a lot of them. From Ecuador to India you can make a call and meet up for a game. It’s a very nice network. I made friends for life through Polo. Its very international and an open door society from sport to business to private life.
So, it opens many doors to opportunities and a great vibe?
Yes, but you have to be able to afford this sport. But you also have to have the guts to get out and play. It is a very dangerous sport. It can be very rough and very fast. There can be serious accidents. You have to be very careful and know what you’re doing. You have to be fit and mentally prepared to play this sport and be ready to make compromises, which you might not like but only a few people can play at a time. When you make friends in Polo however, they are for life.
You are a father of two sons who also play Polo, are they playing just for fun or also in tournaments, as well?
They played in a lot of tournaments around the world, together with me. We are one of the few family teams in Europe, at a very good level, but I hope they are mainly playing for fun. It’s a good way to express yourself on the one hand and it also shows your individual skills. One must take care of the horses and the employees and oneself. It doesn’t take much for one to fall off of the horse if the saddle isn’t put on correctly and you have to trust each other. You have to have focus and double check, always. You can’t go out every night till 4 o’clock and then just get up and play Polo.
Could you tell us more about your sons? What are they studying?
Yes, the older one just finished at a top university with a 1st honors degree in food engineering. The younger one is studying business and industrial management in Switzerland, Montréal.
Have their studies been effected by the Corona crisis?
My oldest is supposed to go to study for his PhD at Cornell, in New York, and that has been postponed. The younger one was supposed to be in Costa Rica now, but that too is to be continued. There are positive and negative aspects to Corona. It’s a gift to have them with us, all together. Normally kids at their age wouldn’t be hanging around so much with their parents.
The older they get, the less we see them.
Yes, they want their own lives now.
You are now also the Vice President of the European Polo Association. What does this position entail?
I was working on funding with Richard Drasche-Wartenberg, the President of the Polo Club Schloss Ebreichsdorf and Austrian Polo Association in the region to develop Polo and bring it back to it’s roots. Like I said before, Polo died out in this region after World War II. Polo wasn’t in Austria anymore, either. Now it is being developed again, not as a business, but for people who are interested in equestrian sports and most of all, to make it more visible.
When you ask most people what they know about Polo they say that they saw the movie Pretty Woman. That’s the only movie one thinks of in relation to Polo, which is very funny. Polo is much more than just Julia Roberts standing on the sidelines. Actually, it is a very elite sport but when you invite people to come to an event they are really potential clients, as well. There is also some entertainment involved which one cannot just enjoy everyday.
That is really interesting because you know FabL’Style is all about awareness and bringing things to light, exposing talent and expressing interest. In other sports, for example soccer, they have their kit with them when travelling. In Polo you have the players, the equipment, and on top of it, the horses to transport. It is a large entourage. How do the horses manage these journeys?
They get used to it. First of all, we have very comfortable horse trucks to carry them all, from here to Stockholm or Madrid. We use our own equipment for the horses and of course, in a respectful manner, with the whole family and employees to look after them. But overseas, you would fly them and this is very expensive with much paper work. Something very nice about Polo is that I know if I were to fly to Argentina, or to Canada, I would have many friends who could provide horses for me. If they were to come here to Europe they would use some of my horses, as well.
Ah, so I really thought it was a sport where the horse and the rider were inseparable.
It is, of course, more comfortable and better to have your own horses because you would know them much better. Basically, all the horses have the same training and basics. There is a bit of a difference in how the horses gallop and turn but you get used to this easily when you are more experienced.
How much care goes into taking care of these amazing creatures, in general?
It is 365 days a year, 7 days a week and 24 hours a day; there is really no break. I have to say, they have a nice life with only working 6 months out of the year. In October, the season is over and then they can enjoy the pasture. During the week they have 6 days of training, which is more of a cardio training and they need it. We have also have ball and stick training with them, so that we can stay fit. But the horses work only 15 minutes a day. I would say working 15 minutes a day, 6 months out of the year and sitting in the sun the rest of the time is a nice life. We really look after them. They are very beautiful and committed animals, very devoted and very close friends to us as well. On the other side, they are so expensive. You look out for them and safety is the most important thing in this sport.
This brings me to my next question. What is the relationship between a player and his horse?
Close. They are family and you have to have respect them. You expect an effort from the horse and you have a right to do so because they are bred for playing Polo. You have to look out for them because it’s a partnership. Don’t forget that 70% of the effort is from the horse in a Polo match.
Polo horses, are they bred the same as racing horses?
Yes, specially bred and they are called Polo ponies which is mainly a Criollo Argentina horse and thoroughbred as a racehorse. If you watch a tennis match from 20 years ago, in comparison to today, it is like it’s in slow motion. It is the same with any other sport or Polo; it’s all about speed. The speed has increased in the past 20 years because now the horses are faster. People want to make it even faster. This increases the risk of accidents and of course, more investment in the quality of the horse breeding, which helped the sport to develop and grow. When selected horses are used, this increases the market. That is why there is no serious Polo pony breeding in Europe, because it is much too expensive. I would say that 100 horses are needed to breed 20 top class horses. Then the others are sold or meat is produced, those are the options. This is why the costs are simply too high to breed in Europe. It is more common with countries like New Zealand, Australia, and the UK where they do something with horses on the side, mainly horse racing. Of course Argentina is producing the most Polo ponies. Every few years one must buy new horses because you need a fleet of them. A player has 3 or 4 and you keep rotating them. You buy them when they are 5 or 6 years old or a bit older, then they are more experienced and you keep them until they are 20 years old. Sometimes, until age 22, but this lowers the level of playing, of course, due to their age. Fresh blood is needed to keep the level of the sport. Many are kept to graze the pasture because, as I said, they are friends.
When they are 16-17 years, normally they are taken out of the game and something is done with them for children. People can play Polo much longer. Polo is very good for the mind; it’s a challenge and a very healthy sport.
When a horse is injured in a match, the match stops. But when a player is injured, it continues. What is the philosophy behind that?
The welfare of the horse comes first. Everything about the game was created to protect the horse, not the player. The rules are based on the horse first. If a horse is injured the game is stopped and if a player is injured then you might stop as well, depending on the injury. But in a competitive game, maybe not.
That brings us to the next question. Have you experienced any encounters with animal rights activists?
Yes, we had a time between 2004-2010 when there were a lot of discussions about doping in many sports. There were incidents where people had used doping of horses within the sport — to make them faster. The Federation of International Polo has cleared this though, creating very strict rules about using certain medications, so this isn’t an issue anymore. If I hear people say that Polo is very rough on the horses, I wonder what they would say about show jumping, where horses are kept in a type of box, every day and night, and are let out for an hour every day? Horses are animals of a herd. When they play Polo together, one can see how much they enjoy it. It is very natural. A horse by nature does not jump 6 meters high. Never. These types of funny dressage movements are not in the nature of horses. It is all training. They like to run straight, stop, and turn when they play with each other. When you see horses on a field, they play with each other and run with each other. So Polo is very close to their nature within the game.
I was fascinated watching the match yesterday. I looked at Polo with a different set of eyes after having read about it for this interview. As you said, when watched, the horses they seem to be having a lot of fun. They also seemed to have their own connection with each other. It was so amazing. I look forward to watching more — Polo is such a unique sport. What makes it so unique?
It is very selective. There are very few people playing, and it takes certain strength to play Polo. It is a life decision. It is nothing you put in the garage for ‘someday’, like one might do with expensive golf equipment. Polo is very different because of the horses and how they are kept. You have to maintain and train them. Even in bad weather, the horses are waiting for you. You need a blacksmith, they need to be groomed and fed. It is something to think about before you do it. If not, you may be cornered in the wrong direction. Sometimes the sport is underestimated. People see the beauty and the media and glamour and the players, but people sometimes don’t see the commitment and the need for a solid infrastructure. Time is even more important than money. Time is the issue.
Yes, you mentioned only seeing the glamour and the beautiful women earlier but I must say the gentleman are also quite handsome. Is this part of the experience?
Yes, I think so. The top players are from Argentina and are well known for being handsome. In Europe there are also good looking young men playing the game. One must be in good shape physically and mentally and it is an expression of oneself. It is the same in any other sport. Mattiäs Lothar was there yesterday. As you know he is one of the top soccer players in the world. He is 59 years old and super fit. He was running around and playing soccer with the kids and that is so important. You have to enjoy life. Simply find something for yourself that makes you enjoy life.
We all know that Polo wear and Polo equipment is very fashionable? Do you agree?
Yes, I can agree that all women love the boots and people know Polo because of Ralf Lauren. Companies like La Martina do wonderful promotions and create great items.
You all looked fabulous! We loved coming here, dressing up and being a part of the whole thing. Polo attracts the bold and the beautiful; socializing and networking is a part of the match. Why does fashion and luxury seem to surround the sport?
If you go to a large tournament in Santa Barbara or Palm Beach, The Coutie Company and the big companies in general, are all there. The women want to show off their beautiful dresses and its all lifestyle. Polo is aligned with beauty, lifestyle, vintage cars, and fantastic clothing and luxury foods. The whole thing is a package. It is not for everyone and what isn’t for everyone is more interesting to want to be a part of. Some try to make Polo more public, but I am against it. Not because I am a snob, but because I would like it to remain to be something special. A 6 or 7 star hotel is something unique and special. People enjoy special things in their lives. It is also unpredictable; people don’t know what to expect at a match.
Listening to you, I am more intrigued about what surrounds this sport.
We enter an ancient world of mystery and surprises within this sport as Europeans. You have to be very open in this sport. It is a team sport. You have people mentally, also physically, close to you. For example, I visited one of my close friends, the Maharajas of Jaipur in India, a very close friend of mine. He has a palace with 500 employees and everything is full of gold. We sat and talked liked family members. Then he asked me, “And what shall we do tomorrow morning?” He suggested we play elephant Polo. So the next morning there were 10 elephants in the garden ready to play Polo. There were musicians and rose pedals floating on the pond. These moments you cannot buy. Friendship you cannot buy.
Tell me the difference between playing Polo on a horse and playing it on an elephant?
Much slower on an elephant and more fun, I have to say. It isn’t as competitive. You have a driver to steer the elephant and that makes it harder to hit the ball, but it’s more like entertainment. There were championship tournaments on elephants, but they had to stop them because of animal rights activists. I am a bit undecided about what is and isn’t good for some animals. Elephants are animals that like to work.
There are different kinds of elephants. There are also Asian and African elephants, some are tameable and some aren’t.
As long as those animals are treated correctly and fair, I think there is no reason to lose culture and tradition over it.
Not forgetting fitness, Polo players seem to have well put together or let us say, yummy bodies. How does one train for that?
I run 4 or 5 times a week with my boys in the forest and I do physical workouts. Also, I take care of what I eat to stay fit. Training is all year round and not just when you’re playing. Doing different sports is also important. Polo is a one-sided sport, everything is done on the right side. One has to be balanced like everything else in life. You don’t need to become Schwarzenegger to play Polo, but you have to be fit, because it protects you, as well. When falling off the horse and having an accident, of course, the one that is more fit is more protected.
In your opinion, who are the greatest Polo players and who do you admire most?
The best player in the world is Adolfo Cambiaso. He is the player of the century. I never saw anyone control the ball or the game as well as he does. Although, one player is not enough to win a tournament or a game. Again, Polo is a team sport and there are four. So when you have a player like Adolfo Cambiaso, at his level, then you must have 3 others to support him. There are great players in Mexico, India, in the States and in the UK. I played with Benito Perez for years in Ebreichsdorf, Austria. He is worth mentioning. My sons and I are not professional players, but we are very good and put the time into it. With like any other sport, you have to put at least 4,000 hours into it to become a valid respected player.
Which positions did you, or do you, normally play?
When I was young and faster, I was a 1 or 2 level player and now I am a 3 level. There is something people are missing about Polo. It isn’t about the speed. People believe that, but it is about reading the game like chess. You must anticipate the game. You have to really understand and show the others when and where to go. It important that the one who understands the game the most, leads the others. One must show the others or be a good support for the team. The beauty of the sport is the structure and the strategy of it.
Being the family man that you are, what are the most valuable moments that you spend with your family?
There are many. Most importantly, having been happily married for over 20 years now, is all of us are healthy. We share and enjoy a common passion together and have fun. Just surround yourself with happy people. Life is too short. We can share our passion with our friends outside of the family, too. I’m happy with that.
We at FabL’Style are so glad you shared your passion with us. And I think that I am inspired to pick up a mullet now.