Codie Irwin likes to punch doors when he's angry but "I like horses", the 12-year-old says gently stroking a polo pony.
The aristocratic game is helping at-risk Flaxmere teens stay on the right side of the law.
It was Ros Rowe's idea to put troubled teens on ponies and teach them to play a game usually reserved for those with money.
The Leg Up Trust co-ordinator works with horses to teach teens to manage anger and frustrations. Horses mirror people's behaviour and will push someone around if they're aggressive, Rowe says.
With the support of local police and Birchleigh Polo Club, a group of teens is selected to take part in the three-month programme, which is now in its third year.
Birchleigh manager Richard Kettle says candidates are usually chosen as being those who needed a little help to stay on the straight and narrow.
They walk in a bit "rough and tough" but are soon "softening up" around the ponies. They learn to groom and care for the ponies before graduating to riding and playing polo.
"The kids soon understand by giving a little and showing respect to the animal, how rewarding it is when that animal gives back - and those are life skills."
Rules are strictly enforced. If someone puts a foot wrong, they risk being kicked out.
Codie is confident he can stick by the no-swearing rule, although he was kicked out of class last year for swearing at his teacher. The horses have a calming effect on him. "My papa has horses . . . when I get pissed off I catch me a horse and go for a ride."
Shellico Hura-Hokianga, 13, has also "chilled out" more. His reluctance to talk reveals he still clings to his staunch attitude, but he hasn't been in a fight for a while.
His mother, Pauline Hura, has been so impressed with the changes in her son that she has enrolled his brother Zario, 12.
And while they are unlikely polo players, they all want to be around the horses.
Judith Hokianga says her son Satriani, 12, never comes out of school on time, except for the days he attends Birchleigh. She hopes the programme will help his short attention span.
The programme culminates with the group playing a match against police. Kettle says it's a great game to watch as the two meet on a level playing field.
"The police weren't looking at them as a bunch of ratbags and they weren't looking at the police as someone to fear."
The group has "raised some eyebrows" but Kettle believes the teens have as much right to play polo as anyone else.
"Why should it not be accessible to them? If we can change the attitude of half-a-dozen of these boys or girls, then it's helping everyone."
He realises the limitations of a three-month programme and would one day like to see Flaxmere College have its own polo team.
Principal Louise Anaru says any opportunity that encourages participation, relationship building and commitment is always good for Flaxmere students.
- Sunday Star Times
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