As a kid, horses were my life. They provided my income throughout high school and paid for college. Title IX was passed when I was a senior in high school, but until that time there were no sports available in public schools for women. None. I did what I knew, and that was ride: made up teams and competed against other schools, did United States Equestrian Team clinics, broke and sold horses, taught riding. But it was all left behind when I got married.
Years later, there I was, in the middle of a divorce, two kids, no husband, horrible depression. “Give polo a try,” a friend said. “10 o’clock.” He gave me the address. “I don’t know,” I said.
I drove toward Potomac, Maryland, following directions, as a soft rain was falling. I found the barn. Someone pulled up. “It’s canceled,” they said. “Come back next week.” I sat in the car, windshield wipers going. I cried. It rained harder, the wipers slapping back and forth. I cried some more.
But I went back the next week, apprehensive. Depressed. “This isn’t going to work,” I thought.
There were three or four persons standing around, looking at each other. A few minutes later, a devastatingly attractive guy in a long Australian duster and cowboy hat swept through the misty morning into the middle aisle. “I’m Charlie,” he said. “Let’s go have some fun.”
That first day, in the muddy arena, we were taught some basic rules: “line of the ball” (sacred, don’t ever cross), how to hold the mallet, how to hit, the positions (in the arena, 1 plays up, 3 plays back, 2 in the middle) and then, and then — how to “ride somebody off,” or “bump.”
That pretty much did it for me. All those years of riding, of never, ever coming into contact with another rider or, God forbid, a horse.
“Ride up next to me. This is the last thing we’re going to learn today. You have the ball,”Charlie said, tapping it in front of me. “Now, I’m playing defense, the ball’s up there. So I’mgoing to place my horse’s shoulder against yours, slightly in front. I’m going to lean my horse against your horse. I’m going to lean against you. I’m going to ride you off and take the ball,” he said, as he did it at a walk.
“Now, you and I are going to do that a bit faster,” Charlie said, dropping his head a bit and looking at me with an oh-so-sweet smile, “straight down the center line. I’m going to try to ride you off. You’re going to try to hold me off and keep the ball.”
We galloped down the center line. Mud and stirrups flying, I lost my watch, was covered in mud and wet from the mist, sweaty through and through, riding as hard as I could and laughing, trying to stay on my horse, pushing back as hard as I could. Wait … was that me? Laughing? And I’ve never looked back.
Because I grew up riding, I didn’t have to learn that part. But I did have to learn the hand- eye, the swing, hitting it at just the right time at speed. There are lots of different shots: off side fore, off side back, near side fore, near side back (reaching over the horse’s neck and hitting front and back), neck shot, tail open, tail back. Communication — with your teammates, with your horse — is key, as are playing as good defense as offense and knowing the rules.
Polo is, they say, “hockey on horses.” The rules are mostly about safety, as it is fast. There are varying degrees of play; a player is ranked from a minus-2 to a 10 goaler, minus-2 being a beginner. There are very few 10 goalers in the world, and they are a delight to watch. If you’re in a 4-goal game, the total handicap of the players adds up to four.
Surrounding the Washington area, you will commonly see 4- and 8-goal games, and sometimes a 10-goal game, meaning there are some great players on the team. Very rarely you will see a 20-goal game. That is worth going out of your way to see.
There is something about a good, fast game, no matter what the level. I think people find it in anything that takes full concentration physically and mentally, of any kind. It’s the kindof rush when you’re galloping and listening to your teammates and focusing on the ball — and when you hit it just right and follow it up and you’re still in the clear because you have that incredibly fast and handy horse. There is something about that feeling that lets you leave everything else behind, that puts a smile on your face, that feels right.
Over the years, it’s also been about the people, about the community. I travel a lot for business and was able to take clients out to “stick and ball” when in Dubai, which turned into drinks in the clubhouse with other players. One of my sons started playing at 16, and over the years we have played in Argentina, Chile, Spain and Costa Rica, and even had an offer of a game in Morocco. It’s something with which I’m comfortable, a “rotary club” of sorts, that enables me to connect with locals and see a country from a different viewpoint.
Many times there will be an asado afterwards with the players and their families, usually steak cooked over a wood fire in the barn area, and a chance to share stories and watch the sun set.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, I feel better after I play than before. In most cases, after playing, I am hot, sweaty and dirty. It’s the smells of the barn, the tack, the horses. It’s the beauty of a huge, wide open field in front of you that seems endless. It’s the magic of working with a team. It’s the sounds of the hooves when someone is gaining on you from behind to steal your shot. It’s the thrill of asking for a bit more as you pull in front and get the shot off. And, if you’re lucky, and you keep your head down and hit it just right, sometimes the ball goes through the goal.
It’s the people I’ve met in the last 20 years, the Chilean and Argentine culture and closeness, the guys that I believe would be there for me if I needed them to be.
And, yes, there’s the fashion. At the end of a weekend, I have a pile of dirty white jeans. Sweaty, dirty white jeans. The larger the pile, the dirtier the jeans, the better the weekend. And that’s my fashion tip.
WHERE TO …
Great for families with activities for the kids and dance parties after the games:
Banbury Cross Polo Club
23156 Carters Farm Lane, Middleburg
Great Meadow Twilight Polo 5089 Old Tavern Rd, The Plains
Polo at the Park (Morven Park)
17195 Southern Planter Lane, Leesburg
Congressional Polo Club
14660 Hughes Rd, Poolesville
Seneca Polo Club
20760 Whites Ferry Road, Poolesville
FOR PLAYING AND LEARNING POLO
Willow Run Polo
German Noguera, manager-owner
The Plains, Virginia
Mountain View Polo
Owner-instructor, Laura Goddard
Charles Town, West Virginia