Polo is one of those sports I had this fleeting familiarity with (mostly from pictures of William and Harry on horseback in the pages of tabloids) but had never fully understood. I knew Ralph Lauren made cute clothes inspired by the sport, and that it obviously is one of few disciplines that has gained a mainstream notoriety.
All in all, I remained moderately ignorant. I knew what the sport involved – mallets, horses, strapping polo players. But I had no idea what all those pieces looked like when stitched together.
That is, until this past weekend. It was a blisteringly sunny weekend, and Sunday was no exception in Pacific Palisades. There, celebrating its 65th season, the Will Rogers Polo field hosts free (with parking) matches between California area polo clubs.
With a 10 am start time, I rolled in comfortably after the start time (1 hour in) to watch. When I pulled up to the checkpoint, I asked the state ranger where the polo field was. He remarked “You know you are late, right?”
Well jeez, yeah I did, but you did not have to mention it.
The whole scene reminded me of a local horse show. I expected there to be fanciful people in dresses, watching polo over champagne in a well-decorated box from a distance. What I instead found was a small group of people – dedicated players, sweat-stained grooms and a handful of spectators who also happened to be interested in catching some free entertainment.
I was thankful for the announcer, who explained the sport throughout the matches. Little did I know, I had strolled up to the consolidation final (the actual final between the 1st and 2nd ranked teams to follow). Each side had 4 players, most of which looked to be men (although I did see some ladies in player-apparel, who I believe played in the championship game later).
The sport is split into chuckers, which seemed to be 10 minutes long. It is very much like horse soccer-croquet, players pass to eachother and advance the ball in hopes of passing the ball through two upright posts (at which point, you score one point). There are goals, assists, etc.
When I originally started watching, one of the players rode noticeably slower. Their horse was different, a stout quarter horse-type that looked thicker against the spritely polo ponies. Man, it’s like he is barely trying, I had thought, watching them slowly canter while the others galloped for the ball. Later I learned that I was watching one of the referees. Duh.
The referees called fouls and penalties, which would then prompt a kind-of “penalty kick” type maneuver or, in some cases, the other team gained possession.
Being so close to the field, you heard the players talking to eachother, and it was a heated game. The players angled their horses aggressively in order to reach the ball.
Not all that surprisingly, I was enraptured with the polo ponies. When I went to check out behind the scenes, I saw 3-4 horses per player. These guys would wait patiently tied to their trailer, and would later be fiery and responsive on the field. While they carried mostly larger men, none of them were over 15 hands, and to my surprise, most were agile and greyhound-like, with delicate frames.
The tack was certainly a step up from your standard D-ring. I did not get a good look at bridle configurations, but I got a sense the ponies are steered with precision through a hand-heavier ride.
The saddles as well were basic, no kneerolls. The players themselves rode with a more western seat, heavier in the pockets, but man, did they have impeccable balance to go after the ball while swinging a mallet off the side of their ponies.
A medic was present. Overall, I was surprised how humble it was for a sport that gets a posh reputation (although, should that be all that surprising, given that the whole sport gets that association?).
It looked really fun. I would try it! And I recommend that others check it out.