Today’s polo world in Central and South Texas is not the polo world you see in Dallas, Houston, Palm Beach, or Santa Barbara. It’s real, gritty and the players enjoy both the chivalry and rivalry a good match can bring. Join us as we glimpse into the world of these weekend warriors who battle with horse and mallet.
By Sydney Fazende
Photography by John Conroy
There’s something about a man and his horse. And, since polo is the only professional sport that allows women to complete alongside men, there’s also something about a woman and her horse, too.
Picture this: It’s a windy day in early summer. Large silver trailers rattle down the gravel road carrying the finest thoroughbred horses from all over the state. As the kicked-up dust settles, spectators watch expectantly, cocktails in hand, for a glimpse of the horse and their grooms. It’s a beautiful day for Texas polo and excitement is in the air.
At the heart of American polo, you will find Texas. As history has it, the first polo match to be played in America took place in Boerne, Texas. Not but an hour away, nestled in the rolling landscape of the Texas Hill Country, Spencewood Ranch, owned by Andrew Hobby, serves as a Mecca for horse lovers, game players and thrill seekers.
Today, the ranch hosts The Society Diaries’ first ever polo Invitational Tournament. “One reason why I am drawn to it is the unique element of playing the sport with the horses,” states Henderson of Keller Henderson Interiors.. “They are the primary aspect of the game. Training and maintaining the horses is crucial. Being and riding with the horses is one of the most gratifying things ever to me.”
“There’s a lot of strategy that goes into the game, too,” Henderson continues. “You work with your fellow players to forward the strategy. It’s an intellectual game that takes finesse and it’s a gentlemen’s game with the rules that define it harkening back to sportsman being gentlemen.”
Players soon make their appearance marked by their stark white pants and vivid tops. As the scoreboard is assembled, “The Society Diaries Invitational Tournament 2012” banner is raised, the match commentary amplifier is checked by a guitar trio strumming familiar Texas tunes. The Smoke Shack food trailer soon rolls down the rocky road with the promise of pulled pork and brisket sandwiches. Sweet tea, lemonade, mint leaves and Tito’s vodka solidify the southern tradition that has become The New Texas polo.
Other states play host to arena polo matches, yet as though in tune with true southern hospitality, in Texas, you’re welcomed to an expansive polo ranch. The inviting weather allows for the sport to be played year round, no holds barred where here, the sport flourishes
The best aspect of Texas polo is that it’s Texans playing it. It’s Texas pride being played on the field,” continues Henderson. “There are Texas-style versions of polo boots, spurs. If you went to Singapore to play, people would say, ‘ those are Texas spurs’. It is a style that is recognizable.”
“Texas is where polo has its most natural setting,” enthuses KSAT San Antonio news anchor Ursula Pari. “San Antonio was a cavalry town. That’s why it is on the map. With thousands of horses running through San Antonio, polo was a natural evolution. We are horse people.”
As many of the spectators will gladly admit, polo in this state is a lifestyle. “The ticket to polo, is that no matter where you are, the sport is the same,” says match announcer Rob Hewitt, “the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, the competition, its all universal.” Without hesitation, Hewitt quotes Winston Churchill with “a polo handicap is a passport to the world.” Henderson confirms that and says, “It’s everything from Patrons to cowboys. The camaraderie that Texas is famous for is carried onto the sport and field.’
As the players suit up, the diversity of age and gender does not go unnoticed. Men and women of all ages begin to take the field. Among them are retirees, news anchors, interior designers and lawyers. “We are professional, working people with children and we all try to balance our lives with this extreme addiction to this fast paced riding sport, says news anchor Ursula Pari. “It is a balancing act requiring a great deal of time and energy.”
Often regarded as the most inclusive sport, polo is the only co-educational professional sport in the world. No other professional sport welcomes such a wide spectrum of gender, age, wealth or activity. “I have been playing a long time, about 25 years now,” says Pari. “I’m 50-years-old and my handicap recently increased again. Polo grows with you. You don’t have to give it up just because you may advance in years.”
Players are known to play well into their 60’s and 70’s, an age that is rarely included amongst other professional sporting communities.
Unique to the sport, handicap rules do not vary based on gender. According to the United States Polo Association, the fastest growing demographics in the sport are career women in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Top women players such as Californian Sunny Hale have worked to increase women’s presence in the sport.
The diversity of the sport translates to the sidelines as a line of vehicles begins to resemble a football tailgate. Foreign sports cars, Range Rovers and chauffer-driven limousines line up side by side to embrace the sport that is rich with Texas history. The unifying factor, both on and off the field, is a reverence for the horse.
“Players are driven by the love of horses, says Spencewood Ranch manager Alexis Barker. “You may come and play, but horses are the game.”
Players often turn to polo because of their love for horses. From grooming to roping, reigning or rodeo clowning, backgrounds are varied. “My introduction to polo was the result of turning 50 years old, a random conversation about the logo on a polo shirt, and seeing the movie “The Bucket List”, all in one weekend,” says player Steve Gilchrist. “I came to Dallas to take a polo lesson a few weeks later. I have played golf, hunted, fished, ridden motorcycle, and flown airplanes… nothing else I‘ve ever done can compare to being out there on the back on horse in the middle of a polo match.”
Spencewood Ranch captures the essence of Texas polo. While competitiveness is evident on the field, there is no trace on the sidelines. Laughter between teams and families fills the air; the perfect coupling to the twangy guitar tunes in the background. “It is a family,” says spectator Gail Perry. “You can’t tell who’s who because there is a such a passion for the game. You acknowledge a mutual love of the sport, a mutual love of the horses and a mutual love of the speed. You are a team on and off the field.”
This fast paced, high energy sport is more than just a form of exercise, but rather a way to play, entertain a crowd and play homage to a tradition that’s lasted over one-hundred years.
“Texas polo, its all Texas. You can play in Lockhart, Midland, Austin, El Paso, You are not limited to your state,” says Pari. “It’s one-hundred percent Texas polo.”
Appealing. Claims by players for a foul, expressed by the raising of mallets above the head.
Back shot. Backhand swing, changing the flow of play by sending the ball in the opposite direction.
Check and turn. To slow the pony and turn safely.
Chukker Term used for period of play in polo, seven and a half minutes long, there are six chukkers in a polo match.
Field Usually 300 yards long by 160 yards wide and outlined by sideboards.
Hook Catching an opponent’s mallet in swing below the level of the horse’s back, to leave or turn the ball for a teammate.
Made pony A polo pony that is well trained for polo and has been played for some time.
Mallet head The part of the mallet used to strike the ball, the wide face of the head is used to strike the ball.
Ride off Two riders may make contact and attempt to push each other off the line to prevent an opponent from striking the ball.
Stick and ball Personal practice time.
Third man The referee sitting at the sidelines, if the two umpires on the field are in disagreement, the third man makes the final decision.
USPA United States Polo Association is the governing body of polo.