Polo Isn't Just for Stuffed Shirts and Debutantes Anymore
By Lindsey Townsend
Combine the body-slamming groans of hockey with eight 1,000-pound animals
galloping at 30 mph down a football-sized field, throw in some high-level
strategy, fancy horsemanship, and a few hundred hair-raising changes of
direction, and what do you get? Polo, once known as the "sport of
kings" and now enjoying a surge in popularity in the United States.
In recent years, polo has attracted a new type of player: middle-class
Americans. Real estate agents, schoolteachers, and software designers are now
as likely to be found saddling up and whacking the ball as doctors, lawyers,
and CEOs. Enthusiasts say polo provides aerobic benefits, improves stamina
and hand-eye coordination, offers great competition, camaraderie, and social
benefits--and is just plain fun.
"Other sports like tennis and golf didn't do it for me. They were so
monotonous that they didn't hold my attention," says Robin Murphy, owner
and publisher of the Thrifty Nickel in Dallas. After taking polo
lessons, she fell in love with the sport. "I realized that I was not
going to be satisfied with just stopping there, so I made a commitment by
buying a horse," she says. That was five years ago. Murphy now owns 13
horses, plays three days a week, and regularly sponsors tournaments at the
Dallas Polo Club (DPC).
Located at Bear Creek Polo Ranch near Red Oak, about 30 minutes south of
the Dallas-Forth Worth Metroplex, DPC is one of a new breed of clubs catering
to the everyman. The most active polo club in North Texas, it offers a
year-round polo school for novice players and club chukkers (periods) four
days a week.
"You can always spot the new players. They're the ones with the big,
silly grins on their faces because they're having a hoot!" says DPC
General Manager Scott Lancaster. The club's outdoor season, which begins in
early May and ends in late October, features three leagues running
simultaneously, with arena leagues offered in the winter.
Learning by Doing
The arena is where many new DPC members first learn the basics of the
sport. When players enroll in the "Polo School" program, they
purchase a package of four lessons. "For a couple hundred dollars,
you'll get a good grasp of the concept and rules as well as a one-year social
membership and tickets to feature matches. Learning to play polo can be very
intimidating, but we make it easy," says Lancaster.
Lessons are held on DPC horses and are scheduled before and after other
polo activities so that students can meet other club members as well as see
the techniques they are learning put into action. "Once you take a few
lessons, the games you watch suddenly start to make sense," he adds.
Murray Johnson, a stockbroker with Olde Discount Brokerage in Dallas, who
started taking polo last year and recently bought a polo pony, says it's the
only sport that's consistently held his interest.
"Because of the handicap system, you're able to learn a tremendous
amount by playing with the more experienced players and the pros. The beauty
of Polo School is that you learn at your own speed while stretching the
limits of your ability each time. You're right in there playing and learning
from guys like Bil Walton, who's one of the best arena players in the
world," Johnson says.
And the good news is that it's not even necessary to be an experienced
rider to get started. "For people who don't ride, it's a great way to
learn, because some folks are intimidated by the animal at first," says
Lancaster. "But with the polo, the game tends to consume you a little
bit more, so there's a lot of natural learning. You're so consumed with
picking up the game that you forget about your fear of the horse."
According to Lancaster, the objective of the Polo School is not to turn
novices into "high-goalers" in a month, but rather to give each
student enough of a foundation to make an informed decision as to whether
polo is a sport they want to pursue: if players decide they want to take the
big step and purchase a horse, at DPC they can expect to spend about $10,000
for a package that includes a good, seasoned polo horse, one year of greens
fees (which entitles the player to play organized polo three to four days a
week), and some advanced coaching. While that's not cheap, it's certainly
comparable to the cost of purchasing a boat or a couple of wet bikes for
"Polo actually can be played at a very affordable rate, despite the
myth out there that it's only for the rich," says Bil Walton, president
of DPC. "It's like any sport--the more you get involved, the more you'll
spend. But we have a number of people here who own just one horse and play
club chukkers once or twice a week."
A word of caution, though, if you decide to give polo a try: it tends to
be addicting. Many players who start out with one horse soon find themselves
pining for a string of ponies.
Strategy of the game
As long as you're happy playing club chukkers, you can easily get by with
one or two horses. But for high-goal polo, the stakes--and the costs--are
higher. Because of the heavy physical demands, the ponies are used for only
one period in high-goal games. For less competitive matches, players will
often play a horst two chukkers, letting it rest between periods.
An outdoor polo match lasts about one and a half hours and is divided into
six, seven-minute chukkers. The object of the game is to score as many points
as possible by hitting the ball between the two goal posts positioned at each
end of the field. There are four players on a team who each assume a specific
position, either on offense or defense. However, given the enormous size of
the outdoor playing field (160 x 300 yards), the momentum of the galloping
horse, and the ball's unexpected changes of direction, the game is very
fluid, with positions constantly changing back and forth.
Play polo near Plano
The Willow Bend Polo Club, located at 2310 FM 720 near Oak Point and
Little Elm, north of Plano, is another location where you can play polo in
the Dallas area. Lessons are offered from one of four professional polo
players on staff for $100 an hour, and coaching leagues are offered in which
beginners learn by playing on a team with a pro. The facility has
approximately 100 stalls on its 400-acre site. For more information, contact
Robert Payne at 972-770-5091.