Polo Jocks:
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 recreation.

"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.