Charging Right In
They may be novices, but Stanford’s polo players aren’t horsing around.
SADDLED UP: Wolff, Lake and Megan Rowe, '07, scrimmage at Woodside's Horse Park.
Jonathan Olsen was saddled up for his first horseback ride—ever. As he sorted out the reins in his hands, the polo pony carrying him suddenly spotted a rolling white ball and bolted off in pursuit.
“I didn’t realize they were trained to chase balls—or that sometimes they’ll even kick a ball into a goal,” the senior says. “I stayed on that day, and I kept saying to myself, ‘This is crazy, but I like it.’ ”
A year later, Olsen can point to the quirks of each of Stanford’s 16 polo ponies. Girlfriend is fast, agile and responsive, but she’ll also try to nip any horse tied near her. Riding Sugarfoot, who is sweet but slow and can take forever to make a turn, is like driving a tractor-trailer.
None of the four members of Stanford’s men’s polo team had ever been on a horse until they arrived on the Farm, eager to try something new. “Growing up, little girls rode and little boys didn’t,” says team captain Cary Kempston, a junior who is the only returning player on the men’s team.
Heather Lake of the women’s team, on the other hand, has been showing hunter/jumper horses for as long as she can remember. But in the year she has played polo, she has discovered that it requires an entirely different kind of riding and animal. “It’s definitely more aggressive, and you’re up out of your saddle a lot more, or leaning off to the side,” the junior says. “It’s also a rough sport, with horses smashing into each other. Hunter/jumpers would have nothing to do with this.”
Unlike field polo, which is played by the likes of Britain’s Prince Charles on 11 acres of manicured lawn, arena polo—played at 26 colleges in the United States—takes place in a walled dirt enclosure that is shaped like an ice hockey rink and is about the size of a football field. Small thoroughbreds—ideally 15.2 hands—sprint, stop, turn and accelerate as players “ride off,” bumping up against one another to interrupt and prevent shots. They gallop for 7 1/2 minutes at a time (compared to the two-minute dashes of race horses), in periods known as chukkers. Between each of a match’s four chukkers, riders dismount for four or five minutes and walk their horses to cool them down, then saddle up a fresh string.
Polo ponies, Lake says, “are a special kind of horse.” Whereas most horses will tense up when another horse approaches, polo ponies are practically “bomb-proof,” according to Greg Wolff, a former Cornell polo player who volunteers his time to coach the two club teams. “You can set off a balloon or a cap gun near them, and they’ll be, like, ‘Oh, okay,’ ” he says. Most of Stanford’s horses have been donated by Bay Area riders who are improving their game and moving up to younger, faster mounts. Team members pay $200 per quarter to board, feed, shoe and vaccinate the gift horses, and they bike or carpool to Webb Ranch every day to exercise them.
On a recent afternoon seven players—three on each side, plus one who rode as umpire—gathered for a practice scrimmage in Humphries Polo Arena at Woodside’s Horse Park. As a red-tailed hawk soared above a California oak, Wolff yelled, “Charge your horses!” and into the melee the six riders plunged, with 24 spindly legs and six mallets mixing it up for a crack at the small rubber ball. Kempston “backed it,” standing up in his stirrups and leaning out over the left side of his mare to hit a reverse pass. Picking up the ball a few moments later, he “worked it” along the arena wall, taking short, precise shots until he hit the undefended goal.
The Cardinal polo club travels to games on the East Coast every few years, but plays most matches against a handful of West Coast rivals. Many of those schools prefer to compete on the Farm, which is known for the quality of its facilities and horses. Yes, the host team provides the mounts. But no, it’s not nice to give the visitors the nags to ride. So Stanford riders and their opponents swap ponies back and forth, and by the end of the day everyone has mastered-or suffered-Sugarfoot’s eccentricities.
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Data is from the past two weeks.