When people think of polo, they most likely conjure up an image similar to Ralph Lauren ads filled with green pastures and immaculate riding costumes. But at Vassar the sport, where it may not be the most popular athletic endeavor, is in fact quite welcoming and very intense. The Vassar Polo Team is made up of a group of students dedicated to dispelling the myth of inaccessibility that surrounds the sport.
The Polo Team is currently a club sport funded by the VSA but team members are working to change that as a way of getting the sport the recognition they feel it deserves. “We are also in the process of trying to get financial support from the athletic department at Vassar,” Treasurer sophomore Alexandra Sanfuentes noted. “There are only about 40 colleges in the United States that have polo teams and the majority of those teams have recognition by their athletic departments. It would be such a shame to lose our place in the ranks of those select few schools simply because we don’t have the support we need to play. We were one of the first schools to have a women’s polo team. The last thing we want is to see it disappear.”
The team seeks to stir up interest in polo, and assures their fellow students that it does not cater only to elitist interests. Sanfuentes had her first experience with the sport upon coming to Vassar, and she knows firsthand how instructive the team is. “We teach you everything you need to know not just about the game but about riding horses as well,” she explained. “Anyone that puts their mind to it can play…That makes it sound easier than it is, but the truth is that if you put in the time and effort to practice, then you will vastly improve.”
Sophomore team member Elizabeth Connell can attest to this learning experience. “I didn’t know how to play before,” she wrote in an emailed statement, “but my roommate and I thought it’d be a fun adventure to try. He’d never ridden a horse, and after a couple of weeks he was able to scrimmage with us.”
Team President sophomore Natalie Nicelli agrees. “To be successful, you really just have to be determined to learn, but having a competitive spirit doesn’t hurt! Anybody can play polo and be good at it, you just have to practice.”
Each week the team travels to Newburgh where they pay a small fee to work with the horses stabled at Gardnertown Farms. All team members attend the same practices, and those with less experience have a quick lesson on how to ride before they join the other members in drills and, eventually, the scrimmages at the end of practice.
The owner of the barn, Bill Deckner, coaches the team, and Connell is glad to work with him. “He loves the sport,” she wrote in an emailed statement, “and he loves exposing the sport to others to love over the competitive element.”
Deckner has shared his enthusiasm with students like freshman Martin Man, who are glad to have found polo through the team when they may not have had the chance to otherwise. “I like polo because I love riding horses!” he explained. “Coming from Hong Kong, there were very, very few opportunities to ride…It’s also just a cool sport because what other sports has you hitting balls whilst riding on horses with a big hammer on a long stick?”
Each game is 28 minutes long and divided into four periods, called chukkers. There are no breaks during play unless a penalty is called, and the sport can get physically intense. “During these 7 minutes,” while you’re trying to get the ball into the other team’s goal, the other team is riding into you (as in, literally riding their horse into your horse) and blocking your mallet so that you won’t be able to complete your swing as part of their defense,” Nicelli wrote.
The Polo Team plays arena polo, which differs from outdoor polo in location and utilizes a larger ball. The season is essentially year-round, as the practices go from mid-October to April, and the team competes against other top-ranked teams such as Brown University, University of Connecticut and Skidmore College.
Nicelli has had a good experience in many games, but remembers one against University of Pennsylvania in particular. “It was just really exciting, albeit intimidating, to play in a real polo game against an actual polo team. Even though I have ridden horses my entire life, because polo is known as the ‘rich man’s sport’ and the ‘sport of Kings’, I’d never pictured myself playing it, so playing in my first game was just a really memorable experience.”
Connell agrees that polo tends to have somewhat elitist connotations and is harder to find opportunities to play outside of college. “Polo is a game that, for the majority of students, is only going to be accessible for the four years we have here, and personally, I don’t think enough people take advantage of that. You really don’t need to know how to ride coming in, you’re welcome to drop it if you don’t like it, and it is so incredibly cheap in comparison to any other experience you’ll get around horses.”
For Connell, the biggest downside of participating in polo is the constant traveling to practices, but adds that it is not impossible to fit into one’s schedule. “The greatest inconvenience is that it’s so far away, so you’re really looking to devote about four hours a week minimum between practice and driving time, but the team is great about providing transportation and working around everyone’s schedules, and it’s definitely worth it. It’s about as much of a commitment as an intramural sport weekly…I don’t find it difficult to balance with classes at all.”
Man echoes Connell’s concerns and had to wait before fully committing to the team. “I was interested last semester when I got here,” he remembered. “I went to an introductory lesson/practise with the team in the autumn to try it out, but because my schedule didn’t fit with the practise times I couldn’t do it. This semester I had time so I can go once a week out of the two practises we have.”
The Polo Team also fights for a presence on campus. “Vassar should know that we actually exist!” Sanfuentes exclaimed. “Countless times I’ve told people I’m on the polo team and have been met with quizzical looks and responses like, “We have a polo team?”
Despite the travel and the costs and the lack of recognition, members of the Polo Team are excited about their sport and enjoy the opportunities it presents.
Sanfuentes is glad she decided to begin playing. “I love polo because it takes everything I’ve learned about riding horses and challenges it,” she commented. “That’s what makes it so rewarding. Once you finally start to consistently make contact with the ball and watch it go sailing down the field, it gives you a fantastic feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. There’s a sound that the ball makes when you hit it just right. It confirms that all of your hard work is paying off.”