When most people hear the word “polo,” they usually think of the clothing brand, a type of shirt or the sport of water polo. Many are unfamiliar with another kind of polo: horse polo. Few students may realize that Vassar once had a polo team.
Maya Goodwin ’20, a member of the Vassar Equestrian Team, lamented the dissolution of the club sport in an emailed inter- view. “Vassar had a competitive polo team until 2013, three years before my [first] year. I joined the riding team instead, and tried not to think about polo,” she recalled, “I had this wild Messianic dream that during my JYA I would learn how to play polo and then come back my senior year and revive the team.” Bringing back the team is not as easy as Goodwin originally hoped. Securing funds to establish a program that offers polo at an affordable price has been challenging.
Goodwin explained that while abroad at the University of Edinburgh, she fulfilled the first half of her dream by learning the game. She enthused, “Polo is everything I thought it would be and more; it is the most fun you can legally have in life.”
Her love of the sport has encouraged her to remain in Edinburgh beyond the end of her JYA term. “I’ve been working at the polo yard to pay for extra chukker costs on weekends, and I’m planning to stay in Edinburgh working full-time for my coach until my visa runs out in July and they kick me out of the U.K.,” she described.
Goodwin highlighted that the opportunities polo provides would be a positive force for Vassar students. She stated: “I would love for Vassar to have a polo team again and join the 38 collegiate polo programs organized by the U.S. Polo Association. We have connections to Vassar polo alums, interested students and nearby polo clubs interested in working with us.”
Polo often goes unnoticed despite its rich history. Even without an official college team, Vassar students can still learn about the origins and modern-day iterations of this enduring athletic pursuit.
Horse polo is one of the oldest known team sports in human history. With origins in Persia, polo was originally used as a way to train cavalry (Ride TV, “11 Fun Facts About Horse Polo,” 11.07.2017). While some know polo as the sport of English royalty, 13 of today’s top 20 polo players in the world hail from Argentina (World Polo Tour, “Rankings,” 15.04.2019).
The most common of the many forms of polo is played outdoors. The field is well-maintained with short, manicured grass. In its entirety, the field is the size of five football fields (Spirit of Polo Press, “The measurements of the Polo field,” 09.24.2014). Players use a mallet to hit the ball. Originally, polo was played with a hard wooden ball, but now it is played with a plastic ball that makes a tick noise when hit by the sweet spot of the mallet (World Polo News, “Outdoor Polo Ball,” 07.10.2015). All riders are required to hold their mallet in their right hand.
There are two teams, comprised of four players per team, and each player is given a handicap from -2 to 10. A higher handicap indicates greater proficiency in the sport. On the field with the eight players are also two referees, referred to as umpires. The job of the umpires is to enforce the rules of the sport and to ensure human and horse safety. The game is comprised of six periods called “chukkers,” each of which lasts seven and a half minutes (Farmington Polo Grounds, “Polo 101”).
While people refer to the horses that play polo as “polo ponies,” these animals are actually full-size horses. Most players will say that the game is 75 percent the horse and 25 percent the rider. The horses come in all different shapes, sizes and colors, but many professional players prefer horses with top speeds because the game can be won or lost simply based on ability to reach the ball first.
Polo is a spectator-centered sport. The grace of the horses, the speed of the game and the skill of the players cause event-goers all over the world to come out and enjoy the beautiful weather on a sunny day to watch polo. At halftime, after the third chukker, it is tradition for people to enjoy the divot stomp. This is a time where people gather their friends and head down to the field in order to even out the ground, by stomping back in divots caused by players scooping earth up as they strike the ball.
Even without a Vassar team, students can still participate in clubs in the area. If you will be hanging around campus this summer and are looking for something to do on a Sunday afternoon, head down to Greenwich Polo Club in Greenwich, CT, and take part in the action yourself. Polo welcomes everyone. Enjoy food, drinks and the summer sun field-side with friends. Sunday polo is a weekly event—so set some time aside and immerse yourself in one of the oldest sports in the world!