Rough Riders : Polo Is Dangerous, Fast, Expensive, Addictive--and the Players Love It

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

It sounds--abstractly, at least--like a prescription for utter chaos:

A pack of six or eight mostly fearless riders doggedly spurring their fast, agile mounts inside a ring at ferocious gallops, windmilling away at a bouncing ball with what look like elongated 3-woods. Horses frothing, nostrils flaring, sweat flying everywhere.

But, say those enthusiasts who spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars pursuing what they call this most addictive of sports, polo is a fine madness.

These days, you can find a good number of them nearly every Sunday crashing around in an outdoor arena at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center in Huntington Beach, where the sport is trying to stage its Orange County comeback.

It is there that riders have begun to come to either try their hand or improve their skills at one of the world's oldest and most patrician of pastimes.

After a checkered history in the county--a handful of polo clubs, facilities and schools have come and gone in recent years--the sport is beginning to enjoy a renewed, though still relatively small, following among the area's aficionados.

The newest focus is the Beach Cities Polo Club, headquartered at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center. The club, which is next to Huntington Central Park on Golden West Street, is presided over by veteran player Don Patch. There, said Patch, about 35 students and experienced players regularly mount up for scrimmages, lessons and matches at the facility's polo arena (there is a second facility in the county, at San Juan Capistrano's Sycamore Trails Stables, that offers polo lessons and occasional scrimmages on a smaller scale).

Also, Patch said, by January, matches at the center will probably be played three nights a week--Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday--in a newly built outdoor arena complete with lights and a 20-foot berm outside the rails for spectators.

"The new arena's going to make the difference," said Patch, 59. "I think there's a resurgence already occurring. The problem with Orange County in the past is there's been no place for this to happen. But now there are so many people in Orange County who are at a certain age with a certain income who are realizing that they can do something like this."

One of them is Jim Walker, 44, who owns Pasta Mesa restaurant in Costa Mesa. Walker, who has been riding horses since he was a child, recently began taking polo lessons at Sycamore Trails and played his first game at the Beach Cities Polo Club's arena on a recent Sunday.

"It was something I've always wanted to do," Walker said. "I loved it. Actually, it was more of a contact sport than I anticipated. Also, there are some things that are legal that I didn't think would be, like being able to hook your opponent's mallet. On the surface, it's supposed to be a gentleman's game, but it can be rough and you've got to be able to bounce back."

In its original incarnation, the game was a lot rougher. The most ancient equestrian sport, polo was first played in Persia (now Iran) sometime between the 6th Century BC and AD 100, usually as a training game for cavalry units.

"There were 600 guys on one side of a big field with sticks and 600 facing them on the other side with sticks," Patch said. "They just charged at each other and anything went in order to get the ball through the goal."

The game gradually spread to China and India, where it first began to be played by British tea planters in 1859. Polo was introduced to the United States in 1876 by the sportsman and newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, and 14 years later the organization that would become the United States Polo Assn. was founded and standardized the rules of play.

The rules are relatively simple: The object of the game is to drive the ball into the goal without doing anything to endanger yourself or other players. This generally means not cutting across anyone's line of play and risking a collision. However, it is legal to "ride off" an opponent by leaning your horse into his and forcing him away from the ball. And, as Walker discovered, a defender approaching from behind can reach out with his mallet and "hook" his opponent's mallet as it is being swung at the ball.

The most common form of polo is played on an outdoor grass field 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, and there are four players to a side. The ball is about the size of a baseball and is made of hard plastic or wood. This form of the game can be hair-raisingly fast (horses can reach speeds of up to 35 m.p.h., with closing speeds of 70 m.p.h. if a defender is riding toward the ball in an opposite direction), shots can be wickedly sharp and bone-rattling falls are not uncommon.

The sport as it is played in Orange County, however, is a quicker and more controlled form called arena polo. This variation of the sport is played in a fenced, oval-shaped arena 100 yards long and 50 yards wide, the ball is about the size of a softball and is made of inflatable rubber, and there are three players to a side. The rules are essentially the same as large-field polo but, said Patch, four 7 1/2-minute periods (called chukkers) are played, rather than the usual six for large-field polo.

Arena polo has increased in popularity, and there is a Southern California professional team, the Los Angeles Stars, that plays at the indoor arena at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

Still, the game remains a curiosity to most, an almost anachronistic sport considered by many to be elitist, a pastime thought to be exclusively of the rich. And, in its highest echelons, it is. It is played by royalty (England's Prince Charles is a keen player as was his father, Prince Phillip), celebrities (Walt Disney, Will Rogers, David Niven, William Devane, Alex Cord, Sylvester Stallone) and other, more anonymous people with lots of money to spend.

In fact, Patch said, with top polo horses going for $30,000 and more, exclusive club fees mounting to as much as $10,000 per season, plus salaries for grooms, exercise riders, tack, feed, board, transportation, veterinary fees, farriers' bills and all the incidentals that go with keeping horses, a player could go through as much as $200,000 in a single season.

Or, Patch said, a person could rent a horse daily for about $35, play a couple of chukkers in a local match (essentially a pickup game for a fee of about $10 per chukker) and go home with wallet intact. It is that sort of arrangement that Patch and others are trying to promote at the local level--Patch calls it "family polo"--and, slowly, a trickle of less aristocratic players is beginning to emerge.

Jorge Avila, 40, a building contractor from Laguna Beach, is one of them. A friend of Walker, Avila began taking lessons at Sycamore Trails at the same time as Walker and played his first match as Walker's teammate.

"It's always been thought of only as a sport for the rich," he said, "but there are programs around that make it accessible to a normal person. You don't have to have a string of polo ponies."

Charlie Wilbourn calls it an addiction.

"You will find that so many people get addicted to polo," said Wilbourn, 54, an artist from Laguna Beach who specializes in equestrian art. "They'll go broke just playing polo. Even if you have the money, it takes an enormous amount of time and commitment. Unlike other sports where you have to worry about just making yourself stay in shape, your horses have to stay in shape as well."

The attraction, said Wilbourn--who said he is flirting with a return to the sport again after being away for nearly 15 years to pursue his art--is akin to the adrenaline rush the Light Brigade must have felt at Balaclava, exhilaration on the edge of fear.

"I think that's part of it," he said. "It's dangerous, no question about it. A lot of us like that feeling of risk."

That includes women, for there are women's teams as well as men's. And, in weekend pickup games, the teams are often co-ed.

"I like it because men and women play equally in a combat sport that's fast and dangerous," said Anne Palenske, a business development officer for Fidelcor Business Credit Corp. in Irvine.

Palenske, 47, who played three chukkers recently at Beach Cities, regularly plays with the Will Rogers Polo Club on its outdoor grass field in Pacific Palisades. She maintains two horses in Orange Park Acres and owns a trailer to transport them to matches. Lauren Foster, a 20-year-old art history major from Pacific Palisades who plays on the USC women's polo team, said her team practices are co-ed.

"We work out with the men a lot so we're more aggressive," she said. "It's either sink or swim. You can't be afraid of speed or swinging mallets."

Patch calls it "riding under stress."

"You're sitting on 1,000 pounds of independent activity that doesn't always want to do what you want to do, and there are five other people out there in the same situation," Patch said.

Just striking the ball is tricky at best. Judging the distance from hand to ball can be difficult, particularly when the hand holding the mallet is bobbing atop a galloping horse. And players agreed that balance must be automatic and riding skills second-nature before novice players can even think about building their game skills.

The riding is not done with the same studied form used in, for instance, dressage or show jumping. In such events, Patch said, "you learn how to look pretty and sit a horse in a certain manner, but in polo, you still must maintain that balance in the saddle even when you're reaching out in front of you for a shot. Once you get past the intellectual part, you learn reflexes and learn to ride in a more natural manner."

And then, he said, you can kiss your non-polo days goodby.

"I've quit the game three times in my life," he said, "and always come back. It's like an infectious disease you can't get rid of."

Novice player Avila has already contracted it.

"It gets more complicated the more involved you get," he said, "but it also gets to be more fun. In the scrimmages yesterday, I just had a big smile on my face all the time. I was laughing because I was having such a good time."

And his friend Walker, who said he can't wait to try large-field polo "where you can turn your horse loose," may have hit on the only sure cure.

"Maybe if I win the lottery," he said. "Then I can afford to play full time."

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