Yes, women play polo. So if you think of the sport as a game played predominantly by men and only for the rich and famous, think again. In fact, most historians believe polo is the oldest recorded team sport of both men and women in the world. And thankfully, the game is no longer limited to those with a hefty stock portfolio.
In golf, women and men can play from different tees; in polo, everyone plays at the same level of difficulty. “It’s the only sport I know of where men and women play as equals on the field,” says John Rosene, president of Barrington Hills Polo Club. “There’s a handicapping system that plays from -2 to 10. A player who’s handicapped at, let’s say +1 or +2, is absolutely equal to that of any other player handicapped at that level.” He adds, “It’s always a big surprise when a high school girl forces her way onto a football field. Most of the time, women play women’s soccer or women’s basketball. But with polo, it’s truly a co-ed sport.”
Originating in Persia, the sport traveled to Asia, Argentina and even Mongolia before hitting the U.S. While some games are played in indoor arenas, traditional polo is played outside on a grass field, typically 300 yards long and 160 yards wide…just about the size of three football fields put together!
A team is made up of four polo players on horseback who wield long wooden mallets to hit a small white plastic ball into the opposing team’s goal. The ball can be whacked, resulting with a speed of 110 miles an hour. Players must stay at a gallop, with their polo pony in line with the ball to either pass it ahead to a teammate or hit the ball down the field to attempt a goal.
A match lasts one-and-a-half hours, divided into four time periods or ‘chukkers,’ each lasting approximately seven minutes. While that may seem like a short time, it’s very exhausting for both the players and horses. Players ride a different polo pony for each chukker due to the extreme demands on the animal. At half time, spectators participate in the divot stomping tradition on the field, to help replace divots created by the horse’s hooves.
However intense the sport may seem, learning to play initially requires only modest training. Barrington Hills Polo Club offers a spring and fall training program that meets once a week for six weeks. Instructors belong to the U.S. Polo Association and take special care with all students. “We take people who’ve never been on a horse before and have them playing the same day,” says Mr. Rosene. “We provide everything they need: equipment, horses, everything.” Women often make up nearly half of the students in the program and continue to play on a regular basis.
Amateur polo player Megan West, 27, has been playing for seven years and loves every minute of it. “People see polo as a hobby, but it’s a lifestyle. Anyone can learn to play,” she says. “Polo in general can involve riding multiples horses, and keeping the horses fit means a lot of time in the saddle!”
While riding is essentially the best way to exercise and practice, Ms. West says cross training is necessary to maintain strength year round. “In the summer, I’m usually just playing polo, grooming, exercising horses and doing farm chores [stacking hay, grooming horses, et cetera]. In winter, I found that yoga and building core strength is the most helpful. I started doing a bit of weight lifting as well.”
While she happens to play polo up to four times a week, Ms. West maintains that it’s not out of reach for anyone thinking about trying: “Getting out and riding is what’s most important.”
Main photo: Debra Hasanoglu races Joan-Carles Brugué in the 2013 LeCompte Kalaway Landowners Cup.