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East County Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018 7 months ago

Back in the Saddle

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Knowing how to ride a horse is one thing, but playing polo is an entirely different animal.
by: Kat Hughes Executive Editor

Keep your reins straight. Grab with your knees. Lean over the ball. Head down. Keep the ball in front of you. Don’t cut off the line.

My head was full of tips and instruction as I tried to do something that sounds simple, but I assure you, is not: Hit a ball with a mallet while riding a horse. 

I grew up on horses on a family farm in Kearney, Neb. From the time I was old enough to sit up, I was plopped on a horse. They do not intimidate me. Taking a polo class should have been no sweat. Show up. Mount a pony. Smack a ball around a field. No problem. Right?

Wrong. 

I arrived at the Sarasota Polo Club grounds, light rain sprinkling the fields and pinging off the top of the horse trailer, and I quickly got off my high horse. 

The first thing my instructor, Scott Lancaster, did was explain the rules of the game. Oh, right. Rules. As we stood on the ground, pretending to be on horses, he runs through the things I need to know, and more importantly, avoid, as a polo player. 

He asks me if I have ever been to a polo match. Many, I say. Then he asks me some specific questions of what I’d seen during the matches. I start to squirm, unable to come up with the answers. 

“Sounds like you were there for the Champagne,” he says.

It’s like he knows me. 

The author attempts to hit the ball while trotting, which coach Scott Lancaster following with instruction.

Luckily, I’m a quick study. The most important thing to know is there’s an inherent danger in riding a galloping horse and hitting a ball surrounded by other players who are trying to do the same — but in the opposite direction. 

Safety is paramount.

With the safety-first mentality in place, here is my idiot’s guide (the idiot being me) translation of Lancaster’s crash course in polo:

1.) When riding to the ball, don’t cut off other players. The straight path from players to the ball is called the line. Just like driving a car, you’re supposed to stay in your lane. If you cut someone off by cutting off the line, you’re no different than that jerk on the interstate swerving in and out of traffic. It sounds simple, but when you’re focused on the ball, you can easily forget about the line and other players. To keep it straight, repeat this sequence: “Man/line/ball.” It means look for the player hitting the ball, hone in on the line where the ball was hit and then bolt to that spot and give the ball a whack. Repeat. 

2.) If you are on the line and trying to get to the ball, instead of cutting someone off, try to “ride off” your opponent by “escorting” them off the ball (sounds polite, doesn’t it?). Using your horse, you bump or crowd them out, putting you in a more dominant position to hit the ball. You can only do this if you’re going at the same speed and you’re not approaching at an angle. Just like driving, it’s OK to be aggressive, as long as you’re calculating about it. 

3.)  Each player on a team is “marked up” with a player from the other team. Think of it as one-on-one defense. This helps simplify what you’re watching on Sundays. Each player is defending one other player. 

4.) Look behind you. It’s easy to have tunnel vision when the ball is in front of you. But there are other players, too, remember? To really excel at the game, a player needs to know who’s bringing up the rear. You could have a teammate back there open for a pass, or a teammate behind you could have the ball and be looking for someone to receive it up front. These ponies don’t come with rearview mirrors, so you have to turn your head.  

Like I said. No sweat.

A Pricey Passion 

According to Lancaster, Sarasota Polo Club’s de facto historian, the polo school began in 2006. Lancaster, now 54, ran it from 2007 until 2011. 

An amenity of the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club, the polo grounds are owned and operated by Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. The polo school accommodates everyone, from first-time riders to seasoned players looking to sharpen their game. Horses, equipment and instruction are all provided, if needed, and lessons are given every day but Monday. In addition to offering single riding classes and polo lessons, the school hosts a 10-week course on the game. Unlike other fast-paced sports, you can be over 60 and still have a place on the field. Sarasota’s club has players ranging in age from 9 to 71 years old. 

On a recent Thursday, three players were out playing arena chukkers. (FYI: A chukker is to polo what a quarter is to football, i.e., a period of play.) The arena — a sandy, enclosed ring — is a slower, more forgiving place to learn the sport. One of the players, Renee Dinan, says she signed up for a lesson three years ago because polo “looked interesting and a little crazy.” She’s candid about her skill level and pokes fun at herself for being a bit of a timid rider. But she doesn’t care. She loves the sport, and the horses. “Anyone can do it,” Dinan says. “Anyone with a lot of money,” she adds with a laugh. 

Lessons aren’t unreasonable, as far country club sports go. (A lesson for a member runs $90 to $125 depending on whether you provide the horse.) The ego, however, can be the most expensive thing, Lancaster says. 

Horses can be bought for $3,500, but it’s possible to spend up to $100,000 for a prized pony. Plus, when players put together teams, they often hire professional talent to increase the team handicap. Polo players are rated on a handicap scale from minus-one to plus-10. The higher the handicap, the better the player. Those with purse strings to match their passion can spend millions. 

“You know how you can make a small fortune in polo?” Lancaster says. “Start with a big one.”

Wild at Heart 

Looking and feeling ridiculous in my blue jeans and cowboy boots, Lancaster fits me with a riding helmet that looks as out of place as I feel. 

The cowgirl look suited me better in Nebraska. My grandparents, cattle ranchers and farmers, had quarter horses that were broken to move cows. By the time I was old enough to ride alone, there wasn’t much cattle left to move. The horses were fat and ornery, retired to a happy life of grazing in the pasture. Riding them could get a bit wild. 

With our horses, a successful day was measured by staying in the saddle. You’d think all this experience wrangling unruly horses would make me a natural polo player. Yet, sitting in my polo-style English saddle, fiddling with my mallet, I realized I was as rough around the edges as the animals I grew up riding. The polo field is not the Wild West. It’s orderly and genteel.  It is not a place to be Calamity Jane. 

My horse’s name is Jewell, and sitting astride her back, it feels great to be back in the saddle, even if it feels like half of it is missing compared to the Western one I’m used to.

The Sarasota Polo Club offers lessons for anyone who wants to try the sport.

Lancaster and I ride out to a practice field behind the polo club’s barns. He outlines our “goal” with a couple orange cones, and drops the ball in front of me. “OK. Let’s give it a try,” he says. 

It’s immediately apparent that Jewell knows more about this sport than I do. While my head is swimming with rules and reins and technique, Jewell walks up to the ball ... and stops. “This is your cue to hit it, dummy,” she seems to say. Following her lead, I shift my weight in the saddle, lean out over her right side, cock my mallet back the way Lancaster showed me, swing it forward and … whiff. I miss the ball entirely. Jewell moves forward in anticipation of the hit, so the ball is behind me now, still nestled in the grass where Lancaster dropped it. He expertly swats it in front of me so I can try again. 

After more whiffs and “thuds” that send the ball skipping forward only a few feet, I connect with it, sending it 20 yards (OK, more like 10), in front of us with a solid “thwack!” Success!

With practice, I start getting more thwacks than thuds. It’s like golf: You have a lot of miss-hits, but when you nail the sweet spot, it’s euphoric. I start to feel a rhythm and consistency as we make our way back across the field.

Lancaster lags behind me to return the ball every time I miss. 

“You want to be hitting the ball 12 to 18 inches in front of your stirrup,” he says, as I let it get behind me. 

“Keep your head down as you swing,” he says, as I look up and fail to connect with the ball.

“Don’t try to kill it,” he chides, as I torque the mallet too hard.

Although he is a polo veteran, Lancaster didn’t grow up playing the game, or even around horses. He was working in the swimming pool business in Dallas when he got a gig promoting indoor polo. “I had only ridden a horse twice in my life up until that time, and neither of those had gone particularly well,” he says. 

He became the general manager of the Dallas team, the Dragoons, and, for a promotional stunt, the league had him face off against the general manager of the Fort Worth team, “So they could laugh at our ineptness,” he jokes. 

Thirty-one years later, his life now revolves around the sport. He spends six months of the year in St. Louis, and the rest of the year in Sarasota, with his 14 horses in tow. 

For some, polo is all about the equines. For Lancaster, it’s more about the people. He’s as delighted leading novices in a “hit and giggle” chukker as he is preparing pros to play in a league. “It’s just fun watching people get better,” he says.

The Ride Home 

Lancaster asks if I want to trot, which I interpret as a sign I’m not entirely pathetic, and have been granted permission to proceed to the next step.

I enthusiastically comply, giving Jewell a gentle kick.

After a few trips trotting back and forth, I feel the familiar twinge of lactic acid in my thighs, a tightening in my shoulder blades and a stinging in my mallet hand. Looking down, I see two blisters on my right hand where the mallet has worn its way through my top layer of skin. 

“Looks like we’ve got a bit of fatigue,” Lancaster says. 

“Well, I’ve got a blister,” I say, trying to sound like I’m not tired and my blisters don’t hurt. Liar.  

We agree to one more trip down the field. By this time, Jewell can tell whether I’ve had a good hit just by the sound of my contact with the ball. When she hears the solid “thwack,” she starts trotting. When she hears “thud,” she slows to a walk. 

There are a lot of thuds. 

Blisters be damned, I finish it with one last “goal” through the cones. We head in, Lancaster to tend to his next clients and me to tend to my raw hand. 

As we ride off the field, the sun slicing through the trees, the humidity zapped by a slight breeze, I close my eyes and breathe in the unmistakable scent of horses. Both of my grandparents are gone now, and even though we still have the farm, we recently had to put down our last two horses. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I miss sitting 14 hands high in a saddle, looking out at the world over two ears and a mane. 

After climbing down, I pet Jewell’s silky nose. “Bye, Jewell,” I say into her ear before leaving. 

I’ll be back. And next time, I’ll bring a glove.

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