Campus Polo Clubs Are Few but Ardent
After a recent practice south of Austin, members of the University of Texas Polo Club went back to the stable to feed the horses and discuss their workout over cheap domestic beer.
This is the glamorous world of polo?
The sport whose name and associations to wealth and leisure began a clothing empire? Well, yes and no.
Of the 22 universities with competitive polo clubs, about half are from agricultural colleges, said Daniel M. Scheraga, executive director of the Polo Training Foundation, an organization based in Tully, N.Y., that promotes polo, particularly at the collegiate and scholastic levels.
There are several differences between polo that is played outdoors and arena polo, which is played indoors by college polo teams.Â Polo is played on a field that is 200 by 300 yards.Â Arena polo is in an enclosed area 100 yards long by 50 feet wide, about the size of a football field.
The current national champion in men’s polo is Texas A&M, and Cornell holds the women’s title. The format is the same for men’s and women’s college divisions: the winners of each of the league’s three regions and up to three wild cards will play at the national tournament. The regionals began this weekend, and the final regional competition is at Cornell from March 14 to 17. The nationals are scheduled at the Brushy Creek Polo Ranch near Fort Worth from April 1 to 6.
The smaller distances of arena polo allow players to use horses that have been retired from outdoor polo and donated to the college teams. Another difference is that college polo is segregated by gender; outdoor and interscholastic polo are not.
Indoors or out, the most important polo rule is staying out of the line of the ball. This means not pulling out in front of a galloping horse and causing an accident. Cutting players off is not allowed, but pushing a horse out of the way is permissible, as long as horses make contact at the shoulder.
“It’s like a gladiator sport,” said Cissie Jones, director of the Central region, which is holding its tournament this weekend at Brushy Creek. “It’s very much a contact sport, like hockey.”
A season of outdoor polo can cost more than $1 million, yet most college polo players need to pay only about $350 for each semester. Most college polo clubs survive on donations, with horses and equipment trickling down from outdoor polo.
College players’ expenses are reduced because the horses often do not travel. In a practice known as split string, the home team provides all the horses, and the teams switch horses in the middle of the game to ensure that the home team is not keeping the best beasts.
Scheraga jokingly refers to college polo as socialist because of the sharing of horses and equipment.
“It’s real down home,” Scheraga said. “You don’t have the snob appeal.”
Most college polo players come to the sport knowing how to ride a horse, but never having played polo. Terry Jones, the faculty adviser for the New Mexico State club, says most of the polo players are from small agricultural communities in that state. Like many clubs, New Mexico State’s operates without extensive university support.
“No scholarships, no coach,” Jones said.
A few college teams have experienced players. David Eldredge, Cornell’s coach, said a number of the female players were recruited, even though the university cannot offer athletic scholarships.
“It takes a lot of dedication to be in the polo club,” said Jennifer Obert, 21, a member of the Texas women’s team. “I plan my school schedule around when I can get out to the barn.”