This past weekend the world watched as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle said their vows and presented themselves for the first time on the steps of St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. With the monarchy's affinity for horses and equestrian sports, it's quite likely that in the not-so-distant future we'll see photos of Markle taking in a polo match, likely cheering on her new husband in the irons.
You don't have to be royalty to enjoy the other sport of kings. All over the country, polo clubs are gearing up for their summer playing seasons and charity tournaments. For horse lovers and sports fans alike, taking in a polo match or even trying one's hand at the sport can be a fun and entertaining option to enjoy with family or friends, and for those with a penchant for Thoroughbreds, it's a wonderful way to appreciate a different set of skills possessed by our favorite breed.
“An OTTB is oftentimes the best fit for the sport of polo, as their life on the track exposes them to so much that they can easily adjust to life as a polo pony,” said Hillary Ramspacher, representative for the Lexington Polo Club. “We personally look for compact fillies under 15.3 hands with short cannon bones and a strong hip, but regardless of size, the major key to any successful OTTB polo pony is the soundness of both its mind and body.”
A native of Drexel Hill, Pa., Ramspacher is a well-rounded horse woman, growing up riding hunters before getting a taste of the racing world riding amateur point-to-point races. After moving to Kentucky for college, she knew she'd found the place she wanted to call home. Today she manages the office of Burleson Farm, a Thoroughbred breeding operation in Midway, Ky., oversees communications for the Lexington Polo School, helps to keep the Lexington Polo School's horses ridden regularly and fit for play and competes in eventing and dressage on her personal horse.
In the sport of polo, the caliber of a player is identified by that player's handicap, which represents how many goals the player may be worth to his or her team and helps tournament organizers in matching teams evenly. This also extends to team play, as a team's handicap is the number of all team members' handicaps combined. Player handicaps take into account a player's horsemanship, team play, knowledge of the sport, strategy and string of horses. Polo handicaps can range from -2 (a novice player) to 10 (an expert professional – there are only a few dozen 10-goal players in the world).
“A polo player is only as good as he or she is mounted. The quality of their string makes up about 80-percent of their ability on the field,” said Ramspacher. “At the highest levels, the speed, stamina and agility of the Thoroughbred cannot be matched. Professional high goalers will typically have entire strings comprised of some version of the Thoroughbred. It's rare to find a horse playing in a high goal tournament anywhere in the world today that is not comprised of mostly Thoroughbred blood.”
Unlike racing, however, polo does not require any type of registration of its equine athletes in order for them to compete. Therefore, in addition to the many retired racehorses who call polo their second career, there are numerous unregistered Thoroughbreds playing polo that either never made it to the racetrack (and therefore were not registered or tattooed) or that were specifically bred for polo via artificial insemination or more recently even cloning.
Like so many of the polo clubs around the country, Lexington Polo encourages spectators to come out and watch practices and matches. Throughout the summer, members of Lexington Polo practice on the polo fields at the Kentucky Horse Park on Wednesday and Friday evenings, with club matches typically held on Sunday mornings, with dates, times and changes to the schedule regularly posted on Lexington Polo's website and on their Facebook and Instagram (@lexingtonpolo) pages.
Polo is a social sport for both the players and the spectators. Field-side tailgating is always encouraged and is a great way for friends or family to enjoy each other's company over food and/or cocktails in a beautiful and unique setting. Often clubs will also have announcers calling the match and offering tidbits of information to help newcomers better understand and follow the game.
“We encourage everyone to come out and support the players and ponies while enjoying an afternoon of horses and sunshine,” said Ramspacher. “Bring a tailgate, a picnic lunch or just yourselves with a blanket or chairs.”
Ramspacher suggests those new to the sport go to the U. S. Polo Association website, where they offer a Spectator's Guide that can serve as an easy reference for anyone attending a match to define terminology being used, playing strategy and basic rules of the game. The website also features a list of polo clubs throughout the country so potential spectators can reach out to inquire about matches and events near them.
For those wanting to take the next step and try their hand at polo, Ramspacher says many of the polo clubs throughout the nation offer lessons for riders of all levels.
“If you are even remotely thinking about trying polo, my advice is to do it,” said Ramspacher. “You really don't need much to see if the sport is for you. Here at the Lexington Polo School, we supply all of the tack, the ponies and the mallets. The only things students need to bring with them are boots with a heel and a properly fitted riding helmet. We suggest having a pair of gloves too, but they aren't required for lessons.”
Being situated in the Horse Capital of the World, it's only natural that most of the horses used to play polo in the Lexington Polo Club and in the Lexington Polo School are Thoroughbreds. Eight of the club's lesson ponies are full Thoroughbreds, with five having had racing careers prior to playing polo.
“One mare in particular is a Texas-bred who played at the highest level in the U. S. before stepping down to help the next generation of players learn the game. She raced 20 times over the course of two years, earning just over $14,000 before retiring as a 4-year-old,” said Ramspacher. “She has natural talent for the game and was playing in the 26-goal tournaments just three years after her last race. Now, she's one of the best teachers we have, happily packing children around while they learn to swing a mallet one day, then being used by a professional in an important game the next day.”
For more information on the Lexington Polo club, go to www.lexingtonpolo.com or email them at [email protected]. To find a club in your area and see when matches or polo lessons are held, go to https://www.uspolo.org/sport/learn-to-play and scroll down to enter your zip code and find contact information for a polo club near you.
Jen Roytz is a marketing, publicity and comprehensive communications specialist based in Lexington, Kentucky and was recently named the Executive Director of the Retired Racehorse Project. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, her professional focus lies in the fields of equine, health care, corporate and non-profit marketing. She is the go-to food source for one dog, two cats and two off-track Thoroughbreds.
Email Jen your story ideas at [email protected] or connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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