Pounding hooves raised a haze of dust in the fading evening light as horses and riders with mallets galloped around an indoor arena at Knox Butte Equine Acres in Albany.
It was a scene from a recent scrimmage match featuring members of the Oregon State University Polo Club. The players chased a small leather ball the size of a softball and stitched like a soccer ball. Imagine a cross between soccer and croquet – all on horseback.
OSU’s polo club is the oldest sports club on campus. It started in the 1920s as a military club where soldiers were trained to ride horses, said Erika Hanna, the club president and a senior in speech communication.
Despite its long history and some strong showings in recent years in regional competition, the club has a low profile on campus. Now, though, club members want to increase awareness of the club and its membership.
“The women’s varsity team have won regionals in 2008 and 2009,” Hanna said. They lost in a shoot-out in the regional finals this year.
The teams lined up at the center of the field, three on three, facing the sideline. The ball was tossed in and the scramble for possession began.
Brandon Alcott, a graduate student at Willamette University who coaches the team, watched and offered instruction.
“Fritz, when you’re dribbling, you’re a little relaxed in your wrist,” Alcott said.
And a little later: “Whoa, that’s a foul,” Alcott said. And so play halted for a penalty shot.
“I hit my horse on the leg” with the mallet, said Paul Cebra, a freshman in animal science, pre-vet. “That’s a foul.”
Most of the rules in polo are designed for safety, particularly the protection of the horses. The horses’ legs are wrapped in neon tape to prevent injury to their tendons from mallets and hooves. Riders sometimes wear hats with a steel face mask.
A game is comprised of four “chukkers,” or quarters, of 71/2 minutes each.
“The line of the ball is most important,” Hanna said, noting a player cannot cross the line of the ball.
“You’re not allowed to swoop in and cut someone off. It’s like driving,” Alcott said.
Polo players exhibit both elegance and aggression on horseback.
“You need to ride incredibly well and have amazing hand-eye coordination,” Hanna said. “You have to have the guts to fly down the field. It can be downright scary.”
Membership in most polo clubs requires significant resources.
“It’s always been called the sport of kings. It’s a very expensive sport to get into,” said Hanna, explaining that participating in polo usually requires big money, years of training and the right family or club connections.
But at OSU, a new member doesn’t even need to know how to ride. The club members train new riders. A new member pays an initial $180 membership fee and $230 per term to participate. The fees cover the costs of the care and boarding of the horses and the rental of their training arena.
“It’s completely possible to walk into the club and never been on a horse and win regionals at the end of your senior year,” Hanna said. “But you have to want it.”
“It was the first opportunity I’ve ever had to be around horses,” said Pat Wagner, a sophomore in business and the club’s fundraising officer. “I always loved horses. Being a city kid, I was afraid to tell anyone because they’d make fun of me. “
A high school lacrosse player, Wagner began riding with the club 18 months ago.
“I gave riding a try, and I loved it. It’s the best sport I’ve ever played,” he said. “There’s nothing more exciting than flying around at a gallop.”