Looking for something new to do with the kids? How about something you might have assumed required dressing up and having a lot of extra cash but I just found out can also be cheap and casual? If your offspring like sitting dangerously close to large, galloping horses being ridden by men swinging around long sticks with mallets on the end, then polo might be for you!
Having come from a notch below the middle class upbringing and then having just enough money to get by once I married and the kids came along, I never imagined I could find myself enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon at a polo match. It always seemed like a sport for people who didn’t have a closet full of knit clothes that can also double as work out gear.
But last weekend we found ourselves about an hour from home, in the equine centered city of Saratoga Springs, New York, home of the Saratoga Race Track. It would have been easy to ‘go to the races’. In fact, it was the weekend of the famous Travers Stakes in Saratoga. But we tend to be people who don’t follow the obvious crowd. On our drive through the downtown area we noticed a very small sign that simply said, “Polo – 5:30.”
Hmmm. Polo, huh? The clock in the minivan read 5:12. We’d never seen a polo match. It was just too tempting to pass up. We were very aware that it might require more money than we currently have in the bank, or clothes that we might not even have in our drawers at home, but it was worth a nibble.
And as every great adventure dictates, we followed windy roads back into the woods, past beautiful historic homes, down narrow streets that led to a dirt road. The first gate we came to said “$25 a person.” We kept driving. Miraculously the next gate said, “$25 a carload.” Now that was right up our alley.
We shelled out our crumbled up bills and drove up the grassy hill into a brand new world. Although we’d been warned by the gate attendant that we were very late and in danger of not finding a good spot, we were pleasantly surprised by what we found.
The field was right in front of us. The one row of cars that preceded us were backed right up to the edge of it. We didn’t get a front row spot, but once we’d parked in the second row, we dug the lawn chairs out of the trunk and perched ourselves right in front of the bleachers, just as close as the early arrivers.
We looked around saw that we were not under-dressed at all. Across the wide field we could see the club house, and the folks who’d paid five times more than we had, and I assumed their attire was a bit more fancy than our own, but the folks on our side of the grass had on t-shirts and shorts not unlike our own. It was startling to discover that polo can be for anyone, even us, the van full of the uncool. The atmosphere was more about Sunday afternoon relaxing, not putting on airs.
Many families spread out blankets and had full picnics. There were sun umbrellas to block the setting sun and a beer vendor who drove a golf cart up and down the lane in front of us. We’d brought along snacks, so we hunkered down to see this new sport.
The beauty of polo for kids is that they are right next to the action. In fact, parents had to be diligent in watching wanderers. There was only a thin yellow rope separating us from the horses that rushed by in a full gallop.
The announcer did a great job of keeping us newbies informed about how the game was played. There was just enough commentary to keep us interested and involved. Some of the things I didn’t know about polo, that made for a fun family afternoon:
– The match consists of six periods, called chukkers, which means halftime comes after the third chukker. As soon as the horn sounds, spectators are encouraged to run out onto the field and stomp down the divots. As fun music blasts from the speakers, the young and old run, dance, and stretch their legs.
– Anything left behind on the field by the players is considered fair game, free for the taking. After each chukker the players ride back to trailers to switch out the horses and fans are encouraged to run out and retrieve any treasure that’s been left behind, including but not limited to stray horse shoes, broken mallets, and dinged up balls. It’s like a great big (violent) Easter egg hunt.
– The trailers, where the horses are switched out, are parked right behind the parking lot. Fifty yards from our minivan was a row of the most beautiful horses I’ve seen in a long while. Their groom was friendly and excited to share all he knew about the sport. We went over to ask him for a broken mallet but ended up chatting with him for a half an hour. We learned many geeky facts, including the fact that most polo ponies come from Argentina because American horses get spooked by men riding them and swinging sticks around (imagine that).
– These matches are played three times a week, which explains why they are not more crowded. The flexible schedule means there might be a match that fits into any family’s schedule.
– At the end of the matches all spectators, from both sides of the field, are encouraged to gather mid field for the trophy presentations. Kids can mingle with the players, get autographs, and see the horses up close. A tradition of opening a bottle of wine with a sword is practiced. (And what’s more fun for kids, especially boys, than seeing a sharp sword meet up with the long glass neck of a bottle?)
– The United States Polo Association has a great map on their website, where you can track down matches in your area. The Saratoga Polo Association also has a great website that spells out the rules and unique facts about the sport of polo. It’s easy to navigate and full of good information.
As we drove away that night I vowed to come back again. Next time we will bring the classic picnic basket and arrive early enough to back the van right up to the field. It’s much cheaper than taking my van full of kids to the movies and there’s even an element of danger. Who knows? Next time we might even come home with a stray horse shoe or two.