Polo is referred to as “The Sport of Kings”. The equestrian team sport, which can trace its roots as far back as sixth century AD in Persia, was traditionally reserved for wealthy men.
That certainly isn’t the case anymore as the sport has seen an increase in women join the amateur and professional ranks as well as children beginning to learn from an early age.
“Most people enter polo in their 50s, but that’s changing because there are a lot of programs now for young people; I’m very jealous,” said Jennifer Williams, club manager and polo instructor at Farmington Polo Club in Connecticut. “Usually, people need to have a little more time to invest into it — their job is tapering off, their kids are older — so that’s why you find the majority of people were men in their 50s. That’s changing drastically; there are a ton of women in polo and there are a lot of young kids playing.”
Sue Sally Hale broke America’s polo gender barrier in 1972 when she gained membership into the sport’s national governing body. Before that, she played matches disguised as a man for two decades. Hale’s daughter, Sunny, continued her mother’s legacy, becoming the first woman to compete on a winning team in the U.S. Open in 2000.
Williams first got involved in the sport while attending Tulane University, learning from a father of three who she babysat for. Williams had prior experience playing stick sports — ice hockey and lacrosse — but didn’t have an extensive riding background.
“He said, ‘Hop on and try it,’ and I was instantly addicted,” she said. “It’s highly addictive.”
Williams, who has been playing polo for 12 years, was in New York City for the Victory Cup Fall Classic, held on Governors Island for the first time. Farmington Polo Club used the event as an opportunity to generate awareness for their Dream Ride team, a charity team that benefits the Special Olympics. Williams also made it a priority to compile a diverse team, including herself, former collegiate player Patrick Marinelli, Winston Painter, 14, and Cuko Escapite, a professional from Mexico.
“I’ve seen people from really all walks of life playing polo,” said Marinelli, who played collegiately at the University of Connecticut and has 10 years of polo experience. “It doesn’t matter how athletic you are. Even if you’re the most athletic person you know or anyone has met, it’s still going to take you a long time to learn how to ride the horse and then learn the timing of hitting the ball while riding it.
“Everyone is kind of starting out with the same, you-know-nothing platform. I think it’s a great equalizer in the sport. That’s why everyone can compete.”