Ancient game lives on in southern New Mexico
In Santa Teresa children are climbing on horses and practicing for battle – and they are winning.
Polo Coach Yvonne Golston, a certified U.S. Polo Association Umpire and Lt. Governor of the Border Circuit, through the past five years has transformed her local Interscholastic Team of 8th to 12th graders from novice riders into a winning polo team, Rancho Naranjo.
The team tied for second place in the Central Region, which stretches from Michigan to Arizona and includes 13 polo teams. The team then participated in regional competitions, held Feb. 19 to 21 in Houston where the team took second place.
“The win on Saturday over Houston was thrilling as Naranjo came from behind to beat Houston in the last few seconds,” Golston said. “The kids’ families, about 25 people, attended and the cheering was defening.”
They lost the Sunday game against the Prestonwood team from Dallas, 16-8, and since only the first place team advances to nationals, won’t be traveling to the next level this year.
“We took eight horses for the games,” Golston said. “This includes four days of hauling so that the horses can ‘overnight’ halfway to rest. The horses and handlers arrive two days before the competition so that they may again rest.”
She said the team is currently looking for potential high school participants to join the team. But she added the sport is a big commitment both in time and cost.
“My time with this young team is limited,” Golston said. “Two members of the team (Fritz and Franz Felhaber) will graduate in May and go off to college. I am so proud of all the young men and women and am in awe of their playing ability. Polo is a game that many people play for their entire lifetime, so I’m sure that Fritz and Franz will continue to play, intercollegiate polo is available at some colleges and universities, and contribute to the sport for many years to come.”
The Border Circuit Polo School run by Golston also includes a middle school team with students from grades 5 to 8.
Four 10-year-olds are getting ready to compete for the first time next year.
“Even though I haven’t started official-
By Elva K. Österreich
Las Cruces Bulletin ly competing, I look forward to following in the footsteps of my Dad and older cousins,” said 10-year-old Alec Felhaber.
“We have an amazing coach, trainer and mentor and I look forward to continuing in our family’s stirrups.”
Alec’s twin brother Cole said polo is his passion.
“I have always enjoyed being with my family and the amazing horses,” Cole said. “The sport is helping me focus on a goal, to be a great player and enjoy this amazing sport.”
“It takes years to really develop a team,” Golston said. “They have to learn everything. It’s very complex.”
Golston is one of a few women umpires certified by the U.S. Polo Association and has been teaching interscholastic polo since 2010 when she established the Border Circuit Polo School. She also founded the first Polo team at New Mexico State University in 1994.
Golston’s team of local polo players is based at Rancho Naranjo in Santa Teresa.
For competitions the team travels to Houston, Dallas and Midland, Texas; Scottsdale, Arizona; Santa Fe and Pie Town. They participate in the National Youth Tournament Series which allows people up to the age of 19 to participate.
“They enter as individuals not as teams,” Golston said. “We travel to different venues throughout the summer.”
For more information, contact Golston at 505-920-3046.
Polo is actually played on two different areas/arenas. One variation is arena polo, which is played on a dirt field that measures 300 by 150 feet. The other is field polo, where the playing area is much larger at 300 yards by 160 yards. Each has runoff areas to help avoid collisions and crashes, and both employ similar rules with a few exceptions.
“Arena polo has walls, and they are used to bounce the ball off of,” Golston said. “The rider with the right of way has the right to hit the ball, and the wall is considered another ‘man’ on a team.”
A leather ball is often used for arena polo, as opposed to a plastic or wooden one for field polo.
The point of the game, of course, is to score points, which is achieved when a player hits the ball between the posts of a goalpost. Field polo has four players per team, and the goals change sides after each point. Arena polo utilizes three players per team. There are two umpires to monitor the action, while a third official sits midfield to act as a go-between in case the two umpires disagree on a call. Each player has a handicap, which is not a bad thing. Winston Churchill, a fan of the sport, is quoted as saying, “a polo handicap is your window to the world.” Handicaps help balance the field a bit, with a -2 being a low rating, and 10 being the best. A team’s combined handicap can also allow it to have a bonus point or if one team is weaker than the other.
A match consists of six chukkers (periods) of seven and a half minutes each. Riders switch ponies often, almost always after each chukker so to not overwork the animals.
Although it seems that most players would need to have a stable full of fresh mounts, Golston said it is not uncommon for players to rent ponies for a game, by the chukker.
“The umpire also has the right to order a horse off the field if she says that it is in distress,” she said. “They are required to do that.”
Golston said often the rules are at the discretion of the umpire. This can, of course, result in a fair amount of carping about a decision.
The origins of polo seem to suggest that at one time it was used as a war-training game, perhaps as far back as 600 BC. Indications are that the game started in Persia.
Later it went to India, where again the sport was probably used for cavalry training. There, polo was hijacked by the British — who came up with their own set of rules, of course. According to Wikipedia, the term “polo” comes from the Tibetan word for ball, pulu.
“Chinese women played polo in the early days,” Golston said.
Polo remains a worldwide sport, and there is a movement to get it returned as an Olympic event. Golston said Argentina is where polo is most popular.
“It’s as popular there as football is here,” she said. “A game can draw 30,000-40,000 people. They have the best players, and fans will sometimes even know the horse’s names. The Argentine Open is played in the center of Buenos Aires.”
In the United States, polo’s heyday was during the Depression, as a form of escape for all of the weary people of the land.
Jeff Berg contributed to this story.