Post Sandy Polo

Finally back online. It was a strange couple days. No power, no internet, no cell. Whatever did we do with ourselves before Facebook. The time seemed pretty endless. We are just now starting to feel the ripple effect from trouble in NJ and Westchester/ Rockland. Our gas stations are running out of fuel. The ones open have long lines. Rationing won’t be too far behind. I don’t think I have ever seen that before. Guess I have been lucky enough to not have dealt with any disasters like this one.

It has been hard getting back into my routine. Between Tough Mudder and then Sandy my whole set schedule went right out the window. I have been working hard these past couple days to try and bring it back to where it was. I am happy to return to the gym, even if it is just a light work. Trying to keep it reasonable since I haven’t been able to kick this cold. But today felt closer to my normal intensity and was great.

I returned to polo last night. It has been something I have been so conflicted about. Don’t get me wrong I love polo, and really need the weekly adrenaline rush. It is just a real stretch and I know I have really felt better without riding. Yesterday marked 4 weeks without sitting on a horse. I had gotten to the point where I could get out of bed. I wasn’t waking up every time I tried to roll over. It had gotten so bad, and I knew one of the major contributing factors was the riding. But I just couldn’t stay away. The guy who runs the club gave me a good number of chukkars, far more than I needed. but he is smart, he wanted to set that hook. I found myself so happy, in fact it bordered on bliss. How often can I say that. Rare indeed. I don’t know if it is the speed, or the contact, or maybe even the people. It is probably a combination of all. Polo is a rush. In some cases it gets pretty close to how you feel when you do drugs. That tingly heart racing minute when that line of coke meets the back of your nose and runs right thru you. It feels like every cell in your body stands at attention, everything is heightened and your nerves become so acutely aware. It is that feeling. Add in the aggressive nature of the full contact horse and rider pitted against another. There is not much delicate about it. though there is that finesse when you are feeling out that ball, it is actually delicate, though other times it is more muscle. It is the interplay of all those different things, all in the different moments. There is a time for riding hard to a play, when every ounce of energy is focused on beating your opponent to the ball (akin to a breakaway in hockey). But there is also that time to settle your horse and get a little extra out of them, not with a whip or a spur, but with a connection. In that moment you ask them to trust you. The good ones love the game and are keen to play. Others have played too much, too hard and are sour to it. Those are the ones you need to coax that play out of. Still others have played so fast they have really lost touch. They are the headcases. Unable to even see a polo ball without breaking into a sweat. They dance and jig and psych themselves up to such a degree that it is near impossible to create any connection with them. I like those horses. They tend to be so intelligent, and so responsive. They need a very specific ride to try to get them to love it again. Many can, but sadly some have lost their ability to remain in control once play starts. I try very hard with those types to make the game fun again, to give them choices and to put them into positions where they feel empowered. I know it sounds strange, but horses are quite smart. If they think it was their idea to begin with they are much more receptive to communication after that. Kind of like people. I know it seems manipulative, but it is only to try to get them to play again. Most horses have only experienced polo at the hands of men. They are roughly taught the skills they need, and are then used and abused. As much as I love polo, I hate what it does to so many horses. They have so much to give, and are so trusting. That trust is destroyed when they are put into positions where they become fearful. If they don’t have the experience and are suddenly asked to play very fast it just destroys them. That is what creates the headcase. Often they are the most talented. the fastest and most athletic. It is so easy for the professional to fall into the trap of putting the pedal to the floor. Just because they can go that fast doesn’t mean they “can”. If time is taken they would eventually be excellent, but instead they are discarded as unplayable. The fearful horse learns to evade. They may rear when mounted, or not leave the barn. They may decide to not stop. So many learn to run away. When 1200lbs decides it does not want to stop it is quite a problem. Often times it doesn’t matter what you put in their mouth. The harsher the bit the faster they run away. It is counter intuitive, but these are horses I often let run until they wear down. No pulling beyond some steering aids. The horse learns there is no pain involved, no pulling or yanking. It is remarkable how many settle as soon as they realize there is no pain. But is takes a leap of faith. To trust a horse nobody has ever trusted. to give that animal the opportunity to make the right decision. It is much like stepping off Smoke Chute at TM, it is just a matter of allowing yourself to be. It that moment the horse realizes you are giving them the opportunity and that they can be okay. It may take a lot of reinforcement, but many times these horses come around if they are just given the chance. Those are the ones I love. The throw aways. It is true that some might never recover, but many do. I like giving them the chance.

My grey mare is a complete wingnut. She is a true alpha mare, bordering on stallion like. When I first lay eyes on her she was standing in the back pen at a livestock auction. She was quiet, resting a hind leg. Not in the least bit upset, unlike so many around her. I knew in that moment that she was a confident horse. She didn’t need other horses or people to take cues from. She came home and settled in. The first time I sat on her she tested me. Systematically, each time she tried some ploy to convince me to get off, I corrected her without aggression. She would then try another one. Had I not been the one trying to stay on her it might have actually been amusing. In that first session, she came to figure out she had met her match. She wasn’t going to scare me, and that I in fact, might well have been as much a nut as she. That was almost 4 years ago. It the those years we have forged a strong bond. But that bond exists when I get on her. She has no use for me otherwise. Hell, I can’t even catch her out in the field. But when I put my polo gear on, she would go thru fire if I asked. She is so remarkable. I often wonder where she came from, and where she played. She has such talent and skill, I can only imagine. She played high goal pro polo without a doubt. For me she is perfect. Fast, strong and quick. I can think where I want to go and she is already headed there. There are no words to describe a relationship like that. There is no other like her. I feel unstoppable with her under me. there isn’t a single player that intimidates me, doesn’t matter how big they are, or how much better. I have her and we are a terrific team.

Polo came into my life when I was quite young. Probably just by chance. The people who took management positions at the farm my dad owned were polo players. I was just a kid, crazy about horses. I would go to the sunday polo matches and walk out the hot horses as they came off the field. I actually have a very old Polaroid of myself at about 10yrs old surrounded by 4 polo ponies. I don’t remember those Sundays, but clearly they left a mark. Not long after I went to a polo camp run by the Cornell Polo coach. It was a camp for beginners to learn the game. That was it, I was a polo player. Years went by and I played on and off up until college. When I got to Cornell I started playing on their team. Sadly, it wasn’t long after my first varsity game that my life changed course. It would be a number of years before I picked up a mallet again. In a weird twist, I actually played a couple of winters at the same club I play at now. I would drive up from Nyack and play on wed nights. But my life changed course again and I put down the mallets. When we moved up here one of the first people we met was our vet. Over the first few years she often asked if I wanted to play. I always refused. I knew if I went back, I would fall back into it, head over heels. Once that polo bug gets you there isn’t much you can do. But she finally wore me down. I returned to the club. Soon thereafter my grey mare came into my life. Not long after a couple of others joined her. I returned to it. That was almost 4 years ago. Polo has been in my life for so long. It means a lot to me. I know that now. I tried hard to stay away this year. But it became so clear last night, I need it. I need it for the sense of mastery, and the challenge. The rush and the adrenaline. It all means a great deal. I guess I am hooked, for life. I knew when I hobbled back in the door last night that it would come at a price. If I chose to continue to play, I do it at the cost of my back. For each time I sit on a horse, it wears down my back. I guess it is something I am willing to sacrifice, least for now. The doctor made it very clear that there will come a point when I will not be able to tolerate it. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. For now I will return to my passion. Once a week, I will throw caution to the wind and engage in battle on horse back, all over a little white ball.

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