In a League of my Own

After my most active “off’-season” yet, I knew I had made strides when I I first hit the field to stick and ball. My mentor and sponsor, Jolie, had gradually moved me up to some faster horses and I was finding that others weren’t pulling away from me as they did before. Instead of having to use an extra quick turn to get  head start of hoping for a great long ball up front from my #3, suddenly I was able to pull away from others with the ball on the end my mallet. I was enjoying both my new found confidence and the thrill of newly discovered speed. Funnily, my appetite for the ball shrunk and I started to take more pleasure in thwarting the efforts of my opponents with a hard ride-off or an outstretched hook at a full gallop.

My new job with W Hotels was requiring a lot of hours but I was finding it a lot easier to schedule Polo without the unpredictability of being a small business owner. My wife Angie who works in healthcare had just transfered to a new hospital so our health insurance would be on a temporary hold until July 1st. Angie urged me not to play Polo during the month that we were “uninsured”. Only a person who had never played Polo could make such a ludicrous request. How could she possibly fathom was an impossible demand she had made of me? Didn’t she remember that I was the same person who played Polo a week after my vasectomy with stitches still in my scrotum?

So on the first day of the season I played at the Atlanta Polo Club (with no insurance). Although I was only saving $1,900 by not having a bridge policy to cover me for the month until our insurance switched carrier I made the argument that the money could be better spent. In the 3rd Chukkar, after an aggressive play up the side of the field at a full gallop that included two ride offs the ball was hit off the back line. I turned to head towards the 30 yard line and my horse was really wound up. I wasn’t paying attention and she dropped her right leg and shoulder I was thrown off balance. The fall was like many I had experienced before. Harmless. Or so I thought.

Two days later, I was in terrible pain. For the last couple weeks I’ve been suffering with an ache in my right shoulder. Two proud to confess my stupidity to my wife, to stubborn to accept my mistake, too cheap to go see the doctor… I’m just hanging on until July 1st when I can make it to the Doctor.

I fear that I may have fractured my collar bone or shoulder blade at worst or either pulled a muscle or trapped a nerve at best. I’ve played 1 match since resulting in pain and this weekend will kick off the Atlanta Polo League season with the first league match of the season.

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A New Arena

Those who know me well will confirm that I have never liked the Arena…until now! It was only until this off-season when I decided to use the “down-time” wisely and work hard at better understanding this very different game. As I started to play with better, faster and stronger players I began to understand the finer intricacies of the arena.

Playing the boards, breaking quickly, looping back, holding my man were all concepts that I thought I knew until I started playing Arena Polo with purpose. It wasn’t until that point that I developed the confidence to allow myself to “slow down and think fast”.

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The role of Patron is one that is growing increasingly fascinating to me. At face value, all I could see was a guy with money who sponsors Polo in order to play or participate at the highest possible level. Then I started to get further insight to the relationships with staff, with the pros and with fellow players. Subsequently, I started to play on the same field as Patrons and that is when it started to get interesting. I quickly realized  that if I was to succeed in Polo I was going to have to navigate these relationships delicately, both on and maybe more importantly, off the field.

Obviously this is another work in progress but here is a first attempt. Let me begin by saying that it is fully understood that without the Patron you don’t have Polo. The Patron is in many ways the executive producer. Yes, the Patron calls the shots and has expectations but what is more intriguing is his role during the game.

I am only now starting to play with better atheletes, more affluent players and some pros yet I have already noticed behaviour that might seem strange to the untrained eye. For instance, the Patron occasionally breaks the rules. He sometimes gets away with fouls that I could never get away with because of my novice status but that’s ok, I get it. All this is also very dependent upon other variables such as if the referee is his employee, if he owns the field and the nature of the infringement in question. Other intricacies on the field that I find somewhat more challenging include the way many pros find to elevate the Patron’s abilities or hide is inabilities. I’m not just talking about feeding a great overhead ball far up the field to an awaiting Patron in#1 position situated in front of the goal. I’m referring to the non ride-off and  the non-hook that allow the Patron to score.  I’m really thinking of the near-side backhander that isn’t hit so the Patron can look like a star.

The role of the Patron creates a sub-plot to the game with his Pro as you reach the end of the game and last Chukkers. The delicate switch from the #3 or #4 position orchestrating the entertainment level of the match from the back becomes an all encompassing active fight for job security and pleasing the Patron (if the team is looking at a possible loss).

Knowing how to play this position, as the Pro, requires considerable mastery.


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Polo in the Attic

Looking Back

Recent inclement weather has forced me to take a few days off from my weekly routine. I’ve enjoyed having both the kids and Angie (my wife) at home. We’ve found some fun ways to spend the time including some sledding in the park and the construction of a snowman in the neighbor’s garden.

Angie and I have been working on a project to clear out the attic. We are only in our mid-thirties but after nearly a decade of marriage it is hard to believe how much we have accumulated. Between my endless projects and interests, a family’s seasonal wardrobes, old books from college, the children’s collection of old toys and nick-nacks, it all seems to pile up in no time at all. Amongst the many attic treasures, I was able to put my hands on some real gems.

The face guard to my Polo helmet. You would have thought that my face guard being knocked out of it’s screws would have served as a healthy reminder to never play without one. Nope! That happened some years ago and I’ve never replaced it. To play Polo without protection to the face sounds so stupid and yet after hearing the horror stories of players who’ve undergone reconstructive dental surgery or lost sight in one eye you would have thought it might have been more of a priority for me. In addition to some old Polo gear, I also came across a collection of Books on Polo including “Chakkar” by Herbert Spencer with photography by Fred Mayer. The splendid photography from this book captures an era of Polo that must have been so much fun. Shot between 1970-71, some of the images are timeless. The articles written by a handful of experts,  including HRH Prince Philip, give you a rare glimpse into the sport.

Clearing out the attic has come to a swift halt. I’m using this time away from it all and away from the Polo Arena to do the next best thing. Read about Polo. In all my pursuits from cigars, boxing, travel to marathon running, I’ve found that extensive reading offers a level of knowledge that can only accelerate the learning process in the field. The wisdom and knowledge on a subject matter that others have taken the time to share with pen to paper is often invaluable. Sometimes the words you read serve merely to confirm your own experiences or observations, however, on other occasions useful tips and shortcuts can be attained through the simple study of the subject matter. For me, reading about Polo offers all of the above but most importantly it allows me to create intellectual muscle memory whilst giving me a cultural appreciation that enters my system, somewhat like photosynthesis, simultaneously providing me with relief from the symptoms of withdrawal and energy when I’m not actually playing the sport.

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New Year, New Season

After the last Chukker

Along with the New Year will come a New Polo Season. To some extent, I have already fallen short of my promise to myself because I had wanted to stay more active during the “off-season”. In years past I haven’t played much Arena because a) the actual arena I played at was limited by size and speed, b) Arena Polo didn’t offer the same thrill and long runs I tend to enjoy most with the regular game and c) Arena just isn’t the same as big field. Here in Georgia, Outdoor Polo is played from the Spring (April) to the mid-Fall (November). While many play Arena during the week throughout the year, I have always made a distinction between the two seasons. At the end of every Outdoor season I always promise myself to improve my game diligently using the time to practice and improve with frequent play in the Arena setting. Unfortunately, the winter comes along and with it the Holidays and distractions of the New Year’s festivities.This December, Georgia was granted a long awaited White Christmas but this meant little to me for I was disappointed at the news of snow canceling our scheduled Arena match for Boxing Day (Sunday December 26th). So here I am on the first weekend of 2011 and I’m ever so looking forward to some Arena play.

I had finished the regular season stronger than ever having made great strides with my game personally. In 2010, I experienced play on faster fields that were new to me, met new players and learned from them establishing a solid rapport with my Polo mentor- Jolie Liston- who sat me on excellent horses and coached me without restraint. Athletically I built up my playing endurance and was not only playing faster Chukkers but enjoyed several back to back, this demanded modifications in my game physically and strategically.

My hope as I made plans in late September to leave for Africa on business for 3 months was to not miss too much of the end of the regular season. I even selfishly prayed for a sprinkling of customary unpredictable weather back in Atlanta so I could justify my own absence from the scene. Without access to horses or Polo in my remote surroundings and with few distractions I daydreamed about games I had played early that year, goals scored and mistakes magically corrected. I also vowed to improve my game during the winter months in the Arena in hopes of not losing all that I had gained in the summer of 2010.

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Highs & Lows

Under the Parasol

After riding high on a crest of success for the last few weeks. Even after graduating to more advanced play and starting to feel the thrill of a faster paced game and stronger horses on the best field in the State, I’ve made a total regression. Aside from the embarrassment of missing two Penalty Ones in front of all my peers and the local Polo community, I’m wondering if all my efforts were for naught. How could I have been making such great strides to then regress to a level of play as novice as the day I first started ?

Last night I felt so embattled, so discouraged, that I just wanted to quit and never play again. I know that this is just a phase and some other factors are definitely contributing to my slump but the shame of poor performance coupled with the newly measured distance of my ambitious goals  is proving completely demoralizing. I scored a coupe goals and redeemed myself slightly with some good runs with the ball up the length of the field. My defensive play against a former 6 Goaler was cautious but highly effective. Yet non of these points make me feel any better. My ego is bruised and my confidence is at an all time low.

I feel as if I was way over confident in my assessment of my own skills. Now I understand why some people have been playing for decades with little improvement. The Polo learning curve is vicious and unforgiving. I need to just have faith in my dream and my superior abilities as an athlete. If I truly have a destiny with Polo then I will overcome these trials.

The other players have been so patient and gracious but my status has been lowered indefinitely. I will have to re-prove myself amongst this new group without the benefit of my history of good games. As one Doctor and team mate said between Chukkers: “But you had such a great game last weekend…?” He seemed even more puzzled than me.

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Polo People 2

Once I got started with lessons, the wooden horse, working on my swing and becoming acquainted with the rules, I came to the realization that this was actually “my thing”. I had finally found my passion. The Patron of the club where it all started in fact told me: “that in the 20 odd years he had been around Polo, he had never seen anybody with my natural ability”. I took his statement to heart and it served as further motivation and a confirmation of my need to pursue Polo but the question still stuck with me: “why Polo?”.

Which brings us back to Polo people and why they are who they are. As an immigrant and an entrepreneur it would seem obvious that I share the basic inherent features of a Polo player: determined, risk taker, aggressive, independent, goal driven, competitive, ambitious and multi-tasker. However those are characteristics of pretty much any remotely successful person and a prerequisite for playing Polo even at the lowest levels. The latter differs little from other similar “extrovert” sports. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to think that most Polo players might enjoy any exciting, fast paced, team sport with high arousal, large motor skills and relatively short periods of concentration.

Maybe all Polo players are not the same? Could it be that of the 75% of low goal Polo players that do not play with the highest aggression levels, risky riding-off and dangerous speeds that they have the Polo personality but not the Polo gene. They are content to play at a comfortable pace, enjoy some physicality but not too much and really thrive off the social components of the sport without the commitment level of the handicapped professional athletes.

I knew from the start that, despite my limited resources, I wanted to push the Polo envelope. I wanted to see how far I could go in Polo, even when everybody was saying: “you’ll probably never go beyond a 0 handicap without wealth, amazing string of horses and years of practice”. Whilst I knew the realities of my task were virtually impossible, I innately wanted to go further and I identified this shared trait in others. People with whom I wanted to play Polo. I found myself hoping to play in Chukkers with like-minded riders, driven by a desire to get an unmistakable high.

It was then that I started to look back at my own pedigree. Without a history of Polo in my family, how could I have joined a people so foreign to me? It was then that I came to the realization that maybe Polo was in my blood, that these were in fact my people and that the bond amongst Polo people was possibly a connection that pre-dated our own recent histories.

As a society we have grown accustomed to the car, the train and the plane but it was not long ago that the only distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots” was the horse. When miles and miles still needed to be covered over land, the option was either by foot or by camel, donkey, horse (all the same really). This got me thinking about the determining factors of selection between those that walked and those that rode. In battle, your chances for survival were far greater if you were mounted (Europe). In expedition, your chances of discovery were far greater on horseback (Colonies). In pilgrimage, your chances of settlement were far greater by horse (USA). Maybe those who were drawn to the horse were also part of a selection process recognizing an advantageous evolutionary trait.  The trait not being that they rode or liked horses but more importantly, that they had reached a position of authority deserving of the status as “rider”.

Paul Louis Hubert Musso, my grandfather. Captain in the French Cavalry World War 1 (1914-1918).

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