From beneath the brim of my oversized sunhat I gaze out onto the polo field where agile players atop strong, well-trained ponies chase after the small game ball, whacking at it with their wooden mallets. The game has come a long way, over great distance since its conception in Iran in the 6th century BC. For now, I sip my sangria on the sidelines while tailgating the event with friends. And we are surrounded by many others today, who have come out to enjoy the weather, a good match, and the chance to see some friends. There is a culture that surrounds these games, as the regulars begin to form friendships here with their polo friends.
We laugh and enjoy ourselves beside the playing field, while Ireland and the US fight for the game-winning play. Surrounding the edge of the field here in Newport, Rhode Island are flags from every country that has sent its team here for a match. The flags are numerous, billowing in the wind, as they show off their every vibrant color.
We leave a wide buffer between ourselves and the playing field, for the ponies move swiftly and we would hate to be caught in any crossfire. The players jockey down the field with their mallets in the air, swinging them towards the ground only when there is a chance to strike the game ball. Another chukka passes and it’s already halftime. All the preppily-clad onlookers take to the field, with drinks in hand and children by their sides. They come out in droves to stomp the field, to turn over the divots in the grass kicked up by the ponies.
Soon play restarts, as does the tailgating. I think to myself how perfect a day it is for this event, as a light breeze pulls the hot summer air away from me. But the breeze is not too strong to interfere with the grilling, I’m happy to find! In between chukkas, the players switch out the ponies, giving each in turn a chance to run and play this sport that they train so tirelessly for. And giving them each a chance also to rest because they run nonstop during the chukka. I have always been fascinated by the bond between a horse and his jockey, or his rider, or coach, or whomever it is that works so closely with him. He was born to be wild and free but he thrives in these conditions, answers to his jockey’s demands by exceeding expectations, and remains all the while happy to meet visitors and children that want to pet his smooth shiny coat. How did his jockey establish that trust? I feel a surge of envy as the ponies rush by me.
And even though the pony is integral to the sport, bearing the physical burden of the player he carries, he could never compete without his jockey. The brains and the brawn. Together they are a team, and they compete with a joined passion. Today the US team triumphs over the Irish, but there are no hard feelings between the players. The competition was strong, the match enjoyable. The players and their ponies take a ride around the perimeter, shaking hands with the spectators who eagerly extend their arms for a chance to embrace the champions of the day. We all want to be out there riding like they are.
It’s time to pack up and head home, as we draw to a close another wonderful Saturday at the Newport Polo Field. Though I think the day won’t be complete unless we have a drink downtown in historic Newport. Off we go!