November 9, 2006

Polo Story: Passion With a Mallet

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Almost a month into the polo season, with the men’s and women’s teams having jumped out to a combined 8-1 start, it’s easy to reflect and see why these squads have had such a storied history at Cornell. For once, it isn’t the athlete that basks in the glory, but it’s the animal in this rare sport that receives all its due credit.

In a corner of the Oxley Equestrian Center, surrounded by nets and nailed boards, stands Cornell University’s oldest polo pony. The horse that the team calls “Pepe” is so old that he is unable to move, doesn’t eat and can’t drink. Pepe, old age and all, and with battle scars to boot, is sculpted out of wood, his red paint chipping freely from his sides. He is a training horse and yet, despite his old age, has been ridden by every athlete on the team. Pepe has seen everything in his life as a Cornell polo pony and at this moment in time, what he sees is no unusual occurrence.

It’s a crisp Saturday morning prior to the start of the polo season, and while most Cornell athletes are worried about game plans, diet supplements, work-out regimens and the weekend’s competition, senior polo player Monica Ganley is worried about her footwear. Right now, her barn shoes aren’t completely hers, as her left foot is wearing a gray Nike while her right sports a muddied gray look-a-like that belongs to her roommate and teammate Genevieve Horvarth.

“We usually leave our dirty shoes outside the door,” Ganley says. “I don’t know if someone came by and stole them or what?”

After sophomore Sarah Eversman meets us at Ganley’s car, the next problem seems to be how to stuff all three of us into a small, two-door Acura without being injured by the four polo mallets in the back seat. Somehow, everything works out and all three of us unfurl ourselves, leaving the mallets as they were, resting every so comfortably on the beige felt of the backseat interior.

We end up at the Oxley Equestrian Center on this cool and somewhat cloudy morning to perform the grunt work of the polo players’ added responsibilities — to tend to the horses. While most athletes despise grunt work, whether it be by way of sprints, curls, hurdles or pushups, grunt work is what polo players live for. Here, for an hour, Ganley and Eversman are at the barn “turning out” the 29 polo ponies — letting them stretch their legs.

It takes two trips to let out and bring in all the horses, and what an amazing sight it is. Herding is a problem, as some horses try to escape from being taken back to the stalls, and as is often the case, others follow the lead of the mischievous ones. But to watch the second trip out is memorable to say the least. In a field enclosed by wooden fences and a small, often powerless, electrically charged perimeter, the horses dart, kick, jump and thrash as if they’ve been crammed inside a sardine can for days on end. They kneel, flop, and roll like dogs that can’t quite reach that spot on their backs where they have an intolerable itch. The horses grunt, hiss and purr like animals releasing days worth of stress in a few minutes of glorious time.

“They’re cute,” Eversman says, admiring the scene. “They’re like people. They have personalities and everything.”

And with that sentiment we get a glimpse of what separates a polo athlete from a football, baseball and basketball player. There is a passion for something else, something non-athletic, that sets these athletes apart — the horses. After all, polo is not only a game for men and women, but for horses as well. One might say this one game is for the horses, as the ponies are used for polo every day of the week except Saturdays when on days like these, they get to stretch their legs.

The passion for these animals is deeply responsible for the success of Cornell’s program, as is reflected in 11 national titles and 26 national championship appearances under 22-year head coach David Eldredge, who leads all Cornell coaches — in any sport — in wins and winning percentage with a 636-228-24 record. The care and attention paid to these animals is why Cornell has been rated for having the best stable of polo horses 11 out of the last 13 years.

“The horses are an extremely large part of it,” Eldredge said. “A lot of the success you have in this sport depends on the kind of teamwork you build with your horse. One of my prides as a head coach is building a respect for those horses. That’s why it’s voted amongst the [nation’s] players that Cornell always has one of the top strings of ponies in the nation.”

The success of this program has forced Cornell to respect it and honor it as one of its hidden gems, adhering true to the agricultural roots set forth by Ezra Cornell when he founded his institution based on the premise that any person could find instruction in any study.

“It’s a terrific program, and we respect it very much,” said Cornell Athletic Director Andy Noel. “They don’t get all the limelight, but they are respected and appreciated.”

As we leave the barn on this day, Pepe and I are finally introduced. After a blank stare and a few small smirks, Ganley and Eversman conclude that my day at the polo house wouldn’t be complete without a little training. I nervously and uncomfortably mount the aged stallion, and before I can get adjusted, a 52-inch mallet is put in my right hand. A sphere the size of a softball and reminiscent of a soccer ball sits to my right at Pepe’s shoulder’s edge. I concentrate, and without realizing the sheer athleticism it takes to pivot and swing while on horseback, miss the ball mightily, forcing it to trickle forward thanks to the turbulence created from the forceful swing of my mallet. In a flash I realize how I, like my swing, have missed what collegiate polo is all about. Cornell, however, like 35 other varsity collegiate polo programs throughout the nation, hasn’t missed it at all.

Tim Kuhls is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. That’s Kuhls Baby will appear every other Thursday this semester.