Triangle club holds its first charity polo match

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2014 

— The audience cheered as a rider on horseback knocked a small, red puck ahead in the open field.

A low rumble filled the air as nine other horses followed close behind. The player in front held a polo mallet straight up, hanging in place. The rider then swung the pole to the ground in a circle, knocking the ball farther ahead toward two goal posts on the edge of the field.

“Going too fast, can’t quite get a make on it,” the announcer said. Horses bunched up toward the goal, and a few passes later, the ball made it through the space between the two goal posts to applause.

The Triangle Area Polo Club hosted its first charity classic on Sunday at MacNair’s Country Acres off Tryon Road. The event showcased both the sport’s re-emergence here and the local charity Guiding Lights Caregiver Support Center, which helps people who take care of a loved one for an extended period.

Polo was popular in the area in the 1980s, but died out by the early 2000s, said David Brooks, who co-founded the club in 2010.

“It is exciting that so many people are excited about having the sport in the area,” Brooks said. He played in Sunday’s game, losing to a club team from Atlanta 16-12.

Not an everyday sporting event

Polo is nothing like basketball or football. Played on horseback, players use mallets mounted on poles about four feet long to hit a small baseball-sized ball into a goal on either end of the field.

Each team has four riders on the field at a time, competing for six periods of seven-and-a half minutes of continuous play. These periods, called chukkers, usually last around 15 minutes, depending on whether fouls pause the game.

Ten horses were on the field during Sunday’s game — the eight players and two referees — but the game required 50 horses total, Brooks said. Rotating the horses often keeps them from getting overworked.

Annie Winter, 10, of Raleigh, knew she wanted to learn how to play before the game even started, while watching the players warm up their horses. She takes riding lessons, and the players had to master the skills she’s learning to be able to play as a team. “It looks so fun being up there,” she said.

Annie sat on the sidelines with her parents and two younger siblings. About 1,500 people lined the field with lawn chairs, awnings, food, wine and beer. Her brother, Jacob, 7, liked the event because it melded horseback riding with his sport, hockey.

Their dad, Chris Winter, 42, said he wanted his kids to see something different. “It’s a new experience, not the kind of sporting event you see everyday,” he said. Plus, “It’s a way to bring tailgating to something new.”

During halftime, spectators meandered across the field during the “divot stomp” to flatten out the upturned dirt, many with wine glass in hand.

Jaime Jimenez, 59, of Four Oaks, brought his daughter Stephanie, 12, to the polo match; they used to go often when they lived in New Jersey, and Jaime Jimenez said he was delighted when he found out teams in Raleigh were beginning to play the game.

Flattening the ground keeps the horses from tripping, keeping the animals and people safe. “You’re part of the team,” Jaime Jimenez said.

A good cause

The event raised more than $50,000 for Guiding Lights, which helps people who are caring for someone with a disability or a disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“Guiding Lights was founded really to untangle that web of resources for that individual caring for a loved one,” said Nicole Bruno, executive director and co-founder.

The event was a major fundraiser for the group, which hopes to expand to reach more people. Bruno said Guiding Lights serves about 250 people each month, connecting caregivers to resources, providing support groups and even offering online and in-person tutorials from medical professionals. Caregivers sometimes spend years focusing all their time on a family member and lose themselves, Bruno said. Her group tries to support those caregivers through the process.

To learn more about Guiding Lights, which provides its services for free, visit guidinglightsnc.org. To learn more about the Triangle Area Polo Club, including how to sign up for lessons, visit triangleareapolo.org.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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