The Sport of Kings
Boston Polo Takes Inclusive Approach to Noble Pastime
As you turn off Route 133 in Georgetown and onto the grounds of Boston Polo, any preconception of polo as a delicate sport for the wine-and-cheese set is quickly dispelled.
Though it’s just 13 miles from the prestigious Myopia Polo in South Hamilton, this horse farm feels a world away from the oldest active polo club in America. Myopia is where Mark Tashjian, the head instructor and manager of Boston Polo, made his name in the “sport of kings.”
After several years as polo manager at Myopia, Tashjian started Boston Polo in 2014 with a simple purpose — to teach the game to anyone interested in learning. He chose the location for its proximity to Interstate 95, making it accessible for people from Connecticut to Maine.
“To go from learning to playing at Myopia is too big of a jump,” he says. “So I started the club just to provide a safe, productive place to play.”
Today, Tashjian and his staff are conducting 50 lessons per week, teaching as many women as men. Students range from preteens to recent retirees. He says they all share a captivation with horses and the desire to participate in a challenging activity.
This writer’s interest in equestrian sports typically begins and ends with a Kentucky Derby wager. But when the opportunity to take a lesson was offered, the desire to try something different most definitely applied.
I’ve covered most every equestrian sport in my career, from show jumping and dressage to steeplechase and thoroughbred racing. There is often a pageantry to equestrian events, which brings with it a glimpse into a world that most rarely see.
But while the events are sponsored by companies such as Ralph Lauren and Rolex, the athletes who mount the horses are adorned with dirt and bruises. Working with a 1,000-pound uber-athlete underneath you brings significant risk.
In a 2015 survey of more than 100 polo players in the United Kingdom, more than half reported falling from the horse that season, and nearly 20 percent required a hospital visit.
While rare, deaths are part of the history of the sport, which dates back more than 2,000 years to the Persian cavalry.
For Tashjian, who stresses safety at his polo school, the rewards of the sport outweigh any risk.
Though he’d never been around horses, he discovered polo while studying economics at the University of Connecticut.
“It just seemed very sophisticated and professional,” he says. “It was so different than anything I had come across.”
Polo remains at the core of Tashjian’s interests both personally and professionally, particularly the teaching aspect, although his club is diversifying into lessons and board.
The reward, he says, is seeing players develop. Training starts with getting comfortable with the horse before moving on to working with a mallet and ball. It typically takes at least a year of regular lessons for a player to get confident enough to scrimmage, and at least two years to develop the skill to participate in a match.
But even a novice like myself learns quickly that an immediate ego boost is provided by the horse you’re riding. Polo ponies, as they are known, are compact, powerful, intelligent horses that require two years of training before they are able to compete.
The result of that training is a horse that is incredibly responsive to the rider’s subtle commands. With reins in hand, a simple gesture forward prompts the horse to walk, and a slight gesture to each side brings about a turn.
The confidence quickly fades once an attempt is made to hit the ball with a mallet that’s more than 4 feet long while the horse is moving. The challenge of doing that at a slow walk with a polo pony punctuates the incredible level of coordination that’s required to control the horse at full gallop while leaning to swing and hit a small ball.
“We try to help students understand the horses are very responsive and very mellow,” Tashjian says. “At the start, it’s just about being able to relax while on the horse and not try too hard, to not oversteer or hit the ball too hard. It’s not something you can do really well overnight.”
Tashjian has become a top player and anchors the Boston Polo club team, which takes on opponents from around the East Coast. Home matches are played on Saturday afternoons and can draw more than 150 fans. Tickets sell for as little as $10. You can even bring your own picnic lunch.
I enjoyed my brief learning experience and highly recommend it to the curious and adventurous. But upon watching the professionals play a match after my lesson was over, I learned that I’ll be enjoying my polo from the sidelines.
Hope to see you at the pitch. I’ll bring the wine, you bring the cheese.