My Big Pony
Horsing around with the Twin City Polo Club
ON A TUESDAY EVENING in early summer, pickup trucks and horse trailers line the edge of a grass field in Maple Plain, where a handful of McMansions are beginning to break up the farmland just west of Wayzata. All is quiet until a dark mass in the distance thunders closer and the ground begins to quake. Out of the scrum you can spy a horse’s leg or a helmeted head or a long thin mallet, as in a cartoon depiction of a fight. Suddenly, out flies a ball: white, grapefruit-sized, and screaming at 110 miles per hour.
This is the Twin City Polo Club, founded 40 years ago by former Honeywell CEO James Binger in order that men and women might gather several nights a week in summer to charge into a pack of thousand-pound animals after a ball that can hit you as hard as a puck. Club member Todd Sether describes polo as “like playing hockey on four-wheelers.” A four-wheeler, that is, with a mind of its own. Rob Berg, another local player, broke his collarbone after his horse took a wild jump. “Anytime you put the fear of dying into something, it’s a lot of fun,” says Berg, only half-kidding.
Polo is likely the oldest team sport in the world, having originated in Persia some 2,500 years ago. Polo players, divided into two teams of four people, are outfitted with helmets, boots, bamboo mallets, a small whip, and a horse, of course. The idea is to move the ball down a field 300 by 160 yards—the approximate size of 10 football fields—and knock it through goalposts eight yards apart. (It’s not easy, as I learned when I threw on a bike helmet and climbed atop a pony named Mary Ellen, usually ridden by a 14-year-old girl, and still missed the ball about half the time.)
On August 6, the club will host its annual Polo Classic, a fundraiser for the Children’s Home Society & Family Services that draws about 3,000 spectators. Most days, members scrimmage each other or drive their horses to other Midwestern cities to play teams there. Many could be described as “weekend warriors”—work hard/play hard folks with a variety of day jobs (real estate, sales, banking) and one thing in common: a love of horses, and maybe an addiction to riding them into each other at 30 miles-per-hour to move a player off the ball. “It’s competitive, it’s demanding, it cleanses your mind,” says Doug Hoskins, who joined the club in 1980, at age 12. “It’s the best drug on earth—cocaine on horseback.”
Polo clubs in Florida and California may fit the game’s aristocratic stereotype: horseplay for the Town & Country set. But in Minnesota the scene is as laid-back as a trail ride. After a fierce round of scrimmaging, a player lowers the tailgate of his pickup, unzips a gym bag full of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, and passes them around. Tomorrow these players will be back in their offices, but tonight they’re a world away, the old world, in which horses were a way of life. So strong and statuesque, horses have a way of humbling people, and polo, for all the skill it requires, is an exercise in trust. Hard to find these days, but pull on some boots and giddy-up.