Yale’s 35 horses stood like boxers, wrapped in blankets, meditating before a fight. The British and American flags hung side by side in the Yale barn. Periodic waves of manure, sawdust and sweat completed the aromatic scene.
It was the First Annual Atlantic Cup weekend for the Yale polo team, and Cambridge’s and Oxford’s squads were in New Haven. They had already gaped at the detail of Yale’s copycat Gothic spires, experienced Mory’s cups and re-evaluated their assumptions about America based on their exposure to Yale students. Now it was time to play.
“I guess no one really lives like Ally McBeal and wears cowboy hats,” Cambridge’s Mary-Anna Maloney said as she took to her horse. The weekend in New Haven was her first trip to the United States.
Each school fielded two co-ed teams, and in so doing attempted to sell the sport to the masses whose athletic tastes keep them closer to the ground and chasing balls on just two legs rather than four shiny hoofed ones.
And although Oxford would take the cup over two days of competition, Yale’s two teams grabbed third and fourth places out of the six teams.
Yale men’s captain Daniel Powell ’02 said nothing came easy for the opposing teams.
“The Brits felt that Yale was more contact-oriented and aggressive than they were,” Powell said. “That amazed me because polo is a very fast sport, but you need to be quiet in the head to do as well as we did. You have to be able to deal with how fast you’re moving.”
Cambridge captain Alex Mitchell reflected on horses and psychology as Yale and Oxford went head to head. As he spoke, he occasionally shouted encouragement for Yale’s team and laced up his tall riding boots for the next round, called a chukka.
According to Mitchell, what makes polo unique is that a horse is not simply a vehicle, it is also a teammate.
“A horse has a brain, and you can see that some of these horses have too much brain,” he said as a stampede of polo players followed the small orange ball that had narrowly missed the metal goal.
Mitchell, who like many of his Cambridge teammates is a veterinary studies student, also said he was impressed with the quality and number of Yale’s horses, which are traditionally called “ponies” in polo.
At times, Yale has had up to 60 horses in its stable. And the Yale polo players who care for them are as well trained in horse care as the tough horses they ride are in the ways of the sport.
“Part of how we’re able to keep costs so low is that we learn to take care of the horses ourselves,” Powell said. “It’s both labor-intensive and knowledge-intensive, and it’s one of the best skills you learn as a Yale polo player.
Yale’s women’s captain Sarah Crews ’03 emphasized the educational rewards of Yale’s polo program above those of other schools. She said the team is very focused on teaching newcomers to the sport to play and to ride because most of Yale’s team, including Powell, had never played polo before coming to Yale.
Powell also pointed out the diversity of reasons that draw people to polo.
“We had one beginner who rode because he wanted to be a modern day knight, he was obsessed with chivalry,” he said. “We even get a few seniors who come to try something new after they’ve wrapped up their careers in another sport.”
But most first-time polo players are just adventurous students in search of a new skill and teammates.
“I’d never ridden before,” Cat Pitt ’04 said. “All my friends at home laughed and said they couldn’t see me playing a ‘silly elitist sport.'”
With a possible renewal of Yale polo’s varsity status on the horizon, motivating alumni to donate for barn renovations, recruiting beginners, and correcting myths of elitism have become the team’s triple goals.
“Polo at Yale is not polo at Yale 50 years ago,” William Hsu ’03 said. “We tack our own horses, and we do a lot of barn work to pay our dues.”
“And this is the cheapest polo you can play anywhere,” Pitt chimed in as she scraped the mud from her boots.
The work in and out of the barn stalls is starting to pay off, as Yale’s team gains the prominence to be able to host foreign teams and even to help organize a nascent polo team at Harvard.
“Everyone’s involvement in the off-field aspects of the team is a great example of a large group of beginners giving back to the program,” Crews said.