Text by Heather Buchanan – Photos by Elizabeth Hedley
Aiken, South Carolina is so horse friendly that the cross walks have two buttons, one for pedestrians, and one for riders on horseback. Founded as a winter equestrian home for the Whitney’s, Vanderbilt’s and Astor’s in the 1800’s, Aiken’s rich tradition of horses continues. Fox hunts, thoroughbred racing, eventing, showing, and polo fill the calendar year-round, and horse lovers are drawn to properties which are a bargain compared to the North East, California or Florida. The Aiken Polo Club is one of the most historic in the country, founded in 1882 and boasting the Whitney Field which is the oldest, continuously-used polo field in the country.
Resident Debbie Roland states, “The real draw of Aiken lies in the warmth of the community, the history, and the southern quality of living. These are the contributing factors behind the steady, economic growth of polo and other horse sports.”
The beauty of Aiken is that riders aren’t bound to the clique of their particular discipline. Theresa King, professional polo player and owner of Ligara Farm says, “I’ve tried to have crossover with fox hunters coming out to play polo and polo players coming out to fox hunt. In Aiken, there are a lot of people interested to learn about the other disciplines and really give it a shot.”
It is in Aiken that we find generations of women sharing their love of horses and competition on the polo field. Theresa King plays on the same team as her daughter Cristina Fernandez most recently in the Cory Cup at the Aiken Polo Club where they were the only all-female team against the men. Cristina notes, “In polo it’s normally the culture of the father passing down to the son and now it’s great to see that it’s generational for women.” King has played women’s polo professionally in 12 countries and even holds the title of MVP of Elephant Polo in India. She comments, “Our hope is that this women’s team can set an example to all women to bring up the level of their game, that we are capable of competing alongside men—in fact, that is the only way for us to improve.”
Cristina who coaches and is also Club Marketing Coordinator for the US Polo Association notes, “We try to get women to start as early as middle school with the USPA and play in high school so they have more time to hone their skill. With women who know how to ride, it makes the sport infinitely more easy to learn – you are set up for success.”
For the tournament, they recruited Tiva Gross who came all the way from Kenya to play with them on their Ligara Farm team. Tiva’s mother was a four goaler, and at 23 Tiva achieved a 2 goal status. Tiva notes, “What’s so nice about ladies’ polo is that everyone follows everyone on facebook. You’re keen to know each other’s story whether you’re going to England or Africa or Aiken.” Jolie Liston, owner and head instructor of the Atlanta Regional Polo Center rounded out the team.
Cristina was also part of the spectacularly successful USPA tour of Manipur and Jaipur in January 2016 which was the first visit by an international women’s polo team to India. It will now be followed by a larger nation-wide tour in January 2017. Organized once again by Huntre!, Polo Yatra: India International Women’s Polo Tour 2017 will bring international polo teams to New Delhi, Hyderabad and Imphal.
The biggest hurdle not surprisingly for women in the sport is money – not only to buy the top level of polo ponies but to attract the sponsors which put big money into other women’s sports. “It would be great to get an Under Armour or Nike to sponsor,” says Theresa. And as these ladies know how to “mark a man,” corporate America should get ready to say yes.