Women make up the fastest growing segment of polo in the US but rest assured this is no lipstick and ball game. They are in it to win it. Traditionally a male dominated sport, polo was originally infiltrated by a woman in disguise. The pioneer of women’s polo Sue Sally Hale in the 50’s and 60’s would pretend to be a man, even donning a fake mustache to compete in professional polo. Her daughter Sunny Hale has carried the baton or in this case mallet forward, becoming the first woman to compete on a winning team in the US Open in 2000. Women are now team owners or “patrons,” playing at the top level of global polo and encouraging others to get into the sport.
Duncan Huyler, CEO of the United States Polo Association says, “Almost 40% of our members are female. In the early 70’s they weren’t even allowed in the association so it’s really grown. They’re a huge part of our programs through high school, college and as adult.”
In one of the top tournaments, the East Coast Open to be played at the Greenwich Polo Club Aug. 28 – Sept. 11, two of the top teams will be helmed by women, Maureen Brennan of Goose Creek and Annabelle Gundlach with Postage Stamp Farm. Brennan has earned a 1 handicap rating and Gundlach plays as an amateur. Both former show jumpers, they converted their riding skills to polo and took their ambition from the ring to the field, learning to play with the guys.
The Gender Card
If there is a gender card, no one is playing it.
“I don’t go on the field expecting to be treated any differently,” comments Brennan, “They just treat me like a player.” Gundlach agrees that she gets no free passes and says with a laugh, “Sometimes I have to remind people I’m a girl.” She adds, “You do have to work hard. When you hit the ball you have to be spot on because you can’t just muscle it. Your technique has to be perfection.”
As you watch the polo ponies thundering down the field with fierce Argentinians swinging mallets and a ball whizzing by at 100 mph, you can only imagine the fortitude of these women. Brennan trains daily at cross fit, even on game days, “We’re athletes and we take it seriously.” She is known for her defensive skills and ability to “mark a man.” “I attribute my riding background,” she says of her success, “And also my nature to be a pit bull.” She even caught the attention of the world’s best polo player, Adolfo Cambiaso at the 2006 Gold Cup. “We went into overtime and the crowd of 2000 were cheering,” she recalls, “Even though we lost I had the best memory playing against Cambiaso, and afterwards he called me to play with him and sub in for his sponsor.” Imagine Peyton Manning asking you to be his wide receiver.
Playing The Field
For Gundlach who runs her own hedge fund and is raising two children, her polo passion began when she won lessons from player Brandon Phillips at an auction. “Champagne and charity auction for me is a bad combination,” she jokes. But this polo lesson immediately had her hooked, and in just the past year and a half she has risen to compete at the 20-goal level. Polo reminded her that riding was not only competitive but fun. “I owe everything to Brandon,” she says, “He may be a five goal player but he is a 10 goal trainer. He knew where I was in my ability and where I could go.”
She notes, “I also owe a huge thanks to Greenwich Polo for making my foray into high goal polo a special one and having the chance to play with the best players in the world.” An underdog, Postage Stamp won the subsidiary of the Butler Handicap earlier in the season, Annabelle herself scoring 2 goals. “It was one of the most memorable days of my life,” she recounts. “All these little kids came up after wanting my autograph or wanting to take a picture with me.”
Maureen had a similar fan reaction, “After the game all these girls were coming up and saying, ‘Oh my god a woman’s playing!’ and wanted all these photos. It caught me off guard that they were so interested.” This is also her first season at Greenwich Polo. “The club is beautiful and the footing is great,” she says, “The organization has been really gracious making it a wonderful experience for the spectators and the players.”
The Dream Team
Brennan works with 7 goaler Mariano Gonzalez to assemble her team. Her advice to put together a dream roster, “Surround yourself with honest people that have integrity and things that you admire and respect. In the choice between character and skill I would choose character.” She is drawn to the sport’s camaraderie, noting “It’s like a big family which is very special.”
The ponies are also a key to success. Gundlach’s Postage Stamp Farm is in Wellington, Florida near the International Polo Club. She comments, “Horses are definitely 80% of the game so it’s always a question of who has the best horses.” She recently went on a buying trip to Nick Manifold and Mariano Aguerre’s Los Machitos breeding farm in Argentina. She comments, “They’re good about knowing what you want and also what you can grow into.”
Home base for Brennan is the 1,100 acre Virginia farm Llangollen dating back to the 1700’s with even a visit from George Washington. The center of her training and breeding operation as well as the Virginia International Polo Club, the farm is a haven for her horses. Maureen notes, “The care for performance horses is the quality of their fitness program and how they are conditioned. And also their anxiety level – I try to do anything to reduce stress.” The ponies are treated to acupuncture, chiropractic care and even massage.
Growing The Sport
Polo becomes not only a sport but a lifestyle choice and teams turn into families.
Brennan reflects, “Shifting from show jumping to polo – it’s a whole other culture and different approach to the horses. I feel more open minded. Traveling around the world playing polo you see a lot of other cultures involved. I’ve become a better horseman.”
Huyler and the USPA are committed to helping grow the sport in the US. “We’re trying to make it more accessible and more diverse,” he says. This includes college scholarship programs, a certified polo instructor program, school support and active committees where Brennan also serves. He is also fully committed to the welfare of the horses, “If you don’t take care of your horses you don’t deserve the privilege of being part of the association and sport,” he says, “ There’s no excuse for not taking care of your horses.”
Brennan mentors other women where she can commenting, “Sunny Hale’s lifetime of personal efforts and creation of the Women’s Championship Tournament series and women’s grass handicap system has produced global growth of women playing polo. Adolfo Cambiaso strongly supports his daughter as a polo player. This combination tells me more growth is yet to come and possibilities for women will expand.”
She notes, “My advice to women who want to play polo is based on universal principles: Don’t let others determine the limits of your aspirations. Understand your assets, skills and unique qualities then find where they can be applied but do not settle for something that does not feel right. Work harder than the others and don’t make excuses.”
Gundlach adds, “At the end of the day it’s also about having fun and the camaraderie. These games might look rough but when you come off the field it’s all friends.”
Photos © Chichi Ubina