Culver is one of the few schools with polo programs in the United States
Oct. 28, 2022
Polo players face a challenge athletes in other sports don’t: having a 1,600-pound teammate with a mind of its own. Combine that with the five other players and horses on the field, and you’ll find polo provides valuable lessons in leadership as well as sportsmanship.
Even more challenging, as a team travels, they play the horses of the host club. Players have about four minutes to learn everything about their mount, which requires excellent horsemanship skills and an ability to learn on the fly. Polo players develop the ability to ride a vast array of horses without a second thought, while they focus primarily on the game at hand.
Polo has a long history at Culver Academies. The Open team has won 12 Open National Interscholastic Championships since 1933, with additional appearances not resulting in a win, and the girl’s team won one Girls National Interscholastic Championship in 2000, with several additional appearances. The Culver Academies Polo Club has been registered with the U.S. Polo Association Club since 1954.
Competition over the years has grown steadily; the U.S. Polo Association now has almost 100 teams in their Intercollegiate/Interscholastic program. Culver is one of the few boarding schools or high schools with equestrian programs in the United States. It kicks off its season 6:30 p.m. Friday with an open match against the St. Croix Polo Club and another 10 a.m. on Saturday. Both matches will be played at the Vaughn Equestrian Club on the Culver campus.
The interscholastic program allows high school students across the country the opportunity to participate in a competitive regional and national league. Culver students are required to meet academic, equitation, and citizenship standards in order to compete.
Students are expected to groom, tack, and provide care for each of their mounts before, during, and after practices. This allows students to form a closer bond with each animal, while also teaching them the importance of responsible horsemanship. The horse always comes first.
Polo players truly learn through Culver’s – mind, spirit, body – mission. The game of polo challenges players physically and mentally.
Polo ponies love the game and get into it as much as players. Each one has its own unique personality and drive for the game. Some horses are fast and handy, while others seem to take joy in “riding off”. Culver has a wide range of polo ponies from beginner to advanced, helping students learn not only the game, but the skill of riding multiple different horses. Players learn to navigate their horses, think strategically, and work as a team to excel on the field. The game is physically demanding as “riding off” is a key defensive move, think checking in hockey, but with a 1,600-pound animal.
Polo at Culver brings students who have a passion for horses, the ability to have a team atmosphere while also pursuing a horse-centered sport. Polo is a fast-paced game with multiple rules to keep both riders and horses safe.
The beauty of Culver’s horsemanship program is it offers students the opportunity to start learning polo with no prior experience necessary. All students enrolled in the Basic Equine Science class, the first-year at Culver, learn some of the fundamentals of polo for a term during the four-term course. With novice polo taking place in the spring sport season, students new to polo are able to further learn the game beyond their equine science class experience. Many students who start polo find a love for it and choose to continue it into the next school year.
For those students who played novice or have prior polo experience, the start of the school year, or the fall season, is considered the junior varsity polo season. The fall season sees returning varsity members, new students, and returning polo players taking advantage of both the nice weather on the field to stick and ball, and the cooler days in the arena to work on game strategy and drills.
This season allows those students who want to continue playing and also try out for the varsity team the chance to grow their skills and to get the ponies back in polo shape. Additionally, each fall, we bring a clinician in who works with the students over three days. The U.S. Polo Association has provided us both the funding and the connection to various impact coaches to share their expertise with the Culver polo players.
With each new clinician, Culver students are exposed to different coaching styles, unique polo insights, and valuable polo tactics. The clinicians have included Robin Sanchez, the 2021 Louise Hitchcock Woman of the Year, Mike McCleary, coach of the Texas A&M national champion men’s and women’s teams, and Cindy Halle, former coach of the Garrison Forest Polo team who won seven National Girls Interscholastic Championships under her tutelage. The opportunity to learn from coaches with multiple national championships under their belts gives Culver students a wealth of knowledge, experience, and insight to all the possibilities of polo.
As the seasons change, the varsity team takes priority and arena time from October to March. The varsity program of polo takes on various high school, college, and adult teams. They compete in the USPA interscholastic program. Each year, the teams must play at least two regional qualifying games to be eligible for the Girls’ and Open Central Regional Tournaments. For the past eight years, the teams have traveled to the Brookshire Polo Club outside of Houston, Texas to compete with other teams in the Central Region for the Regional Championship. The girls team won in 2013 and in 2016 earning them a place at the National Tournament.
Players at Culver not only have an opportunity to earn varsity letters from Culver, but also varsity letters through the U.S. Polo Association. They must meet academic standards, demonstrate a proficiency in polo, and compete in both qualifying and regional competitions to qualify for varsity letters.
With more than 40 intercollegiate teams registered with the USPA, there is a world of opportunity for players looking to continue their polo experience at the college level. Whether they choose to play at a club level, or are recruited to play on the competitive team, players find their way to keep playing polo.
Through the college programs, students can continue playing without the need to own their own string of polo ponies, thus making it attainable for players who otherwise wouldn’t be able to continue. The USPA also awards six $4,000 scholarships yearly for those high school players looking to continue at the collegiate level, which are renewable for up to four years of academic study.
The polo coaches and college advising staff at Culver work with students to help them apply for the USPA scholarships during their senior year and help them find the best fit college program for them. Samantha Leach ’19 who is at Oklahoma State University, was awarded a 2020 USPA intercollegiate scholarship and Ashley Dillard ’17 was awarded a 2017 scholarship and Alexandria Vaughn ’16 was awarded a 2016 scholarship. Dillard and Vaughn attended Texas A&M University.
Our graduates have contributed to polo programs and national championship teams across the United States including Texas A&M, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University, Colorado State University, University of Connecticut, University of Virginia, University of Kentucky, and Oklahoma State University.
Culver graduates continue playing polo long after their college years too. More than 40 Culver graduates still have polo as a part of their life to this day. After years of playing and umpiring, Dale Schwetz ’85 has dedicated himself to broadcasting field side for the UPSA Polo Network as a correspondent. Pamela Flanagan ’08 has competed in the U.S. Women’s Open Polo Championship for four consecutive years, winning three of those. Morgan McBride ’17 is the club manager and director of intercollegiate programs at the Prestonwood Polo Club in Dallas, Texas.
Closer to home, current Culver players look to continue this tradition of excellence and find new ways to expand their polo horizons. Having plenty of quality polo ponies and high-level facilities are important ways to accomplish this. Our Horsemanship and Advancement teams are currently partnering to raise needed funding for these and other needs within our horsemanship programs. With the support of our charitable alumni and parents, the storied polo and other equestrian endeavors at Culver will thrive for years to come.
If you’re looking to see Culver polo in action or learn more about the sport, then come see it live this weekend! Game schedules are listed on www.culverathletics.com. All games are open to the public and we encourage visitors to come down and meet the ponies after the chukkers. I hope to see you there!