Milwaukee Polo Club Adds an Approachable Touch to ‘The Sport of Kings’

Jul. 20, 2017
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All photos via facebook.com/MilwaukeePoloClub

It’s fascinating to follow a cultural staple such as a particular sport as it winds its way from place to place throughout history. In the present context, for example, we have the sport of polo; not the water-borne version but the horseback kind. Mention “polo” to someone, and dapper Englishmen on sturdy steeds—galloping along the grassy British countryside striking balls with long mallets—might immediately be conjured. But, did Victorian England see the birth of polo? Turns out, it did not. Not even close.

As far as we can tell, the sport of horse polo originated in Persia (modern-day Iran) more than 20 centuries ago; indeed, some of the stone pillars these polo pioneers erected as goal posts still stand today. In the ensuing centuries, it spread from Persia to the rest of the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East. The version of the game we know today stems most directly from India, where it was variously called sagol kangjei, kanjai-bazee, or, more simply, pulu—a reference to the wooden ball that was used and from whence we get “polo.” India became a British colony, English travelers brought the sport back home with them, and, from England it reached the U.S. In our country, polo caught on quite rapidly—pretty much becoming a sporting pastime anywhere there were horses. In the 18th century, that was many a place, indeed. Today, there are about 250 polo clubs in 43 U.S. states.

This brings us to the Milwaukee Polo Club, which is actually in Hartland, about 26 miles west of Milwaukee. “The current club is this generation’s extension of the original formation of polo in the Milwaukee area [in 1923],” says Thomas Esser, who’s been with MPC for five years now, handling various market-related activities such as website and Facebook maintenance and media outreach. “For many years, matches were played at the former fields on Good Hope Road, just east of 76th Street. However, the club has been in its current location for more than 20 years now.”

From somewhat “common” roots, in the hands of the English, polo came to be known as “The Sport of Kings.” That, I think, is why many an average person might at first be put off by the sport, thinking it (erroneously, as it turns out) as something rather highfalutin or strictly for the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But Esser wants to change that perception.

“I think the scope of play due to the large field (the size of 12 football fields) and having a small, dedicated group playing limits the visibility to the public. As a result, the only time many people see polo is either at a high-end match (such as the U.S. Open) or in popular culture venues, such as in a movie,” Esser observes. But, he says, “as a sport, you can approach it like pick-up basketball at your local playground: Find a polo school at a nearby horse barn and take a few lessons; perhaps play once a week. Or you get one horse and join a club…”

Milwaukee Polo Club strives to be approachable by one and all; as Esser describes it, “club polo is much more mainstream, and our club is a good example of that. We consider [ourselves] to be ‘blue collar’ polo. Our members are nurses, college and high school students, bartenders, retirees, teenagers, adults and senior citizens. We all treat it as an accessible sport here, which means that anyone can come to watch a match for a low ticket price of $5 (kids free), meet players, see the horses up close and see that it is all about the fun and camaraderie of sharing something unique.”

Milwaukee Polo Club is, indeed, a lovely and inviting place, set amongst the verdant, gently rolling grasslands of Southeastern Wisconsin, and Esser wants everyone to know that they are quite welcome to join in on the activities at MPC with whatever level of participation best suits them. “We would enjoy the opportunity to say hello to someone who has never thought about polo being an alternative entertainment or hobby option. That is why I am pleased to be able to introduce you to polo [as] something new for you to consider; bring your friends out, set up your lawn chairs and your cooler, tailgate and enjoy some of the best entertainment for your dollar!”

The variety of teams playing the sport at MPC is likewise part of the allure, boasting players from Des Moines, the Twin Cities, Chicago, St. Louis and beyond. Individual matches are certainly not all-day affairs, and many games can be played in an afternoon or early evening. “Games are usually six seven-minute chukkers with a half-time divot stomp—when fans cross the field to visit the horses and players at their trailers. The entire match usually lasts about two hours,” Esser says. 

Much like baseball, outdoor polo is concerned about the prevailing weather conditions. Not just for the sake of the comfort of the fans, but also because of the safety of the riding players and the horses. “Outdoor polo is a fair-weather game, driven almost exclusively because of safety,” Esser says, emphasizing that “one of the core concerns built into the fiber of the sport is safety. If the surface cannot hold a horse’s footing, we will not proceed. However, we are always looking to bring something to our fans. As long as it is not raining, we will be at the fields.” And, as far as those off-days go, the club members “will still be showing the horses doing simpler demonstrations and talking with those who come out to the field. We will answer any question we can and enjoy showing the beauty of our equine partners.”

Naturally, any organized activity that brings humans together with their non-human animal cousins should be sensitive to the care and treatment of those animals. Any mistreatment or danger to animals in sports is surely a cause for concern. This is an issue I wanted Esser to address directly for all those who might be wondering about this issue regarding horses in polo.

“Every member of our club understands the needs of their horses and appreciates their contribution to the sport. It is said that 70-80% of ‘your’ polo ability is how good your horse is in working with you and providing the ride you need to be effective on the field. If your horse is not comfortable with what you are doing, they will not perform well with you.

“Almost all animals (except maybe my cat) look to be active; they have things they want to do themselves and things they want to do with you. You make sure they are well fed and groomed, and when you get them ready, you can see the excitement appear in their eyes; they want to run, and they want to help you go get the ball.”

So, knowledge of the nature of the animal in the sport is paramount—especially an understanding of the animal’s limits. “We do limit the amount they work, “Esser explains. “If you ride a couple of good hard chukkers, they will have a down day following, with either no riding or an easy walk-trot session. A horse can do some work every day, but you are always looking to balance their physical and mental work. An experienced polo player is skilled at the sport but is also well-versed on the horsemanship required to provide proper care and balance for their equine teammates.” The horses in polo being thought of as teammates—and not machines or tools—is central to the sport, and it’s a welcome and comforting thing to witness the truth of at Milwaukee Polo Club. 

The Milwaukee Polo Club is located at N75 W30311 County Highway VV in Hartland. They had their summer season opener June 18, so play is well underway. Give them a call at 262-222-2870 or 262-951-8029 or visit milwaukeepoloclub.com for more information.

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