Polo: Behind the scenes of Virginia’s high-octane sport

The inside scoop on the world’s most addictive sport.


When his wife took her first polo lesson, Bill Ballhaus went with her to watch. A third-generation aerospace engineer, he recalls thinking that he would keep an eye on the lesson and maybe check his messages.

“I’d played a lot of golf, so when I saw her try to hit a small, white polo ball, I decided I had to figure this out,” he says, and the moment changed his life. He took lessons, began to play, and before he knew it, he was a veteran on the field. 

“After some 10 years of playing, buying, and owning horses and competing in Florida, Argentina, South Africa, and playing with Prince Harry,” Ballhaus says, “it’s been an incredible set of polo experiences that includes playing in Virginia.” His epiphany of that morning watching his wife, Darrin Mollett, now a well-respected polo player in her own right, is one shared by countless others who have discovered polo here in the Commonwealth.

Across Virginia, polo has been growing in popularity over the last two decades. All along the Blue Ridge Mountains—from The Plains to Charlottesville—the thrilling games draw crowds for weekend events. Families and friends bring tents, picnics, and folding chairs, and settle in to enjoy summer afternoons and evenings. It’s exciting to arrive and find as many as a thousand people socializing around the field.

For Ballhaus, polo put Virginia into a sharp, new focus. “It served as a foundation to see Virginia realize its potential as the destination on the East Coast for polo,” he says. In 2019, Ballhaus—who owns Beverly Equestrian in The Plains—co-founded the Virginia United Polo League (VUPL) with Rebekah Greenhill of Greenhill Vineyards and the Greenhill Stables polo team.

The polo fields of VUPL expand across the Virginia countryside at Beverly Equestrian, Kingland Farm, and Follies Farm, where as many as 20 teams play. Spectators from Washington, D.C., Richmond, Wilmington, and even Buenos Aires encircle the fields in play. “All matches are open to people in the local community,” Ballhaus says. “It’s a great way to get out and see the Virginia countryside, and enjoy a nice day watching one of the fastest and certainly one of the most exciting sports in the world.”

Extreme Sports

When Andrew Baldwin took up polo, it was “like nothing I’ve ever done. And I’ve done a lot of extreme sports.” The President of Core Real Estate and Development in Charlottesville, Baldwin can assess the excitement in a sport the way others can taste a nuance in wine. “I’ve done competitive surfing in Hawaii and kayaking in intense water,” he says. “Nothing has ever come close. The ponies are incredibly powerful, incredibly athletic. It’s basically like riding a Jack Russell terrier,” he laughs. Now grown into the role of a patron, Baldwin also sponsors players and promotes tournaments. 

For players and spectators alike, polo is an adrenaline rush that hits a spot in the marrow unlike any other sport. “It’s quite addictive,” says Julia Steiner, a former member of the UVA team, which won the U.S. Polo Association’s (USPA)Intercollegiate Nationals Tournament in 2017. Like others, she has taken her passion from playing to promotion and hosts VUPL matches at her family’s Foxlease farm in Upperville, once the estate of Standard Oil co-founder, John Archbold. 

Outside of Charlottesville in the hamlet of Crozet, David King found the perfect place to play polo at Roseland Farm on its long, almost perfectly flat field—unique to Albemarle County’s usually hilly terrain. It was ideal to play polo, which was a passion that he and his wife, Ellen, shared. They bought Roseland in 1996 and later created King Family Vineyards, significantly contributing to the growth of the Virginia wine industry. In 2004, they held their first exhibition game of polo. Since then, the family’s winery and their Roseland Polo Club have enjoyed large crowds on Sundays from May to mid-October.

Photo by Tony Gibson
A Polo Legacy

By the time Roseland Polo launched two decades ago, David King’s health had taken a turn. Shortly before his death in 2019, he asked who would carry on his legacy in the sport. “My wife said she would give it a try,” recalls Stuart King, his son and now the manager of Roseland Polo Club. “And now she’s an addict like the rest of the players in the world. And though I don’t play, so I don’t fully understand, it’s the adrenaline, the horse culture, and there’s a social scene around it, as well,” which he says explains the appeal and growing popularity of the sport. 

Even for people experienced with equestrian sports, though, the switch to playing polo isn’t simple. “Definitely a little bit of a learning curve,” says Ali King, Stuart’s wife. “I had to relearn how to ride a horse like a polo player versus a professional hunter-jumper rider. There’s a lot of different ways that polo riders communicate with a horse, rather than the way that a hunter-jumper rider does. But I’m completely addicted to the sport now,” she says, laughing. “But it took quite a minute to figure out as a 34-year-old woman.” While raising her family, she is committed to carrying on the polo legacy of her father-in-law. 

Polo veteran Whitney Ross agrees on the sport’s habit-forming nature, and will launch her new venture, Sunset Polo, at Great Meadow, the equestrian facility in The Plains, soon. Her new enterprise offers a refreshing menu of events throughout the summer.

“We’re going to switch up the themes,” Ross explains about her vision for Sunset Polo. “And we’re going to have more pros. The last couple of years it turned more into a polo school, but this year we’re going to go more pro, and have more exciting games to watch.”

Ross’ own polo experience began some 18 years ago after she graduated from Virginia Tech and later joined Twilight Polo at Great Meadow, first as a player and later as an administrator. “Polo is nothing like you get in the show ring, so I started playing,” she says. “It’s a very fun sport. You get an adrenaline rush that you can’t really get with other equestrian sports.”

To further promote Sunset Polo, Ross has applied to the USPA to have Great Meadow re-designated as an official polo club. “It hasn’t been one for the last four years,” she explains. “We will offer practice games during the week, and the big draw will be Saturday nights. This year is the 30th anniversary for the Memorial Day event—so we’re going to add new and exciting aspects to it.”

Most clubs in the VUPL list their events online, posting schedules for lessons, addresses, and contact information.

Photo by Tony Gibson

Onlookers settling in on an exciting night of Arena Polo during Twilight Polo at Great Meadow

Growing the Sport

The clubs all share one passion in addition to playing polo—to help grow the sport and attract new players and fans, whether they attend the games in cars, or watch them online on various channels like Chukker TV. Some folks find polo and jump out of their deck chairs into the saddle; some take lessons at a club, rent a horse, tack, and gear; and still others come up through the college ranks and find polo while they are at the ideal age to turn professional. Patrons and scholarships are key.

As a patron, Baldwin’s contribution makes the sport accessible to those with the talent yet without the means. “If a kid from Argentina comes from nothing but gets good and can find a sponsor, it’s a lifestyle like no other. But you’ve got to get good. Everyone else is somewhere in between—they make a decent living but most of it goes right back into the horses and the infrastructure to keep their model going.”

Another successful approach has been the Work-to-Ride scholarships that sprang up around the country, and, with remarkable effect, here in Virginia at the Virginia Polo Club. Although the club is composed of students from the University of Virginia, UVA does not recognize polo as one of its official sports, so the club is supported entirely by the generosity of its alumni. They’ve won 20 national titles, more than any UVA team.

At Virginia, players who participate in Work-to-Ride “put in a full day,” says Lou Lopez, the team’s legendary coach. “They get here between 8:30 and 9:00, feed the horses, then go to class. After class, they come back and exercise the horses, play some chukkers, and, on Fridays, they particpate in a polo boot camp, practice drills and skills, and play some skirmishes.” Lopez says that each student is assigned one horse to care for, adding, “It’s a full, six-day week.”

The program has had tangible success.

Two recent UVA graduates have gone pro: Kylie Sheehan (2013) and Maddie Grant (2022), both of whom played in the U.S. Women’s Open Polo Championship in 2024; they were joined by current Virginia Junior Team Captain, Hannah Fadil. Grant played for the Work-to-Ride team, which made it to the semifinals. It’s no coincidence that as polo has grown, many new players who grew up without access to equestrian sports include women. According to the USPA, 40 percent of all players today are women.  

Polo Tack diagram

Endless Summer

“Polo, in general, has definitely grown,” says Steiner. “In the last 10-15 years, I would say that women’s polo is now taken a lot more seriously. There are tournaments all over the world.” 

“Polo’s really like the endless summer,” Baldwin says. “People are transient. For the pro players, they’re spending three months in any one location—or four, sometimes even six. The season here is really long. Basically everyone’s running up and down the East Coast, then you have a handful of people going West. When it’s too hot to play in South Carolina,” he says, “everyone heads up to Virginia. It’s really common to see multiple people involved in multiple locations.” 

Whether you gaze into the shimmering distance or into the streaming services like Global Polo TV, Chukker TV, and USPA Polo Network, you can follow polo now from every corner and cranny. Audiences around the world tune in to see the national title championships at the Virginia Polo Club and visit clubs along the Blue Ridge Mountains in summer and fall. The ancient sport is refurbished for modern nomads. You don’t need to watch. You can play.

Imagine: you rise from your deck chair. You swing a leg over and sit in the saddle. You wrap the mallet strap around your hand, nudge the horse ahead, and canter outward into the meadow and sunlight of a new world.

Photo by Tony Gibson

L to R, Lucio Fernandez Ocampo, Manuel Sundblad, Tolito Fernandez Ocampo (forefront), Tano Vial playing at Beverly Equestrian the USPA Eastern.

Gender Indifference

Polo levels the playing field.

As polo began to open up to more women participants in the 1990s, gender differences became irrelevant for players on horseback.

It’s easy to see how. The horses equalize the speed and strength of the action and wholly offset gender differences between the riders. The male player who is six-foot-two, for instance, is no more powerful than a woman of five-foot-four. The essential bit is riding skills at speed. When it comes to hitting the ball, players do not swing the mallet at full force as tennis players, golfers, or baseball players do with rackets, clubs, and bats. Instead, they let the weight of the mallet swing, and it is the speed of the horse at a gallop that powers the driving distance of the shot. Men and women who couldn’t square off across a tennis court are equalized while riding each other off for a shot. The horses make them all equals.

Nowhere did that message come alive more vividly than with Sue Sally Hale. The first woman to break the gender barrier in polo, Hale would sometimes wear a mustache while on a men’s team. She was amused that players would ask her at cocktail parties if she knew who that player with the mustache was, because they wanted to compliment him on his excellence as a player. 

It was Sally’s daughter, though, Sunset “Sunny” Hale, who crashed through the glass ceiling. She was so good at polo, playing mostly on men’s teams, that Adolfo Cambioso, an Argentinian considered the greatest player in the sport, asked her to join his then all-male team, Outback Polo Team, to go after the 2000 U.S. Open Polo Championship. They won, making Sunny the first woman to be part of a winning team at that high level. She was ranked above 96 percent of male players in the world. Although she died of breast cancer in 2017, at just 45, Sunny was voted into the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 2012.

A Psychic Connection

Polo unites rider and horse as one.

The idea of my playing polo was so far-fetched just a few years ago that it was right up there with—what?

Climbing the Empire State Building in roller skates. All I knew of polo came from a glimpse in Time magazine of Prince Charles in bloomy jodhpurs while Diana gazed at him bashfully from a circle of gilded darlings. For a kid from Jersey, playing polo was elite and inaccessible.

Yet the thrill of polo drew me in—and like all sports, seeing a game in person electrifies the chemistry. At the Virginia Polo Club, the high-speed charge of the horses thundering along the wall of the indoor arena is a rush the likes of which I haven’t felt since the afternoon when I leapt from a 60 foot waterfall, arms wide, just as thunder detonated over the crashing whitewater and rocks.

“Have you taken one?” she asked me. We were at the Virginia outdoor arena, and, in a neighborly spirit, she had struck up a conversation about learning to play polo. Take a polo lesson? Seriously? Although my first impressions were far behind me, I still hadn’t considered doing any such thing. “You should,” she said. “Put it on your bucket list!” 

And to my surprise, one fine spring morning months later, I found myself on horseback at the Roseland Polo 

Club in Crozet. Greenery, stables, mountains. Just to be in that landscape on such a morning is worth the cost of admission.  

As with any sport, it’s best if you learn to fall first. And so I did, without help from my instructor, Kylie Sheehan, then a UVA graduate and now a pro with championship titles. The trick is to think one foot can touch the ground while still hooked in the stirrup. After you hit the ground, roll with boots over your head. While it may seem comical, it never fails to leave the horse with a deadpan reaction, and a sort of distant look in its eye.

Although I was ostensibly learning polo, I was also learning to ride, and of still more importance, learning to trust the horse. It might slip by the casual observer, but that connection between horse and rider needs to be psychic. Trust is the bond between the species, and make no mistake: the horse knows it’s in a game. You won’t feel it the same way in tennis, let’s say—not unless your partner carries you on their back. You may feel something like it in other equestrian sports, but the bond catalyzing you both while galloping after the tiny white plastic ball, which is flying down the field at 100 mph, is totally wild. And it was my luck to experience that late one morning.

To be sure, that rush is the one so many players are chasing though they may appear to be chasing the ball. Getting to that adrenaline rush of unity with the horse can be dangerous. Polo is considered the second most dangerous sport after high-speed boat racing. And if you attend enough games, you’ll know the wrenching sensation of seeing a horse falter on a back leg, twist and roll over the rider, then get up and walk away—while the rider stays motionless. Famous players, like Nacho Figueras, who plays in Virginia, will say that they lost count of all the broken bones. In Nacho’s case, it’s more than 60. 

And so my horse and I reached an impasse. She felt my hesitation, and I knew about hers all too well. A few times on a pass around the field, she decided to canter back to the stables, as if she knew I wasn’t a serious player. As soon as she saw the barn, she took off at speed with me bouncing up and down in the saddle. Only jamming my heels in the stirrups convinced her to knock it off. At 13, I’d had an experience on a runaway horse, which galloped insanely into the blind intersection of a two lane highway, turned without slipping, and halted in its front yard, throwing me to the ground. The old memory surfaced afresh in every lesson.

Until, that is, the morning when I got a clean shot on the ball. You cannot swing, as I often would, with a baseball bat or tennis racket in mind, powering hard on the shot. No. You let the mallet swing of its own gravity, as I learned, and it’s the speed of the horse that sends it flying—a partnership.

On this morning, it happened. Guiding her with my thighs, I rose up from the saddle, twisted at my waist, cranked my shoulders around, and with my arm on high, I swung the mallet through the ball. Thwack! 

The ball went flying, and together we flew after it, moving as One. In that moment, we melded. No longer the dubious horse and anxious rider, this odd connection fired through my body on a neurological level. We cantered down the field, and I was thrilled at the speed and strength of us doing this—inside and outside the experience. And when I hopped down at the stables at last, my legs were quivering from standing in the saddle. Walking back to the car with legs like jelly on springs was almost impossible. 

While it may not have been leaping off a waterfall during a thunderstorm, it was a greater-than-life experience in one important sense: I can return to it at the next polo game. These days I enjoy the game from both sides.

Photo by Tony Gibson

Polo

The Beverly Equestrian staff rounds up the horses and returns to the barn after a long day of Polo.

From the Mongols to The Great Gatsby

A Brief History of Polo.

The Sport of Kings is believed to have come thundering to life on the windy steppes of the Mongolian Empire. While the cavalry played the game, their commander, Genghis Khan (1162-1227) would join his soldiers in a gallop across the miles, swatting the severed head of some unfortunate tribal chief. The game honed their skills at horsemanship and slashing downward. When the English saw the game in India in the 1880s, it was then the organized sport that we know today—though played more slowly.

In the 1920s, polo was so popular in the United States that some 35,000 fans gathered at the Polo Grounds in New York City for a championship match in 1925. The star player of the day, Tommy Hitchcock, became an early sports celebrity who promoted the game. The paparazzi caught his comings and goings from restaurants, just as they did with Babe Ruth.

“There is a fascination about the game of polo that is hard to describe to anyone who has never played,” Hitchcock said. “Once a man has had a taste of it, the task of curing him is rather hopeless.” It’s hard to imagine now but until the 1920s, polo was played at a trot. Hitchcock was renowned for his fast-attack style and credited with speeding up the game. He cut such a notable figure as a polo star in the ’20s that F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have modeled his Tom Buchanan character after Hitchcock in The Great Gatsby.

The essential chemistry may be the alchemy of fear, risk, danger, and success. The skill of weaving among the mounted players, riding as one super-being at 35 mph, while reaching off to one side to swat a ball, is an experience never to be found in slower sports like golf, baseball, and football. Yet those sports grew up from the streets, not the estates, and soon the cost of polo would see it dwindle to private clubs, where it was played between the Land Rovers and hedges. Hitchcock found other venues to experience his taste for thrilling danger. As an aviator in WWII, he played a key role in the development of the P-51 Mustang airplane, a small, fast plane that could outmaneuver the German planes and is credited with helping the Allies decimate them. Perhaps in his assertive style of play, Hitchcock died while test-flying a Mustang over an English airfield in 1944—unable to pull out of a dive.

Photo by Tony Gibson

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue. 

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