Life Lesson #6: The best way to hold onto control is to not be afraid to let go of it.
To watch eight men fly at forty miles per hour across thirteen acres of field on roughly eight thousand pounds of world-class equine is a lesson in control—the players’ over the horses, and the horses’ over the players.
As a sport, polo is difficult, fast, endurance-based, addictive and expensive. As a social event, it’s beautiful, elegant, nuanced, addictive and expensive. Players love it because it’s exciting and challenging, spectators love it because it’s exciting and easy—a beautiful outdoor setting, gorgeous weather, sophisticated crowd, sponsors displaying haut fineries and the vibrant backdrop of formidable horses and athletes moving across the field.
Meadowbrook Polo Club, nestled in historic Old Westbury, is the country’s oldest club, operating since 1881 (though it was first a hunt club). The exact origin of the game is unknown—there is evidence of Persians playing as early as 2,000 years ago but it was the British who popularized the sport for Europeans after “discovering” it in northern India and what is now Pakistan.
The club is currently under the stewardship of Luis Rinaldini, horse lover and self-proclaimed anachronism. “If you’re riding horses when you’re forty, you’re a traditionalist,” he said over breakfast. Rinaldini, an investment banker who started playing polo later in life, acquired the club in 2003 from Al Bianco, an eccentric Italian cowboy who came to the club from Brooklyn, by way of Wyoming, and kept the property somewhat low-key during his time.
Rinaldini acquired the club as much for a love of horses as for a love of tradition. (He is co-owner with Bryan Lazarus.) His intention is to “have a nice and fun club nearby because I play and my wife plays and our daughters play…To establish it and set up a rhythm and have it known if you come to NYC and you ask someone, ‘where can I play,’ our name comes up.”
To this end, the club is engaging the public by staging more high-profile events, like last month when famed player and Ralph Lauren Polo model Nacho Figueras came out with his Black Watch team for a game. Argentinean-born Figueras started playing at the age of nine and like many aficionados, polo is more than just a game for him, “In Argentina,” he said, “Polo is more common…Polo taught me about life responsibilities. Focus on horses requires attention daily. We ride, we play, it’s a lifestyle.” He also appreciates the philanthropic connections the game could make. “Polo is about people and families getting together to help others and to just have a good time.” Thus, the Meadowbrook game served as a fundraiser for his pet charity, Fundación Cruzada Argentina, which benefits the development of rural communities in Argentina. As Figueras explained, “Cruzada is helping a school in Corrientes [Argentina] where 90 kids were sharing one small room…they were going to school in shifts.”
Celebrity appearances notwithstanding, keeping a club thriving is no easy task, one that takes as much passion as it does means. For one, the grounds have to be maintained. In order to have desirable playing fields, it’s necessary to have conditions similar to a golf course. After each match, the field is perforated with divots raised by the horse’s hooves as they stop or turn. So every morning after a match, it takes a crew of six to reset the chewed turf—smoothing the divots back into the ground and reseeding, feeding, watering, cutting and currying as necessary. And they do this by hand. Plus, there’s daily nurturing of the greens from February through December.
Then there’s the space needed. And let’s face it, keeping people on Long Island is challenging enough, but keeping stables and ample roaming area for horses is a feat in dexterity (oh yeah, and a little more money). Increasing the Meadowbrook’s member base might offset some of the costs, but that’s not easy either.
Players are not easy to come by—again, because the commitment is as much one of passion as it is of cost. One game can run a player $10-30,000, and depending on the number of games played, as much as $1-million per month. But the time and planning needed to coordinate the entourage of bringing 6-7 horses with you, a handful of mallets, 2-3 saddles, bridals, grooms, gear, drivers, a truck and trailer… And then there’s the weather.
Which is why Rinaldini points out the affair is not a stroke of deliberate elitism: “We’re not trying to be snobs, it just costs a lot to do it.” He likens the sport to skiing in that there are die-hard skiers who range from affluent to ski bum. The latter will go without clothes to buy his gear, but the range of people enthusiastic about the sport is what makes it real and keeps it interesting. “There are people who will go without shoes to shoe the horse, they won’t eat to get the feed…99% of the time, people care more about the horses than themselves.”
Figueras echoed this: “The most important thing is the horses—every player would agree—first you have to love horses…the most thrilling thing is having a horse you bred do well.”
The tradition surrounding the horses is in fact no small part. The infrastructure of the sport traces back to the 17th century and has changed very little over time. Care and development of the animal requires countless hands providing constant attention. More than that, to be a great polo player, you have to be a great horseman, which requires patience and a special kind of intuition. Breeds that make for great polo horses are known for endurance—small thoroughbreds, Argentines, quarters—they need strength and speed, flexibility and a good temperament.
And finding the one who’s your match is one in a thousand. Synchronicity with a horse is crucial. As Rinaldini put it, “The horse is your partner. You have to be able to understand each other…you don’t have a lot of that in the 21st century—it’s a great antidote to the office!” He added, “The horses can usually do a lot more than I can…it’s like Michael Jordan carrying you on his back.”
Despite all the challenges, Rinaldini is optimistic the sport will go on, even another one hundred years from now. He believes people will continue to become fascinated by the thrill of the sport and pursue joining teams. And society, in general, will continue seeking natural panacea to manmade development—open space initiatives to correct suburban encroachment and spending time outdoors to offset high-tech worklives are just two facets of what attracts polo enthusiasts. Plus, spectators don’t need to be polished in understanding the rules to enjoy the event. As Rinaldini puts it, “You don’t have to watch the game—the magic happens at many levels. It’s fun, festive, people are dressed up, you can picnic…What’s going on in the background [the game] is like a pretty painting. It’s always going on, so you can watch, not watch, watch, or not watch, and it’s still going. And the magic works.”