Ancient sport of kings still appeals to Hoosiers: Hickory Hall Polo Club keeps game alive on Boone County farm

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A handful of noisy chickens and a small herd of goats meander around two neatly kept barns that house about a dozen horses, their stalls overlooking the 10-acre field that’s 300 yards long and 160 yards wide.

As horses emerge from their stalls with the help of the Chandlers’ assistant, it becomes clear these are no common steeds. Their deep chests heave with each breath, their nostrils sucking in air like a Hoover, ribs lightly protruding through their lean physiques. Some of these thoroughbreds aren’t far removed from their racing days. Their legs wrapped tightly with a protective covering, an English saddle sitting atop their backs, the horses are prepared for a competition rarely seen across the United States and rarer yet in Indiana’s farm country.

Mounted atop one of the horses and wearing knee-high boots, spotless white pants and a helmet with face mask, Greg Chandler clutches a whip and mallet and approaches his field of dreams, the one he transformed three years ago from common grazing pasture to Indiana’s only outdoor polo field.

The Chandlers founded Hickory Hall Polo Club when they discovered this ideal setting in 2002. A hundred pounds of specialized grass seed per acre later, central Indiana’s few polo die-hards at long last had a permanent home, named for the abundance of shagbark hickory trees on the property.

Polo in Indiana-and across the country-isn’t played by aristocracy, but by business owners and executives, most with a deep affinity for the horses they team with.

And the local players are as colorful as the horses they mount.

“It’s a glorified cavalry charge,” said Sergio Gonzalez-Piriz, co-owner of locally based Yellow Cab and a Hickory Hall Polo Club member. “There’s nothing else like it. Playing polo, I feel like a 5-year-old on a horse for the first time. It’s a beautiful sport.”

Greg Chandler, 41, a 25-year polo veteran, is vice president of sales for Carmelbased Woods Industries, a manufacturer and importer of electrical products. He grew up racing horses and hunting foxes with his father, who was a polo pioneer here decades ago.

Donna was an accomplished polo player, too, long before meeting Greg. She gave up the game after giving birth to the couple’s son in 1992. Now the boisterous brunette focuses her attention on marketing the game and 12-member local club, her booming voice a familiar sound over the club’s public address system during matches.

Brian Hodson, 35, is the owner of Rushville-based Equisupplement Ltd. Inc., a manufacturer of performancerelated horse nutritional products.

“I wanted a real-life lab as a research facility for my products,” said Hodson, a Purdue University graduate and former cattle roper. “Along the way, I fell in love with the game. What I like more than anything is building that bond with the horse.”

Ron Marburger, 62, picked up the game while attending Culver Military Academy, then resumed it with Hickory Hall after a 30-year absence.

“I had forgotten what a rush the game was,” said Marburger, owner of E.F. Marburger Fine Flooring in Fishers. “The game moves with such speed, it’s hard to describe exactly what it feels like to play. There’s nothing else in the world like it.”

Gonzalez-Piriz is one of Hickory Hall’s newest members, but he’s already known for having one of the biggest game-day cheering sections. He saw an advertisement for the club in Indy Men’s Magazine. Officials for the magazine, who run a fake ad contest each week, said many readers thought Hickory Hall’s ad was a joke. Not Gonzalez-Piriz.

“I knew I had to try it, and I haven’t been disappointed,” said Gonzales-Piriz, who is leasing one of Chandler’s horses this year, but intends to buy one or two in the fall. “When you’re on top of that horse playing this game, you’re a million miles away from your worries.”

Surprising local ties

Polo, which is played professionally and is much more popular in parts of Europe and South America, has a surprising 90-plusyear history in central Indiana. In the early 1900s, polo was played regularly at Fort Benjamin Harrison and later at a field near the Indiana School for the Blind and at Eli Lilly’s estate.

A family who migrated here from South Africa resurrected it in 1975. Greg Chandler’s father, Tom Chandler, an avid fox hunter and horseman from Noblesville, was a key figure in the sport’s local resurrection.

It’s not easy to find 10 tabletop-flat acres, even in Indiana, but before the Chandlers founded Hickory Hall, matches were played at 106th Street and Ditch Road. In the early days, local players belonged to the Longwood Polo Club and the Indianapolis Polo Club. Greg Chandler helped run the Faraway Farms Polo Club 13 years ago, which morphed into Hickory Hall.

“There’s more history behind this game locally than people might think,” Chandler said. “We’re just trying to breathe life into it and keep that history alive, along with the game we love.”

Brave hearts

Though a genteel air surrounds polo, the sport of kings isn’t for the faint of heart. According to U.S. Polo Association statistics, its danger level is second only to auto racing.

The 1,000- to 1,200-pound horses can top speeds of 40 miles an hour, and they often bump and grind like they’re rounding the oval at Daytona. Under the supervision of two referees, four players per team all chase a hard plastic ball about the size of a baseball. Bamboo mallets designed to bend with each stroke are used to knock the ball through an 8-footwide goal. Experienced players hit the quarter-pound ball with deft accuracy, even whipping their mallets under the horse’s neck or sideways beneath its belly and between its legs.

The game is a combination of hockey and ballet-played on horseback, said Peter Rizzo, executive director of Lexington, Ky.-based U.S. Polo Association.

A recent match between Purdue University and Hickory Hall nearly turned bloody as a horse ridden by Chandler’s 13-year-old son, Austin, one of Hickory Hall’s rising stars, took a nasty spill, nearly crushing the fallen rider. Though shaken, horse and rider emerged unscathed. Hickory Hall members admit broken wrists and separated shoulders aren’t unheard of, but they said serious injuries are rare.

Still, Donna Chandler admitted to “having her heart in her throat” upon seeing Austin fall.

On this August day, there is no quarter asked for, and none given, as Chandler’s Hickory Hall Polo Club beat Purdue’s polo club 3-1. The day is marked by a competitive spirit, but it’s also about supporting Purdue’s club. The $25-per-carload admission charge goes directly to Purdue’s self-supported club. Hickory Hall also donated three young horses to Purdue after the Aug. 27 match. Purdue’s 20 or so players, more than half of whom are women, share about six horses, several of which are more than 20 years old.

The Hickory Hall team plays most Saturdays, traveling to nearby states or hosting competitors from around the Midwest and East Coast on their home field. Several hundred fans gather for home matches, where the tailgating along the sidelines is almost as furious as the action on the field.

Each match benefits a charity. Among the recipients are Boone County Chamber of Commerce, Agape Therapeutic Riding Resources Inc. and Witham Memorial Hospital Foundation.

Admittance revenue plus a charity auction accompanying most matches raises as much as $25,000 for the not-for-profit, Greg Chandler said.

Expensive passion

The sport is also not for the shallow of wallet. Hickory Hall members pay $750 in annual dues. Chandler invites new members to lease a horse for $3,500 their first year. After that, it’s up to them to buy a horse.

Serious players have at least two horses and sometimes as many as six. A polo match is played in seven-minute periods-called chuckers. Matches consist of either four or six chuckers, and due to the non-stop action, a horse can play only two chuckers, and never consecutively.

Chandler said the horses are run so hard during the six-month polo season, they’re allowed to rest the other half of the year.

Though a polo horse can cost as little as $500, Chandler admits most cost substantially more, with a prime specimen fetching more than $10,000.

In addition to boarding costs, usually more than $3,000 annually, there’s the expense of equipment, ranging from a $200 helmet to a $2,000 saddle. Mallets cost $100, and at least three were broken during the Purdue-Hickory Hall match. Most players go through about 10 per season, Chandler said.

The upkeep of the polo field itself, including twice-yearly fertilization and yearly aeration and seeding, can run $10,000 a year, Rizzo said.

Growing lifestyle

Despite the costs, he said, the 2,500-year-old sport is growing about 5 percent annually in the United States, with 5,000 players playing for 280 sanctioned clubs-including Hickory Hall-nationwide.

“It’s really big in Florida and California, and it’s catching on as a collegiate club sport,” Rizzo said.

Greg Chandler regrets polo has become known as the sport of royalty, with England’s Prince Charles one of its bestknown players.

“We don’t want the sport to be exclusionary,” Chandler said. “It really doesn’t cost any more than a country club membership.”

But players admit training horses, a few practices a week and the matches themselves-not to mention general horse upkeep-is extremely time-consuming.

“Polo is a lifestyle,” Chandler said. “Not to say it’s the lifestyle of the rich and famous. But this is what we do.”

Part of what’s driving polo’s popularity in our sport-crazed culture, Rizzo said, is the fact that it’s a family sport.

“Before 1970, we didn’t have any women playing-except Lucille Ball,” he said. “Now our players come from diversified backgrounds. Sure, a lot of wealthy people play, but more people with a single horse or a borrowed horse are picking up the game.

“People realize in other sports your legs go, and you can no longer play. In polo, you can always replace your legs with a new polo pony.”

Most of the Hickory Hall members range in age from 40 to 60, and all look like they could find their way around a weight room.

As powerful as a player can feel on top of his mount, Marburger said it’s important to remember the horse is the most important element.

“A good horse knows more about the game than the rider,” he said.

“Without the horse,” Rizzo added, “it’s just like every other game.”

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