A long arcing shot bounces twice at midfield. Dixon Stroud collects the small, white ball as his mount Toro bursts away from a defender with short and quick strides. One, twice, Stroud swoops down and cracks the ball with powerful forehand shots from a hardwood mallet.
One hundred thirty yards down the field Dixon uncorks a slow and smooth swing and the ball sails through the goal posts.
Stroud is dressed in white breeches, brown boots, knee guards and a #4 purple jersey. He has been strapping on his polo helmet for 38 years at the Brandywine Polo Club in Toughkenamon.
Next to ice hockey, polo is the fastest sport in the world. The horses reach speeds of 30 miles an hour. They must sprint, stop, turn and sprint some more during a seven-minute period (chukker) where the horse might cover three miles. Six chukkers comprise a game.
Matches take place on a field that is clipped short to amp up the speed. Roughly the size of ten football fields, four players per side go at it.
At half-time Stroud is perched on a hillside drawing a comparison to chess where players plan attacks and counter-attacks. Studying their opponents, foreseeing a rapid turn of play, and then pouncing.
“It’s a very fast, very tough, very exciting sport,” said Dixon, a former amateur jockey who won steeplechase’s revered Maryland Hunt Cup in 1984. “I love the teamwork. It’s a complex strategy that is constantly changing.
“You’re sizing up not only your horse and your teammates’ horses, but also those of the opposing team,” related Stroud, 62. “There are new horses at the start of each chukker, so you keep on doing it.”
President of the Brandywine Polo Club, Stroud purchases his horses from a pair of polo players who train and sell them in Sarasota, Florida. He owns a string of 11 polo ponies.
The horses are trained to be handled with only one hand on the reins and responsive to the rider's leg and weight cues for moving forward, turning and stopping. In the midst of a melee they must remain calm. Yet, they still need to be bold enough to “ride off” an opponent— muscle the rival off the line of the ball at a gallop.
“When you come to a stop the horse needs to get his hind legs underneath him so he’s ready immediately to turn left, right, or go straight ahead. A rider must be fully aware of a horse’s abilities and personality.”
Polo ponies are not really ponies, though they were when the British launched the modern game around the world in the 19th century.
Today, many are thoroughbreds crossed with Quarter horses. The mating produces a horse with explosive speed, catlike agility, and dogged determination.
Height-wise the mounts are between 15-15.3 hands tall. Their head reflects the thoroughbred cross that also features a lean and muscular neck.
Physically, players are looking for a deep girth that maximizes air capacity, a short back for quick maneuvering, and good leg conformation for a lengthy career.
Good temperament is critical.
“You want a quiet, easy horse, one that is fairly handy,” noted Stroud who lives outside West Grove. “The horse has to trust me to do what I ask it. If the horse does not play safely, you will be in a lot of trouble from the get-go.”
A burly man with an affable manner, Juan Martinez-Baez has played polo professionally for 14 years. Players are graded from minus-two goals to a high of 10 goals. Martinez-Baez is the Brandywine’s top player with a 5 handicap.
During the winter months he steps up his game in high-goal polo in Sarasota, Fl., Columbus, Ga. and Aiken S. C.
Martinez-Baez started riding at age six in Tecamac, near Mexico City. His father was a groom for a polo club where his connection with the animals was through his eyes and hands. Young Juan spent a lot of time in the barn soaking up the lessons.
“You notice the little things,” said Martinez-Baez, also the manager of Brandywine Polo. “I buy horses and train them for polo. So many little things make the difference.”
Unlike thoroughbreds that typically are racing by the fall as two-year olds, polo ponies are eased into the sport. Common sources for young prospects include breeding farms, working ranches and the racetrack.
Young or “green” prospects start at three or four years old and are put through several years of specialized training before becoming what is traditionally called a “made pony.” It’s one that is ready for use in tournament polo.
“I start them going in circles and then figure eights which teaches them to switch leads and to gain their balance,” explained Martinez-Baez, who resides in Avondale. “Then I work them in smaller and smaller circles so they’re comfortable with turns.”
A good horse will neck rein with minimal pressure and work well off of leg cues. They will hold a gait without breaking or bucking and be able to work around other horses.
The horses are slowly introduced to the equipment.
“You desensitize the horse,” explained Martinez-Baez, 38. “Show the mallet to the horse and let them smell it, then gently rub it against the horse’s body. After a while you swing it around and under the horse while riding. Then you introduce the same with the ball.”
In a sport where the horse is 75 percent of the game, the mares are the best competitors.
“Geldings are pretty solid but the mares really do give you all that they have,” Martinez-Baez said.
“And the team with the best horses generally wins.”