Polo and Eventing

**This photo was a gift from Jimmy Wofford. He gave this to me after I fell off at one of my first advanced level horse trials. He signed it with the same question he asked me long before I was his student. Handing it to me, Jimmy was doubled over laughing hysterically. Funny, right?!

Summers in College

When I left for my gap year in South Carolina, I was just shy of my 18th birthday. It was the last time I would ever live at home. I didn’t think that was such an anomaly back then, but maybe it was. It certainly seems like it is today.

Accomplishing this meant lining up a job and housing every summer. After my first year of college, I returned to Fare Well Farm in SC to be a working student.  My second summer of college, I crashed in an apartment with a friend and spent the summer being a polo groom for an adult amateur in Lynchburg. He played on the UVA alumni league in Charlottesville. I had so much fun that I agreed to do it the following summer as well.

This time, the owner had refurbished an old cottage on the other side of his farm. The cottage was tiny and rustic, and awesome. They called it “Little Fiddle Farm.” I shared it with another girl who was a family friend of the owner and needed a place to crash. The girl, Anne, had driven her old International Harvester Wagon to Alaska, from Virginia, camped for four months, and then drove it back. By the time I met Anne, she had sheared the top off the wagon making it a convertible, and painted peace signs, flowers, and hearts across the rusted body. All told, it was a most excellent ride. It didn’t take long to be fast friends.

We partied every night that summer. Every night. One night it was raining steadily, so Anne and I put on our raincoats and drove to the bar in her “convertible.” The “Pina Colada Song” came on the radio and we belted it out on the drive there. I had my feet on the dash, singing,  and watched the road roll by through the hole in the floorboard.

Sometimes we could get a small group to go skinny-dipping at the neighbor’s pond in the middle of the night. Another time, a friend of Anne’s took us up in a small plane, as he had his pilot’s license. We flew over our other neighbor’s house to surprise the party he was having in the backyard. Anne reminded me that we threw a nerf football at them from the plane and then dive-bombed them (that part I remember) until the plane beeped at the pilot to pull out of it. I also remember he turned the plane upside down because it was fun (for one of us at least).

Post script: Many times I have wondered how it is that I’m still here, still alive. That would have been one of those days. Even though he was a good pilot, I can’t help but think we pushed the limits a little….

One day, at the end of that summer, there was a newsflash about a guy from North Carolina, who had killed his girlfriend, put her in the trunk, and was on the lam. The next day, word got around he was supposedly driving around in Lynchburg. We immediately shut, and locked, the doors to the cottage (not that that would have deterred an intruder). We were a little nervous for 24-hours, because quite frankly, the cottage would be a great hideout. It was buried in a patch of woods, hidden from the main drag, and the neighboring houses were far from us. It was another day before we heard the helicopters crisscrossing over the area and finally learned the guy had hung himself from a three board fence.

Right across the street from our cottage at a horse farm.

(Let that sink in for a minute…not only the close proximity of it, but pulling it off on a three board fence?? Yikes and double yikes.).

The Dogs

Anne had a yellow lab, Rose, that went with her everywhere. I really wanted a dog and decided I only had one more year of school left, so I would get one. I went down to the local shelter and they pulled out what they thought would be “a good farm dog.” In the fenced-in grassy area behind the building, I was squatted down and waited patiently for them to bring her out. She walked out into the grass and put her nose up to the sun, taking in the fresh air. The dog was tick-infested, badly sun-bleached, and thin. When she found the first sunny spot in the grass, she dropped and rolled, moaning and yawning in complete happiness. After, she sat up and sighed, and slowly made her way over to me. I gave her a good scratch behind the ears. She sat down next to me and sighed, putting all of her weight against me.

Just like that, MayDay came into my life. (Because it was May and because she got “saved,” what can I say?). She jumped in the farm truck on our way out and zipped herself to me once again. That dog looked straight ahead the entire ride home.

MayDay the farm dog learned how to be a good horse show dog, too.

Her new life had begun.  

Rose was much older than MayDay, who was around two when I got her. Rose taught her what being a good farm dog meant. Except for the one time there was a murderer on the loose, we left the doors of the cottage wide open day and night. This might not have been the smartest thing to do, but it definitely was a sign of our summer.

The dogs came and went as they pleased. MayDay would ride over with me to work in the mornings on the other side of the farm. Some days she might walk herself home through the woods in the middle of the day. There were a few mornings when MayDay wouldn’t be back from her adventures with her buddy, Rose, and I would leave for the barn without her.

Once, I came in from hacking a set and found MayDay in my car by the barn. She had jumped through one of the open windows and was laying in the backseat happy as a clam. I didn’t think this was a good idea since it was summer and hot, so I left the windows up to prevent this from happening. A couple days later, I came back from riding and found her curled up on the roof of the car under the hot summer sun. Her message was clear: You are not leaving without me. After that, I left the back door of the car open for her to jump in at her leisure. This helped limit the scratch marks down the sides of the car, as well as on the hood, and it made her happy.

MayDay, 1995


The Ponies

The owner had eight polo ponies. They all went out in the same field together and came in to the same paddock with a run-in shed to be fed. The herd was comprised of six mares and two geldings and everyone was aware of the hierarchy. As a result, there was no drama feeding them all together.

I could knock out the eight horses everyday in three sets, which mostly amounted to trot sets with some cantering. The first two sets had a pony being led on each side and on the last set, I led one.

The owner taught me to “stick and ball,” which was even harder than it looked. He put me on “Nick,” his oldest and most seasoned veteran. Nick was a warhorse. A racehorse turned polo pony, Nick had screws in a couple ankles and still showed up for work every day…happily. He wasn’t the best in the string, but you could always count on him.

Holding the mallet felt especially foreign to me since I was left-handed. Polo players are required to play right-handed. The first time I took a swing, the mallet flew down, picking up speed, and just kept on going. I shrieked because I thought I was going to clock Nick in the head. Well, Nick was a pro, and he never missed a beat. He saw that mallet coming for him and he just swung his head out of the way as if he had done it a hundred times. Which he probably had. Bless his little heart. I loved that little horse, who was all heart.

There were a couple other standouts, such as Tickle, the spicy little redhead mare. I loved riding her, but sometimes her spiciness and exuberance were a bit much for the games. She was still young enough though, and that probably changed after a few more seasons. My favorite was the star of the team, Naomi. She was also a chestnut, but more copper colored than Tickle’s fiery red. Naomi was also quite tall for a polo pony, standing at 16-plus hands. What made Naomi remarkable was how quick she was on her feet, her amazing gallop, and how much power she had, in whatever it was she was doing. She busted a move on me a couple times and I had to work a little bit to stay with her. Like all really good polo ponies, she loved the game and knew she was good at it. I always offered to take her off the owner’s hands if she didn’t work out for polo, but that never happened. (I knew it wouldn’t, she was a superstar, but it didn’t stop me. She would have been a hell of an event horse, too!).

My three favorites in one set–riding Tickle with Nick on my right and Naomi on my left.

Game Time

When it was time for the games, I would line up the six ponies we were taking on the outdoor washrack. I went down the line, spraying one side and turning around and spraying the side of the next horse waiting, all the way down the line. Then I’d go back up the line with my bucket of soapy water the same way, scrubbing each side as it came along. I could bathe six horses and have them loaded in a little more than thirty minutes. (I’m positive I could not accomplish this today. That was warp speed and is long gone.).

On the drive up to Charlottesville to the UVA Polo Center, I always passed this guy walking alongside of Rt. 29 with a shopping cart. He would stop and wave madly whenever a car passed, grinning from ear to ear. He must have lived close because he was always roughly in the same spot.  I’m sure he was challenged in more ways than one, but he never failed to put a smile on my face when I saw him.

I’d arrive an hour before the game and park right next to the field. (This was field polo, not arena polo). All of the ponies were unloaded at once. Because they were a herd, they tied to the trailer in any order without protest. I would put everyone’s tails up and tack on the first one and have polo wraps on the first two at least.

As soon as the owner got on, I put tack on the second one straightaway because when he came back to swap for that horse, it was “game on” (no pun intended) getting the first horse cooled, the following one tacked, bridles and martingales cleaned if they weren’t being reused, and polo wraps on the horse two chukkers away from playing. Basically I had under ten minutes to do all of that before doing it again with the next set of horses in the line-up, all the way to the finish. The owner could play six horses in less than an hour and a half before we packed it all up and I headed home with the horses. We did this twice a week all summer—once for practice matches and once on the weekend for games. I usually left out of there about 8:30 or 9 p.m. during the week. There were a lot of exhausted drives home that summer!

But I couldn’t wait to get up the next day and do it all over again.

A rare photo sitting! Pre-game?

Skirmish Line

During my gap year before college, my event horses, Amos and Airie, had moved along to other homes and different jobs, leaving me somewhat horseless. I went up to David Hopper’s and picked out a dark brown thoroughbred gelding that they called “George.” George went back to Texas to stand in a field and get fat, which is exactly what he did, but not without a lot of effort from an elderly German woman who made him her mission.

My sophomore year, George came to Virginia to start light work and learn the ropes of being a “show” horse instead of a racehorse. It was my junior year when another little bay horse showed up. He was a beloved little thoroughbred owned by a family who was close to everyone at Fare Well. (They lived a couple of hours away). At the time, Skirmish was fourteen and had competed preliminary with his young rider for many years, and also with the other sister in the family before that. Having run out of riders in the family, he was now available for lease.

Talk about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Skirmish was a bay, with a star (go figure), and covered in dapples year round. He was 16-hands, but he resembled an overgrown pony. He had short ears that flicked constantly and sparkly chocolate eyes on his little dish face. What made him look ponyish most of all, were his little tea-cup feet.

He was a funny old man with a few quirks, but he had a heart of gold. Skirmish had a spook that sometimes showed up in the dressage and always showed up for the first three fences of cross-country. I eventually called this “First Fence-itis.”  We’d gallop out of the start box full tilt, until Skirmish caught sight of the first fence. He’d start swerving and backpedaling and it was a fight to get to the other side. He did get me once, when we had a stop at the first fence, but after that, I was ready.

Every cross-country course was the same. He was a total pony at Fence #1, he’d still try it at Fence #2, and again at Fence #3, but with less effort. But by the time you got to Fence #4, it was off to the races, and you had better hold on, because you were about to get tears in your eyes (from going so fast) and bugs in your teeth. I wouldn’t have been able to pull him off a jump if I tried.

I adored this horse. 

Everything happens at The Virginia Horse Trials…

It didn’t take long before Skirmish and I stepped up to preliminary together. He taught me the ropes at this level. Our first preliminary was at the Virginia Horse Trials. We did the dressage at the top of the hill, where Skirmish had a big spook because the wind was blowing quite hard. Later in the day, we went under the covered arena to warm-up for show jumping.

This was one of my first events in Area II, and boy, was it different. There were a lot more people and the atmosphere was super competitive. Skirmish and I warmed up over the cross rail and then went to the vertical. I tried to duck behind anyone headed to the vertical before their jump crew put it up. Not having  jump crew definitely put me at a disadvantage.

I kept circling past the oxer because it just seemed to go up and up. I couldn’t hit it right, ever. Finally, I got nervous that I was running out of time. I was two horses to go, so I just went for it. My “warm-up oxer” was set at max height and width. Skirmish ran his little heart down there and left the ground way too early (his pilot was no help), but I was on board with this idea, so I stuck to it. I heard everyone on the rail, and setting jumps, gasp audibly as Skirmish tied his cape a little tighter, sticking his feet straight out in front of him like Superman. He landed without missing a beat, having just jumped the biggest and widest oxer of his life, and we came around again to try and get a little closer.

Unbeknownst to me, Jimmy Wofford had been sitting there and he hopped off the rail and put his hand up to signal to me. With a smile on his face, he said, “Want a little help, Tiger?” Jimmy lowered the oxer and I got a couple of jumps in before I headed into the main ring.

(Post script: We had a clean round, because it was almost impossible not to on Skirmish. I don’t remember having any rails on him. He was completely unorthodox in his style, but it worked for him.).

I only knew of Jimmy because the O’Connors had trained with him. Other than that, I didn’t really know who he was. He told me he was teaching jumping clinics at the VA Horse Center once a month in the evenings, so I started attending those. That’s how I got to know Jimmy.

A little help went a long way, and it led to working for Jimmy for five years soon after….

Skirmish Line competing at the “Hot Day Horse Show,” aka The Difficult Run Pony Club Horse Trials, held in August back then.

The Virginia Horse Trials…Again…

My senior year, Skirmish went home to retire after we had competed together for a year at the prelim level. It was good timing as George was ready to step up to the level. We did our first prelim at the Middleburg Horse Trials. This event stands out in my mind because the first fence was a table covered in pumpkins.

It was the biggest table I had ever seen…or jumped.

Coming out of the box, there was a long runway to get to it, on beautifully manicured turf. George was wide-eyed all the way down to the jump. Although he did not have “First Fence-itis” the way Skirmish did, he gave the table a hard look. I think his canter stride was three feet long by the time he got to it, but this was a crucial milestone in our partnership—George gathered himself and jumped out of his skin and off we went.

Later in the season, at the Virginia Horse Trials, the preliminary cross-country course contained a “corner” jump, with a one-stride option. They called this jump “The Diamond L,” which I loved, because I had evented once at the Diamond L Horse Trials in New Mexico. It was a beautiful event back in the day. The point of the corner faced right and sat at the bottom of a gentle slope in the middle of the course. You headed straight up a hill after that. I planned to jump the corner and not the one stride.

George galloped down to it, going too fast as my half-halts were not working (aka ineffective riding). In order to make his footwork work for him, he drifted left. (Some are born seeing-eye dogs to the jumps. Others develop it through self-preservation. George had a little bit of both going for him.).

Because I couldn’t improve the drift, I once again stuck with the plan. We ended up jumping the section between the corner and the one stride. It worked out perfectly as a bounce, even though the two rails did not have a ground line, because they weren’t supposed to be jumped! Luckily for us, we were still between the flags. These days, you won’t find a jump flagged like that.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good….

**Next: Our first Three Day Event!

One thought on “Polo and Eventing

  1. Many years ago, whilst working on the lion, tiger and bear reserves of a British safari park, a friend and I attempted to impress a couple of young women who worked in a (relatively) nearby stables with some extremely expensive polo ponies. One morning we set off early to help them clean out the stables. We arrived, and the girls asked us to let four of the ponies out of a set of stalls and into a large paddock. We opened the stable doors and the ponies just stared at us, not a beautifully well-toned muscle moved so much as an inch. So, in true lion reserve style, we hefted a couple of brooms, and crashed them extremely loudly against the sides of the stable and stalls, shouting at the top of our lungs as we did so. Neither of us had the slightest experience of horses–as if you needed telling. The poor bloody ponies, not used to that kind of uncouth treatment, fled like all the demons of Hell were pursuing them… across the paddock and damn-near leaping the fence at the far end. Our prospective dates were a long way from being impressed.


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