It’s sometimes called the game of kings, but Diego Gross and Tina Natorp Gross want people to know that polo is anyone’s game.
The Grosses hosted a practice session recently at their Catawissa ranch for local cowboys (and cowgirls), who brought their barrel racing horses, trail horses and gaited horses onto the field for fun.
Some of the horses were a little skittish at first as the experienced, or “made,” polo ponies and riders started smacking the balls across the field, but after a while, a few of them seemed to enjoy getting in on the game.
“This one is doing great!” Tina said of a half Fresian she was riding for one of her guests. “She might make a polo horse.”
Tina said some people think of polo as a game just for the wealthy set, but in reality, anyone who likes to ride can play.
The game is somewhat like a cross between soccer and hockey on horseback, played on a field about 300 yards long by 160 wide, with a goal post at each end. The object is to score a goal against the opposing team by using a mallet to hit a small white ball between the goal posts.
There are four players on each team, and the game is played in four- to eight-minute chukkas, or periods. At the end of a chukka, the players change ponies.
Polo is about the only equestrian sport where contact is allowed, when players “bump” or “ride off” another horse to move them away from the ball in a defensive move.
The Grosses recently purchased a small farm on Green River Trail in Catawissa near the Meramec River where they converted a hay field into a polo practice field.
With a string of made polo ponies in the barn at the ready, they offer lessons to anyone who wants to learn to play, from experienced riders to those who have never ridden before — like 14-year-old Evan Barnes of Kirkwood, the son of a close family friend.
“I put him on a green (unexperienced) horse and made him ride bareback to get his legs,” Tina said.
Evan plays on the practice field as often as he can. Watching him smack the ball up and down the field, it would be hard to guess he had just started riding a year ago.
“It’s a rushing game,” he said. “I love it. I think it’s fun. What more can you say?”
The Grosses hope to start a junior polo league next spring to give young people in the area an opportunity to experience the sport for themselves.
Polo ponies at the Grosses’ stables are mostly thoroughbred horses rescued off the track — horses that otherwise might not have a good home with a new chance at life.
Some are gentle enough for beginners, while others take a more experienced rider.
Tina said while it takes some riding talent to be a top polo player, much of what makes people successful is the quality of the horse and its eagerness to play.
Horses not only have to have speed to run after the ball, they also must be athletic to make the abrupt stops and turns throughout the game.
Although Tina and Diego train horses of either sex, Tina said she prefers riding the mares.
“They have a lot of heart,” she said.
A Perfect Match
Tina and Diego met in 2007 at a match Tina was playing for the St. Louis Polo Club.
Diego was smitten with the athletic brunette, but Tina wasn’t sure she had time for a romantic relationship.
“He’s very aggressive,” she said. “He took my phone when I wasn’t looking and called his phone so he would have my number.”
The two soon after became a couple and eventually married on the polo field before playing in the Ohio Polo Classic that day.
Today the couple have two sons, Ely, 4, and Tiago, 21 months.
Together, Tina and Diego have more than 50 years’ experience on the polo field and both have won numerous trophies and awards.
Tina currently plays with the St. Louis Polo Club and Diego recently returned from playing the Challenge Cup in Alabama, where he played for the New Orleans Polo Club.
His team brought home the trophy.
Tina, who had previously showed her horses in the western pleasure circuit, got her start in polo 20 years ago after moving her horse to a stable that was next to a polo field in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“(People at the stable) kept telling me, ‘Come on, try it. Try it,’ ” she said. “It was an immediate fit for me. There’s a lot of adrenaline. I like that.”
Tina started playing polo with a quarter horse she got off the racetrack.
“I bought this crazy appendix horse and did really well with him,” she said. “But he was never going to be a polo pony so I just started acquiring polo ponies.”
Tina has traveled the country playing polo. In 2010, her team won a women’s tournament in Dallas, Texas, and in 2011 she was part of the winning team that took home the Challenge Cup in Fair Hope, Ala.
Last year, she was an eight-goal tournament champion in St. Louis.
Diego was born and raised in Argentina, where he broke and trained his first horse when he was about 13.
He came to America in 1999 when a friend asked him to come train some polo ponies.
His training led him to Saratoga, New York, where he caught the eye of Memo Gracida, a famous professional polo player who was inducted into the National Polo Hall of Fame in 1997.
Gracida and his brother invited Diego to go to England, where Diego trained ponies for the British royal family for two years.
Although he saw Queen Elizabeth from a distance, the closest he said he got to the royal family was talking to the queen’s niece on the phone.
Diego has met Prince Albert of Nigeria, however, when another friend landed him a job training the prince’s polo ponies for several months.
“He was really kind and really polite,” Diego said.
Today, Diego and Tina train polo ponies together for themselves.
Diego breaks young horses and then hands them off to Tina.
“We make a really good team,” Diego said.
For more information about playing polo or to make an appointment for lessons, people may call Diego at 307-752-5798.