Field Notes: You Don’t Have to be Rich to Ride with The Honolulu Polo Club
Field Notes explores Honolulu’s vast and varied scenes and subcultures.
The Waimānalo grandstand.
photos: david croxford
What it is
Most of us know polo. (It’s a fashion logo, right?) But the real game’s trademarks, proudly displayed, are purple-and-black bruises, bandages and semipermanent limps. Evolving from a giant free-for-all fought by Persians and Mongols on the steppes of Asia, polo today has whittled the horde down to a match of two teams, four riders on a side. But they still thunder impressively, up and down a 300-by-160-yard field, all while attempting to whack a little white ball through goalposts using a long mallet. Good sportsmanship is prized as much as goals, but riders do occasionally collide, fall, break bones and bruise ‘okole.
Polo on O‘ahu is played at the Honolulu Polo Club in Waimānalo and the Hawai‘i Polo Club in Mokulē‘ia. A polo match consists of four seven-minute periods called chukkers; whichever side scores the most goals wins. To keep the action from slowing, riders swap in fresh horses during the three-minute break between chukkers. Wealthy players own strings of mixed thoroughbred quarter horses, which cost about $10,000 each, according to Honolulu Polo Club President Allen Hoe. “And then you’re spending $300 to $500 a month on stabling and feed during the season.” Per horse.
So how many can afford the sport? “We have 18 active players,” Hoe says, who are members of the United States Polo Association. Club dues are $3,000 a year or $500 a month. Some own a horse or two. A few are very wealthy and own many horses; they help keep the scene afloat by supplying extra mounts for matches.
You don’t have to be rich to ride. Danielle Day, 45, a bartender, and Ronnie Huard, 47, a boutique manager, have gone from spectators to stable rats to polo apprentices in two years. “We came to watch and asked if we could come help take care of the horses,” Day says. They muck out stables, groom and care for horses and, in return, are learning to ride and, someday, play.
It helps if you can play. Suejin Hwang rode at Stanford 23 years ago. “I came out to Hawai‘i a year ago just to play,” she says. This year, “I came out to dog-sit for a friend.” She ended up playing again.
Riders and horses learn to move as one.
Who comes to watch
The Sunday matches draw a crowd—often more than 100 spectators, many of whom have never played polo or even ridden horses. So what’s the appeal?
“I first came out eight years ago,” says social club member Lori Anderson, 60, sitting with friends while enjoying a glass of wine. “I love it so much I just kept coming back. I love the sense of freedom out here. It’s a good way to get out of the concrete jungle. The horses are so beautiful and the riders are so elegant.”
Individual social members like Anderson pay $100 for a season pass ($175 for a couple) that includes grandstand seating and a free catered sunset feast on match days. Drop-ins are welcome, too; on a recent Sunday about 60 people paid $7 each to show up and tailgate (some in high BYOB style, on blankets and in lawn chairs). Military members get a discount. There’s plenty of lawn space.
“Our dress code is shorts and slippers,” says Hoe. “And if you want to dress to the nines, that’s welcome, too.”
Allen Hoe, 71, lawyer, club president, Kailua
“I’m part Native Hawaiian, and could never understand my being intrigued by horses. Then I discovered my ancestors were early players.”
Piper Distad, 13 and Sawyer Fernandez, 14 are both students and flag riders from Kailua.
Piper: “I don’t own a horse, but I ride almost all the horses in the barn.”
Sawyer: “It’s crazy, polo; it’s like feeling like you’re flying.”
Khai Agon, 45, polo school manager, Kailua
“I grew up playing in Waimānalo, bodysurfing Sandy Beach. I left, came back, met my wife; now we have two kids and 10 horses.”
The season generally runs from the end of March to the end of October. Matches are on Sundays, starting at 3 p.m., at the field at 41-1062 Kalaniana‘ole Highway. For more information, go to honolulupolo.org or call Allen Hoe at 521-6927.