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Saddle up: Maryland Polo Club celebrates 'sport of kings' with weekly matches, lively BritFest

Eight players mount their horses on a recent Saturday in Jarrettsville, and with a blow of a horn, the game is under way.

Maryland Polo Club manager Nate Berube swings his mallet, delivering a powerful “whack” to the ball, sending it soaring down the field. The players follow, their horses galloping downfield, all in hopes of gaining control of the ball. And after a short scuffle and clunks of heavy hooves on the ground, an opposing player smacks the ball with his mallet in between two posts.

Goal. But the game isn’t over. For Maryland, the polo season is just beginning.

The Maryland Polo Club launched its 32nd year this month, bringing outdoor polo matches to the Baltimore area every Friday and Sunday through September (weather permitting), allowing spectators and players of all skills to partake in a posh sport that, according to the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, is older than recorded history. This weekend, the club is holding its second BritFest, hoping to draw newcomers to the “sport of kings” and, of course, celebrating all things British.

“We have an incredible horse industry in Maryland,” said Maryland Polo Club president Olivia Stringer Berube. Not only does Maryland have more horses per square mile than any other state, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Horse Industry Board, but polo programs starting in high schools like Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills and polo training at places like Marlan Farm in Freeland have prepared students to compete and dominate in interscholastic and collegiate championships (Garrison Forest’s polo club has won more than a dozen national championships in the past four decades).

It’s also a unique spectator sport, drawing large crowds during weekend matches.

“It’s excellent tailgating. … Even if you know nothing about horses, it’s a great level of excitement there,” she said, adding that aside from the level of technique and athleticism involved (riders must steer the horse with one hand and manipulate the mallet with the other), the love of horses is a major draw. Spectators, who do not need to be members, can interact with the horses and players before and after the matches. And despite the assumed financial demands of the sport, polo can be more inclusive and affordable thanks to local clubs, which provide equipment, horses and farmland.

“Our club caters to just about every level. You don't need to own a horse or have a riding background,” she said. “We can take anybody and teach them the game.”

A version of the sport began in Central Asia as a blend of entertainment and training for war, according to the polo museum. Polo eventually became a national sport in Persia following a migration of Asian nomadic tribes between 600 B.C. and 100 A.D., and then spread east to places like Tibet, China and Japan, and then south to India.

The most modern version of polo, however, originated in Manipur, India, where one of the oldest polo clubs was founded in 1859 by British military officers and tea planters after officials became fascinated with the local sport. Within the next three decades, polo spread throughout the world, reaching Malta, England, Ireland, Argentina and Australia, and eventually the United States in the late 1870s.

The Maryland Polo Club initially played matches as early as 1924, according to Baltimore Sun Media Group archives, and despite a strong showing through the 1930s, the club dissolved after World War II, relaunching more strongly in the 1980s, according to the U.S. Polo Association’s website.

Berube, 33, who also acts as the director of the Maryland Polo Club’s junior polo division, and her husband and club manager, Nate, 28, have helped to keep the club’s revival strong. The couple live in Aiken, S.C., where they own a polo farm, field and arena called Berube Polo. There, they train and breed horses and play polo for eight months out of the year.

When summer hits, polo begins in Maryland. The Berubes migrate north to Monkton annually around late May, with around 30 horses in tow, and begin to operate the polo club’s festivities, including practices, competitions, and events. On Saturday, they’ll also host BritFest, a British food and fare celebration where English and U.S. teams will square off on the field for a polo match. Last year, the event drew a crowd of about 1,000 spectators.

The polo club includes about 35 members and five volunteers from Maryland, Washington and Pennsylvania, starting from age 11, then branching off to award-winning high school and collegiate players, to retired adults in their 70s. They compete within the region, throughout the country, and even internationally. Players are chosen for teams based on their “handicap,” or their measured ability to play on the field, which is ranked from -2 to 10. Though it’s not required, many players start young and often with a base of, or at least a fascination with, horseback riding.

Fourteen-year-old Madison Jordan of Monkton has been horseback riding since she was 2 and started playing polo at 7 years old. During the winters, she and her twin sister, Brianna, play at local indoor arenas, and in the summers, they play with and assist the Berubes with their horses, ensuring that they are well-nourished and prepared for their rotations during the polo matches, which consist of a series of 7-minute, 30 second-long matches called chukkas or chukkers.

“Every morning, [we] make sure they get fed, have no cuts … make sure they have plenty of water and hay, and pack them up for them, make sure they’re all ready to play,” Madison said. The horses are her favorite part, she said. Her father, John Jordan, said she has a knack for caring for them.

“We have seven [horses] at our house,” Madison said. “I love them. They’re so sweet.”

Berube, too, started her career around the same age with the Garrison Forest Club, and continued competing while at Colorado State University. She has traveled the world to compete in places like India, and in major tournaments, including the National Polo Association, which features a faster, more advanced level of polo.

“It’s fast. It’s definitely a level of danger and excitement, and there's a lot of adrenaline,” said Berube, adding that the sport is unique in that, like hockey, aggression is allowed. Players are allowed to run their horse into another’s so long as it is parallel, she said.

“You can’t have a bad angle or come across the horse, but you can hit them hard as you can in speed to gain possession of the ball,” she said.

Parker Pearce, 17, who won back-to-back national championships on the interscholastic polo team for the Maryland Polo Club and will play during BritFest, has been playing since he was in the third grade. After eventing (where riders compete in dressage, cross-country and show jumping), Pearce said he wanted to try something different. His parents, who were in the horse-racing industry, encouraged him to try polo. Parker said he took to the sport and describes the experience as rewarding.

“Just getting to work with the horses and training them and seeing your end product after [training] ponies, that feeling is just really great in knowing what you’ve accomplished,” Pearce said, adding that he has made friends along the way.

Maryland Polo Club’s year-round groom, Alejandro “Alex” Lopez, 44, started horseback riding at age 7 and started playing polo shortly afterward, he said. The Argentina-born polo competitor, who works with the Berubes in South Carolina, said the excitement hasn’t dwindled.

“It’s a lot of fun, working together and playing together,” said Lopez, who said he has competed in Florida, Texas and overseas in England and New Zealand. “It’s addicting. You’ll never quit it. The more you try, the more you love it.”

If you go

Maryland Polo Club Whether you’re a spectator or a polo player looking to get into the game, the club will host matches at 6 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Sundays through Sept. 8. $20 per car, which includes a parking and tailgating space.Introductory polo lessons start at $65 in the arena and $100 on the grass field. Yearly memberships start at $1,500. Maryland Polo Club, 3633 Fallston Road, Jarrettsville. marylandpoloclub.com.

BritFest Coinciding with Queen Elizabeth’s (official) 92nd birthday, celebrate all things British with the club’s second festival, which includes an England vs. United States polo match at 1 p.m., British cover bands and music, an English classic car display and dozens of English-related vendors, serving up English fare, beers, Pimm’s Cups, and more. 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Saturday. Maryland Polo Club, 3633 Fallston Road, Jarrettsville. $15-$20. marylandpoloclub.com.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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