A Thinking Woman's Game


In the wilds of Owings Mills lives a lost tribe of Amazonian women, fierce and beautiful creatures who play a mighty game on horses -- a game that, legend has it, originated in the ancient Afghan custom of batting the skulls of vanquished foes along the ground from atop their warrior steeds.

The young women of Garrison Forest School use a hard rubber ball instead of enemy heads and mallets in place of sticks. But the stakes are almost as high.

Polo, the sport of royalty and old family money played on the manicured fields of ancestral estates, traditionally has been associated with --ing young men jousting for masculine pride and the affections of bejeweled ladies with fluttering eyelashes, fans and white gloves.

The girls' polo team at Garrison Forest, a private girls' school, admittedly partakes of that patrician legacy. Many of the Garrison girls' great-grandmothers attended the school 100 years ago. But today their descendants keep up the horsy tradition in the polo arena, something proper young ladies of the past would never have dreamed of.

One day recently, the Garrison Forest polo team played the Clover Hill polo club, one of several mixed teams of men and women the school regularly competes against. The young Garrison women, reins in one hand and mallets in the other, fearlessly charged their opponents, including men twice their age and weight.

As the polo ponies kicked up clods of dirt, the young riders leaned over their mounts to whack the ball toward the goal -- a blue rectangle painted on the wooden walls of the circular, barn-like structure that serves as the school's arena.

The young women wore hard, silver helmets with wire masks to protect their faces. It's a rough game. Getting kicked by a horse or hit by the polo ball is no joke. Even the horses take a beating.

"You can't take a sensitive, fine thoroughbred and play him in this ring," said one attentive mother as she watched her daughter work her pony. "He'll go crazy."

Most of the ponies are donated to the school by wealthy alumnae. Unlike show horses, they have to be able to withstand rough treatment. Yet these are spirited animals, lunging on their hind-ends wherever the girls direct them. Which more often than not seems to be into the sides of their opponents' horses.

"Actually, we fall off the horses very rarely," observed Alicia Wells, 16, a tall, slender horsewoman who attends Garrison.

"Even though we've played against 250-pound men with a lot more upper body strength than us, we can beat them," Ms. Wells said. "It's all communication, stickwork and the ability to control the horse. You don't have to be a muscle- woman to win."

Fifteen minutes later, after a strenuous chukker, or round, of grueling competition, Ms. Wells was knocked off her horse.

"Well, once a game!" she shouted as she remounted and urged her pony back into the ring.

The spectators at these events can't take their safety for granted, either. The ball often flies into the stands. And polo is a very aggressive sport. One young women flipped the ball up with her mallet so hard it hit the domed ceiling and bounced back off the helmet of one of her opponents.

The girl who was struck immediatedly retaliated by maneuvering her horse to push her nemesis' horse into the wall; suddenly there was a mad tangle of young bodies, horses and flailing mallets as the ball rolled disinterestedly amid the thrashing hoofs.

Because Garrison's team plays in an indoor arena, the horses really can't move as fast as on an outdoor field. Still, indoors there are fewer opportunities for either horses or players to rest.

"With three on a team, no one is ever out of a play," said Cindy Halle, the Garrison team coach. "You're in contact almost all the time. It's more physical and tiring than field polo."

Ms. Halle is much admired among the girls. She is exceedingly trim, with a wiry self-assurance that shines out through piercing blue eyes. "This kind of polo is analogous to ice hockey," she says, "but without the goalie. It's something like the cavalry."

The game, which leaves the young women bathed in sweat, with bruised knees, chests and backs, certainly helps build their self-esteem. After all, what 16-year-old girl wouldn't feel a surge of power after beating some 200-pound rider in his 40s or 50s who plays for an all-male polo club, or spilling a guy from one of the university teams?

A sort of grass roots polo game developed among a few colleges during the 1970s and '80s. The schools mostly recruited players from the prep schools, but Garrison Forest is the only all-girls' team that isn't affiliated with a boys' school.

Last year, Garrison Forest won the National Inner Scholastic Tournament and was able to play in an open tournament against Culver Military Academy.

"They beat us," recalled Ms. Halle smiling. "But we made them sweat big time. They only beat us by two points, and they thought they were going to kill us -- but they didn't."

The girls, according to Ms. Halle, are generally better riders than the men and can "get a lot out of the horses." While they don't have the upper body strength men possess, they compensate by superior horsemanship and teamwork. They play a thinking woman's game.

"Team work," Ms. Halle said, "includes a lot of hollering, screaming and yelling, too."

The match over, the girls walked their steaming horses and rinsed them down. Team captain Marta Clegg, a willowy brunet with a soft Texas twang, strolled over to teammate Lindsey McClees and casually began discussing the bruises, scrapes and abrasions the game had produced. The two players, whose uniforms and faces were caked with mud, presented a startling contrast to the elegantly coiffed, impeccably turned out young ladies one sees at horse shows.

"That's why we wear white," Ms. Clegg said lightly. "To show them what we do."

Gina Maria Caruso is a former English teacher and poet who lives in Baltimore.

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