Polo's no game for dainty princesses

All-female team excels in rough-and-tumble sport

April 26, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

Kelsey Nussenfeld and a few of her friends are ready to rumble.

They climb on horses and gallop up and down the arena field, kicking up clouds of dust as they go. Much like hockey players chasing a puck, the teens whack their long mallets at a grapefruit-sized ball and try to keep from being smashed into the wall or trampled by their teammates.

Polo, the ancient equine sport, is alive and well in Baltimore County. And as these ladies will tell you: It's not a dainty pastime like croquet.

"It's not all prim and proper," says Kelly Wells, coach of the Maryland Polo Club's collegiate team. "People are often shocked that the sport is still played. They say, `Water polo?' I have to say, `No, polo with horses,' all the time."

In fact, Wells says, polo has gained popularity among teenagers in the more affluent exurbs of Maryland, areas such as northern Baltimore County, where people are familiar with such rituals as foxhunts and steeplechases.

The Maryland Polo Club's four-member interscholastic team coached by Wells is also gaining recognition nationally. In February, the team won the National Women's Interscholastic Championship in Connecticut. This month, the team traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, to compete in the U.S. Polo Association's Interscholastic National Championship.

Although the team didn't win, Wells' squads are "very athletic," says Ed Armstrong, the U.S. Polo Association's director of tournaments, clubs and membership. "They're a good, strong team," he says, adding that they were the only all-female team to compete in the otherwise co-ed national championship this year.

Wells played polo at Cornell University and owns Marlan Farms in Monkton with her husband, Trevor, who helps her coach and teach polo lessons. The couple has 24 polo horses and a 220-foot-long indoor polo arena at the 53-acre farm, where they also board horses and give riding lessons.

Although the "Game of Kings" has a reputation of being exclusive, it's not necessary to own a horse to play, and most of the players ride the Wellses' horses. The team practices twice a week in the evening.

In addition to the varsity girls team, the Wellses also coach a boys high school team and junior league team.

On this night, Wells has her players scrimmage. The play is fast and furious -- and loud. The girls call out to teammates over the pounding of hoofs as Wells yells instructions.

Three players fall from their mounts, which Wells says is an unusually high number. No one is hurt.

It is a particularly long practice and lasts more than an hour. A regulation game is divided into four quarters that each last seven minutes, 30 seconds.

Nationwide, about 50 high school-level polo teams are affiliated with the U.S. Polo Association, according to Armstrong. The numbers of females and students playing seem to be especially growing, he says.

But in Maryland, there are only two high-school-level polo teams: Wells' team and one at Garrison Forest School, an all-girls private school in Owings Mills where Wells once coached.

The teams regularly travel to other states to compete. But, says Lissa Green, the polo coach at Garrison Forest, "It's nice to have two programs so close together with strong teams to enhance each other."

Depending on the season, there are 35 to 50 polo players at the school, Green says.

"I'm not sure why it's happening now, but we're seeing it grow all over the country," Green says.

The sport seems to attract young women and men who tried showing horses in riding competitions but missed the competition of team sports, Wells says.

Courtney Asdourian, a 16-year- old sophomore at Garrison Forest School, is one such polo player. She has been riding since elementary school, but "I got tired of doing the horse show thing."

"You ride to look pretty," says Asdourian. In polo, she rides to score.

"It's a very physical sport," says Nussenfeld, a 16-year-old junior at Dulaney High School. "It's fast. And it's fun."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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