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When her family encouraged her to give polo a try at the beginning of high school, Carter Nix was hesitant. She’d grown up jumping horses and games of polo did not sound like something she’d be interested in.
Her uncle and cousins were involved in the sport, but despite their efforts to intrigue her, she resisted for months.
After a consistent chorus of “come out and play!” Nix reluctantly agreed to take a lesson with professional polo player Sunny Hale, who she now refers to as “the best female polo player to ever live.” To her surprise, she was immediately hooked.
“It’s definitely not all champagne and big hats. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes going on,” Nix, who is now the captain and president of the Cal Poly polo team — and an international polo champion said.
Nix played on the winning team in the U.S. Open Women’s Handicap Polo Championship on Nov. 12-14 at Houston Polo Club in Houston, Texas, beating 11 teams from around the world. Now that she is back on campus, she encourages any interested student to get involved.
“Anyone can join, literally whenever. We always need more help around here,” Nix said. “The more hands we have, the less work.”
Students can play competitively on varsity, or join the junior varsity team to learn and play without the pressure of competition. No previous polo or riding experience is necessary to join the JV team, and students can learn everything they need to know about the game.
That is what biology junior Cort Rowley did; he joined the team with no previous polo experience and is now playing on the men’s varsity team.
“I grew up riding western and had never experienced English riding or polo for that matter,” Rowley said. “The entire polo team at Cal Poly welcomed me with open arms. They are teaching me everything that they know and I’m loving every minute of it.”
Because of polo’s tie to horses, it is generally very expensive to get involved with and is often associated with royalty and extreme wealth in popular culture. Cal Poly’s program is working to disrupt this narrative by making the sport more accessible to anyone interested in trying.
“The best place to learn how to play polo and compete in the sport authentically is in college,” Cal Poly coach and owner of the Central Coast Polo Club, Megan Judge said.
For dues of approximately $300 per quarter, JV students learn to play polo and how to exercise and maintain multiple horses without having to incur the cost of owning and boarding them.
Polo first came to Cal Poly’s campus in 1977, which is later than most other collegiate programs that originated on the East Coast in the 1930s. But according to Judge, Cal Poly’s program is not far behind.
“Even though we started in ‘77, our program has a lot of clout in the United States and internationally as well because we are catching up to the [University of Virginia’s] and the Cornell’s and the Harvard’s –– it’s just that everything takes time,” Judge said.
With more regional championships than UC Davis, Cal Poly is currently the top university for polo on the West Coast.
The team practices at the Central Coast Polo Club, a regional polo center in Los Osos, tucked away behind an aging electric gate that swings open to reveal a polo arena and a picturesque landscape of rolling green hills and horse stables.
Additionally, the 2018 grand opening of the Oppenheimer Family Equine Center on Cal Poly’s campus has provided more space for the team to use when needed.
Practices began during fall quarter with a weekly time commitment of 10-12 hours per week, which increases to 16-20 hours per week for varsity students during the winter quarter – the height of the competitive season. During the winter of 2022, practices will take place at the Central Coast Polo Club on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. with opportunities to scrimmage on weekends.
Along with the skills needed to play the game, the Cal Poly polo program provides an encouraging learning environment that supports students like Nix and Rowley to succeed in all aspects of their lives.
“The team is just kind of like one big family,” Nix said, who now hopes to play polo professionally after college. “Hard work is always seen. If you work hard, someone is always going to notice and it’s always gonna pay off.”