Polo, a sport that caught on like wildfire when it was introduced at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center several years ago, has had a difficult time gaining a foothold in Orange County. The sport has come and gone several times at area clubs such as Sycamore in San Juan Capistrano (which recently disbanded its lesson program) and Beach Cities in Huntington Beach (which is reviving its polo school after a three-month hiatus, but on a limited basis).
Throughout all the ups and downs, the most active group has been the Winston Polo Club in Anaheim--the only place in the county where polo mallets have continued to swing for several years. That consistency is due largely to the enthusiasm of club founder Judith Baker, a former British Olympic jumping team member who has become one of the foremost women in the Southern California polo scene, and to her dedicated band of followers.
Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, the polo faithful file in from their workaday worlds to engage in a rough-and-tumble equestrian battle in Winston's polo arena. Lessons for beginners start at 6 p.m., followed by advanced lessons or scrimmage games at 7 and 8 p.m. Play continues until 9 or 10 p.m. in the lighted arena.
While some of the participants are "doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs," there is also an ever-growing segment of "polo for the proletariat." Vanessa Joe of Seal Beach, a flight attendant who plays at Winston, ticks off the occupations of some of her teammates: contractor, restaurant worker, bank mortgage officer, several female high school students, computer software engineer, carpet-and-flooring specialist--and yes, a few attorneys and a dentist.
Some of them arrived at Winston with some equestrian savvy; others were relative greenhorns. Joe, who has been playing at Winston for 2 1/2 years, admits that she was among the latter.
"I had no real horse experience when I came here. I had ridden a few times at rental stables but that was about it," she said. The first polo pony she sat on promptly ran off with her and, as she says with a laugh, "gave me the whole tour of the farm" before he stopped.
At that point, Joe decided to enroll in two months of basic riding lessons with Baker before returning to polo classes. After a year of lessons on the club's horses, Joe bought her own mount, a 12-year-old trained polo pony named Spike. Joe says the 15-hand thoroughbred gelding "knows how to play polo better than I do."
Joe is among 15 to 18 club "regulars" who play at Winston every week and about 6 to 8 newcomers to the sport who take weekly lessons. Beginners are taught horsemanship from the ground up: how to groom and tack a horse for polo, how to ride, the rules of polo and basic mallet strokes.
For more advanced players who have learned the ropes, the ponies are already tacked and waiting when the rider arrives for a lesson or a scrimmage. "You can drive here and jump right onto the horse," Joe said. "It's great for people on a tight schedule."
Winston offers competition in its two or three club leagues a year; the summer league wrapped up earlier this month. The club also hosts three or four tournaments against other California clubs from as far away as Ventura.
In addition to Baker, who teaches all phases of the sport, polo instructors at Winston include: Dick Blumenthal, who also teaches polo at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and specializes in game strategy; and Martin Joseph, a Winston member who coaches players in effective hitting techniques.
Lessons are $30 per hour, including the horse, tack and all necessary equipment. Spectators are welcome to watch the scrimmages free every Tuesday and Thursday at 7 p.m.
Winston Polo Club is at 2300 E. Winston Road, Anaheim. For information, call (714) 535-7155.