It's too bad that Sue Sally Hale doesn't have to write an essay on "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Not many people could top this Moorpark grandmother's experiences.
Hale, who turns 53 this month, has just spent six weeks playing professional league polo in France where her team won eight of nine games to finish second overall in the Mallet of Gold tournament at the Polo Club de Bouloy. She also played in a women's promotional polo tournament at Deauville for Jacomo perfume.
"It was a trial by fire," said Hale, who is widely considered the Grand Dame of Women's polo in America. "I learned to do things that I didn't think I could do under the best conditions." Hale replaced her daughter, Sunny, who played for the first weeks of the tour but returned home to resume her duties as manager of the Glendale Polo Club near Chicago. Sunny had warned her mother that playing in France "was kind of different," adding that it might be fun, "but dangerous."
Hale confirmed that after a 20-hour flight, she found herself on a rock-hard field playing in games that she compared to a Monty Python event. This was unlike the game of strategy, which she has taught to many professional players and celebrities including Doug Sheehan and Parker Jamison.
"Over there it seems that nobody knows where the ball goes. You just hit it and then run to find it."
Hale said they also played on wet grass where a sudden turn at 30 m.p.h. could result in a fatal fall. "I was also scared to death driving a rig, with seven head and two trailers, 9,000 m.p.h. down those tiny roads," Hale said.
Over the past four decades Hale has been a pioneer in developing American women's polo into a recognized competitive sport, now played at several college campuses and equestrian clubs around the country. The latest figures of the United States Polo Assn.'s membership reveal 418 female members. Only 350 women are players with an assigned handicap, another 55 are unrated students, and 28 are non-playing associates.
In 1972, when Hale was one of the first three women officially admitted to the century-old USPA, she was then rated the top woman player in the nation. She had a "two goal" handicap, which she now shares with only a handful of women. She has been the subject of several magazine and newspaper articles and her achievements have earned her a place in the Smithsonian Institution's section on Women in Sports.
Hale and two of her daughters teach and play polo professionally. Twenty-one-year-old Sunset (Sunny) shares the highest indoor and outdoor rating for U.S. women players with her sister Stormie, and two others. Stormie, who is 25 and the mother of Sue Sally's 10-month-old granddaughter Victoria, runs the family's H and H Farms. According to Stormie, their Moorpark Polo Club, established in 1986, is "currently the only teaching club in Southern California."
Bob McConihay, a former student and a contractor from Newbury Park, said that "Sue Sally's place makes it possible for the average person with only one horse to come out and play weekend polo without owning a string of ponies and equipment. And you play safe here."
"We've grown up with horses," said Stormie, who also trains polo ponies. "I remember when we were kids living in Carmel Valley, a lot of nights we'd sneak out and sleep in the barn with our ponies."
Their equestrian enthusiasm comes from their mom. Hale showed me an ardent note she had written to her mother at 12 vowing to become "a bronc buster or a polo player."
"I grew up like a wild Indian in the hills of Hollywood," said Hale, whose stepfather, actor-stuntman Richard Talmadge, became her mentor after her father's death. While attending Westlake School for Girls with celebrities including Jane Fonda and Gary Cooper's daughter, Maria, she occupied herself with swimming and riding. As a preteen, she qualified for the Olympics in swimming but chose to concentrate on riding.
At 15, under the tutelage of polo greats Duke Coulter and C.D. LeBlanc, she played with men's teams at the now-defunct Riviera Country Club and at Will Rogers State Park.
She would disguise herself as a boy by applying mascara to her upper lip, wearing a loose shirt and tucking her braids under her helmet. "After a game," said Hale, "it was a kick to clean up for the parties and mingle unrecognized with the guys I'd just played on the field with."
At 16, Hale began applying for USPA membership, something she did annually until succeeding in 1972. "I had been teaching men to play polo for years," she said, "and I wanted to play on the field with them in official tournaments."
Hale married Alex Hale in 1957 and moved to the Monterey Peninsula where sons Brooke and Trails, and daughters Stormie, Sunset and Dawn were born. In 1963 she established the Carmel Valley Polo Club, the first such club on the peninsula since World War II.