Gearing up for snow polo at annual Aspen tournament
December 17, 2009
ASPEN – When people think of polo, they think of long green fields and players in short-sleeved jerseys, faces tanned from the summer season. Perhaps they also imagine tailgate parties with ladies in haut-couture hats and gauzy linen sundresses, sipping champagne from crystal flutes and nibbling cucumber sandwiches.
They certainly don’t think of subzero temperatures, snow and ice, and a ski mountain rising in the background.
But for the hardy, polo can be a year-round sport. And to prove that proposition, snow polo is returning to Aspen. Top players from Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, South America and France will be churning up the snow in Wagner Park on Saturday and Sunday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. This will be Aspen’s 10th annual World Snow Polo Tournament-Piaget Polo on the Snow.
Gone are the green fields and short sleeves of summer.
Players put on their long underwear and extra thick socks, neck gaiters, ski masks and long-sleeved fleece jerseys spangled with logos of their sponsors.
The horses are in their winter garb, too. As the days grow shorter and shorter, the thick coats of the horses grow longer and longer. The polo ponies of summer take on a bit of a wooly mammoth appearance, their shaggy coats offering protection in temperatures that can drop to 20 below zero.
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Local rancher Barry Stout is organizing the event and providing 30 horses needed for six teams. (Yes, that same Barry Stout who has been in the national news lately, allegedly having been stiffed nearly $20,000 at last year’s polo tournament by White House part crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi.)
To keep the horses in shape, Roaring Fork Polo Club members come up to Stout’s 1,200-acre ranch in the mountains around Baldy Creek and ride Stout’s polo ponies. At more than 8,000 feet above sea level, all of Stout’s horses are acclimated to the Rocky Mountain winter conditions.
“You have to condition the horses to running in the snow,” Stout explained. “They need to get used to the movement of breaking through the snow surface, sort of like post-holing. We work the horses in the snow to get them accustomed to that feeling and to build up their tendons.
“We use sweat sheets – not blankets- to put on a hot horse coming off the field. The lighter sheets let the horses cool down slowly, instead of keeping them hot and sweaty the way normal winter horse blankets would.”
In order not to slip on the field’s icy surface, snow-polo ponies are shod with a special shoe. A thin rubber rim around the inside of the shoe vibrates and shakes the snow loose, to keep the hollow of the hoof from packing with ice. Two cogs on the front and one plate in the back of the shoe gives the horse much better traction, especially when turning.
The polo horses’ legs are wrapped with fleece bandages and then covered with tendon boots to protect them from injury.
The Aspen Skiing Co. is providing a snow groomer that will pack and smooth out the field between periods (known as “chukkers”), according to Stout.
“Sort of like a Zamboni,” he added.
Wagner Park’s field is approximately 100 yards long and 40 yards wide, and the rugby posts will serve as the goal uprights.
“The World Snow Polo Tournament is Z-Green certified,” Stout said. “That means that we are working not to hurt the environment. For example, the end lines are sprayed in red Kool-Aid so as not to harm the soil with toxic chemicals.
The entire field is enclosed with a bright red snow fence.
There are four chukkers in a game. Each chukker is 7 1⁄2 minutes. Players change horses between each chukker.
There are three players on a team and they line up at the center of the field for the throw-in. When a team scores a goal, they return to the center of the field but line up on the opposite side, alternating goals.
The fundamental rule in polo is not to cross the line of the ball in play. With half-ton ponies moving at high speeds, this prevents dangerous accidents. There is an imaginary line extending from where the ball was last hit. The player closest to this line – usually the hitter, but not always, especially with a bouncing ball – has the right of way. A player can either hook an opponent’s mallet, “ride the player off” the line of the ball by making physical contact before the player swings, or hit the ball on the “near side” (the left side) without interfering with the opposing player’s right of way.
Penalty shots are awarded to a fouled player’s team.
Some players choose to play the ball off the snow fence, and catch the rebound, a common technique in indoor “arena” polo. Others move the ball with repeated short shots, passing it ahead to teammates to score a goal.
The snow-polo ball is bright red and made of inflatable vinyl, unlike the traditional hard white plastic or willow balls.
“The biggest difference in snow polo is that the inflatable ball is unpredictable. It can bounce erratically, be carried by the wind, get stuck in snow divots,” Stout explained.
Some world-class, high-goal players are converging on Aspen to play polo – and have some fun on the slopes – during the holiday season.
Nacho Figueras, a top player from Argentina – incidentally, the face of Ralph Lauren Black Label – will be among the many notables. (In addition to being ranked among the top 100 polo players in the world, he was named by Vanity Fair as the second most handsome man in the world in June 2009.) Other notable players include Kris Kampsen, Juan Bollini, Carlos Gracida, Nicholas Roldan, Stuart Campell, Juan Martinez and Alan Martinez.
Most of the players come from warmer climates. In past years, there have been players in the Aspen tournament who had never seen snow. But the riding skills and polo playing instincts transfer immediately, as does the competitive spirit.
Six teams are scheduled to play: Piaget, Bombay Sapphire, Land Rover, Crestview Farms, L’Hostaria and Audi.
Admission to the World Snow Polo Championships at Wagner Park is free and open to the public.
Thursday, there will be welcoming remarks and a silent auction at the Hotel Jerome to raise money for the Aspen Sister Cities program. The public is welcome.
For more information, visit WorldSnowPolo.com.
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