Saddling up


Sophomore Zoë Carpenter swings her mallet while riding her horse during a polo practice. Photo contributed

Nova Hunter and Ava Hoover

The last bell of the day has rang, and school has been let out. While many students stay after for clubs and sports or head home, sophomore Zoë Carpenter heads an hour north to Hickory Hall Polo Club in Whitestown, Indiana. For the next three hours, Carpenter rides one of her horses–either Valentino or Pequita–as a member of a polo team.

 “Usually, I try to get out a little bit before the rest of my team,” Carpenter said. “I warm up my horse and all of my different strokes. I do air shadowing strokes. And then, we’ll play practice matches. And, we’ll have our team sorted out. We’ll get practice jerseys. We have a couple of people who are our coaches, but they still play with us. They give us advice on defensive and offensive strategies.”

On a team of experienced polo players, Carpenter is the only high-school-aged rider. She has been riding horses since she was five years old, starting with English saddle seat.

“English saddle seat is showing horses,” Carpenter said. “There’s a specific type of saddle we use, and really the goal is to try and make our horses look as beautiful as possible. And, we follow a certain set of standards that we work on to try and get our horses to meet.”

But playing polo is a different kind of equestrian sport. Two years ago, Carpenter fell in love with polo by playing on vacation in Middleburg, Va. 

“The hotel resort that we were staying at had polo, and that was one of the main reasons why we went there,” Carpenter said. “I’ve always loved horseback riding, and I was getting kind of bored with the things I was doing before. So, I decided to try a new discipline. And, I started up and I really fell in love with it.” 

This is where Carpenter got her start riding polo. Unlike English saddle seat, polo is a contact sport, and it required Carpenter to adjust accordingly.

“If you’re playing defense while the other team has the ball then your goal is to push or ride off the other players. So you want your knee leveled with their knee and then your goal is to push them away from the ball,” Carpenter said. “You’re bumping into each other, and you’re trying to hit the ball along a mallet through a goal.”

Carpenter practices for about 2-3 hours each time she is at Hickory Hall Polo Club. If she is training her horses as well, she is there for about four hours.

 “When I’m training, and working with my polo pony, I’ll work on stopping faster. A lot of it is conditioning and making sure that cardiovascularly they’re fit enough to play polo,” Carpenter said. “If I’m working with saddle breeds, it’s more like trying to get them to get them to raise their head up higher and to perform it at their highest level.”

Carpenter gives lessons to younger children as well. 

“If I’m doing a lesson or something, I usually work with the beginner kids. So, we are just working on simple things like posting and guiding horses,” Carpenter said. 

Even though Carpenter has not had as much experience in polo, she continues to beat her competition in matches.  

“This year I had to travel to Lexington to play polo. I got to play against some really high goal people who were really good. And, it was really helpful to experience the higher level polo that was faster. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for it, but it really helped me learn it and grow,” Carpenter said. 

Carpenter said she hopes to continue playing polo after high school. If she chooses to continue, there are only a few colleges that offer the sport. Many colleges offer arena polo, which is played indoors and has different rules than the style Carpenter is used to. 

“I definitely want to continue playing polo. I may end up playing polo in college. But, then if I wanted to play some professional tournaments in Wellington I can do that. So, I may have to pick and choose there,” Carpenter said.

Despite the challenges Carpenter faces, she continues playing polo.

“I am the youngest on my team. Everybody else is a lot older and a lot more experienced than me, and I didn’t get a lot of lessons before I started playing,” Carpenter said. “So, I really had to jump into it and kind of figure it out for myself. And, there was nobody to teach me the rules or anything, so it’s been a bit of a challenge. But, it’s great.”