Ballet on Horseback

Polo has been played in Hawaii since the 1880s, and it’s still thriving on fields at Mokuleia and Waimanalo

Friday - August 08, 2008
By Kerry Miller
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Men racing horses and swinging 5-foot mallets makes for an exciting, fast-paced day at Mokuleia
Men racing horses and swinging 5-foot mallets makes for an exciting, fast-paced day at Mokuleia

Polo has been played in Hawaii since the 1880s, and it’s still thriving on fields at Mokuleia and Waimanalo

Known popularly as the sport of kings, polo has established itself as a sophisticated pastime, one of grace, strength and most importantly, skill. Here in Hawaii, polo has a long, proud history that continues today through clubs statewide as well as teams on the collegiate level.

“It’s like an infection if you’re a horse person,“says Raymond Noh, commentator for Hawaii Polo Club.“The feeling is just an unbelievable sensation.You become one with the animal.It’s ballet on horseback.”


Aside from being president of Noh Foods, Noh has a big ol’ case of polo fever. He began riding horses at age 10, got into polo at 19 and used to play in Waimanalo. He’s now a player with Maui Polo Club.

The friendly, laid-back Noh stands in the booth looking down on Oahu’s Mokuleia Polo Field on Sundays, providing the play by play for Hawaii Polo Club matches. Wearing a smile on his face and making jokes along the way, Noh leads the crowd through all the chukkers of the day.

Men racing horses and swinging 5-foot mallets makes for an exciting, fast-paced day at Mokuleia
Men racing horses and swinging 5-foot mallets makes for an exciting, fast-paced day at Mokuleia

What’s a chukker, you ask? No, it’s not another word for a laugh. A chukker is a period of play in polo. One game of polo consists of two teams of four players each playing four,seven-minute chukkers. Players ride their horses carrying a 5-foot mallet that they use to hit the ball between two posts for a goal.

Hawaii Polo Club president Mike Dailey is familiar with how the game is played, considering he’s one of 25 active players with the club his father,Fred Dailey,founded.The club established itself at Mokuleia in 1963, and prior to that called Kapiolani Park in Waikiki its home.

“It’s a strong and vibrant sport,” says Dailey.”(But) it’s a difficult sport to get involved in, because of the horse. You need to be able ride - and ride fairly well - to learn to play the game. There’s a barrier to entry; it’s a little like ice hockey if you can’t skate. That’s the impediment to growth. That scares a lot of people away. It’s a time-consuming game.”

As fierce as the action is on the field, for spectators it's a day for a laid-back picnic
As fierce as the action is on the field, for spectators it’s a day for a laid-back picnic

Despite these obstacles, Dailey is positive about how polo is growing, especially among women in Hawaii and youths around the country.

“The University of Hawaii is just forming a team; it’s women’s polo. One of the things most noticeable about polo in Hawaii is how women’s polo is growing much faster than men’s polo,” explains Dailey. “There was little women’s polo before the ‘70s and ‘80s. You now have about 25 different universities that field polo teams around the country. (There’s) also an interscholastic circuit in Hawaii that has sent teams to the Mainland. The intercollegiate level is really where growth has been. UH Hilo is having a polo clinic Sept. 6-7.”

Dailey’s club even has its own school, the Hawaii Polo School and Training Foundation. Currently 20 students are enrolled, from as young as 12 to as old as 70.

“It’s open to people who don’t ride well. They’re working on your riding skills as well as your polo skills,” says Dailey.“There’s no age limit. One of the beauties of the game is people start young, especially if you grew up around horses.”

Dailey jokes that he’s been “playing polo way too long, probably 40-some years. I’ve played all over the world for a team in England. I played in Kenya, Ireland, Germany, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Canada, Mexico, and I used to live in South America, so I played in Argentina. It’s a very international sport. That’s one of the things that I always enjoyed about it - it opens a lot doors in a lot of countries.”

As fierce as the action is on the field, for spectators it's a day for a laid-back picnic
As fierce as the action is on the field, for spectators it’s a day for a laid-back picnic

History backs up Dailey’s statement of polo being an international sport. As Noh explains, it started in China some 2,500 years ago as an exercise for war.The name “polo” comes from the word “pulu,” the type of wood that was used to make the balls, which are now made of plastic.

“It’s the oldest sport known to man,” says Noh.

Polo was first played in Kapiolani Park in the 1880s, says Dailey. In fact, he adds, polo was played here in Hawaii almost before anywhere else in the U.S.because of the British influence and the connection between ranchers in Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand.During World War II,play died down some. Prior to the war, the U.S. cavalry played polo because they used horses as a mode of transportation. When the cavalry was later disbanded, there were no horses in the Army anymore, which meant no more polo.


According to Dailey, play started back up in the ‘50s on Oahu, began to grow on Maui in the ‘60s and soon expanded to Kauai and the Big Island.

Hawaii Polo Club’s 2008 season ends Sept.21.All matches are played on Sundays starting at 2 p.m. at the Mokuleia Polo Fields on Farrington Highway across from the Dillingham Ranch. Remaining match dates are Aug. 10 (Military Appreciation Day),Aug. 17 and 24 (Argentina vs. Hawaii), Aug. 31 (USPA Women’s Tournament), Sept. 7 (USPA Amateur’s Cup) and Sept. 14 and 21 (Chile vs. Hawaii). Following the games, fans can stick around for live music starting around 5 p.m.

For more information on Hawaii Polo Club,call 637-8401.Admission is $8 general and military discount offered.

Oahu is also home to Honolulu Polo Club, which also plays on Sundays at its Waimanalo field (41-1062 Kalanianaole Hwy.). Matches start at 2:30 p.m. and gates open at 1 p.m.Admission is $3 adults and free for age 12 and under as well as military with ID. Honolulu Polo Club’s season ends Oct. 26.

 

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