Taking the reins and expanding polo at W&L

W&L polo club membership is now five times the size it was just two years ago

Elly Cosgrove

Washington and Lee club polo president Amanda Ebling, ’19, picked up her first polo mallet the summer before her freshman year of college.

Her friend Paul, a polo player for Southern Methodist University, invited her to his farm to try out the sport. While she began riding and showing horses at a young age, polo did not come easily to Ebling at first.

But there was a moment during that first day that has stuck with Ebling ever since.

“I finally managed to knock the ball between the two posts, and my horse started spinning in circles,” she said.  “I thought maybe a bee stung him, but Paul called down the field to me, ‘Don’t worry, that’s just how he celebrates scoring!’”

Ebling knew then and there that she loved the sport.

“When else are you a teammate with an animal?” she said.

After visiting the University of Virginia’s polo program and facilities her freshman year, Ebling knew she wanted to revamp the W&L club team. The team was started in the 1970s but had nearly fizzled out by the time Ebling arrived on campus.

Ebling shared her idea of improving the W&L polo team with Allie Rutledge, ’19. At the time, both were freshmen who wanted to learn the game and compete against other schools.

“Amanda and I thought that with a little more organization, the club could potentially be something really big and really fun,” Rutledge said.

Two years ago, according to Ebling, the club team only had about five members, a few crooked mallets, borrowed jumper horses and a bag of polo balls. The restructured program now has 25 members—the women’s varsity team has six players, the men’s varsity team has five, the club team has eight and the trail-riding club has six—as well as a bounty of professional equipment.

“We’ve gone from an unknown group to an organization that touches so many people on campus,” Rutledge said.

Ebling said the team’s finances have had to grow ten-fold since her and Rutledge’s freshman year in order to support the seven professionally-trained polo ponies the program now uses.

At the end of last year, the team also acquired a dedicated head coach: Rodger Rinehart. Rinehart is recognized for starting the UVA polo program, which is now the biggest program in the country, Ebling said.

“I’ve seen the UVA program grow over the past 50 years to become the standard bearer to inter-collegiate polo,” Rinehart said. “It’s nice to imagine today the groundwork we are laying will evolve into something great.”

Ebling has plans for the program’s continued growth that will make W&L a competitive team in the university polo league.

“My biggest goal is to recruit high school polo players, just like other sports teams do,” Ebling said. “This will take time though because we’re such a young team and we need to build our reputation in the polo world.”

No previous polo experience is required to join the team, however, a riding background, willingness to work hard and enthusiasm are the key ingredients to success, Rinehart said.

“Amanda and I have worked hard to make this club accessible to everyone, so even people without riding experience are welcome to come out and learn,” Rutledge said.

“We have a lot of different class years, Greek organizations and majors represented on our team,” Ebling added. “I love how inclusive it is.”

The varsity members practice twice a week and club members practice once a week at the Virginia Horse Center. This is where the team’s seven polo ponies are kept and where matches will be held in the future.

“We’re hoping to play Virginia Tech, UVA, George Washington, University of Louisville and University of Kentucky this year,” Ebling said.

The Intercollegiate/Interscholastic polo season runs from October to April and matches are held in indoor arenas.

Going forward, Rutledge said the team’s primary, immediate goals are to play in their first ranked matches, continue growing membership, expand the sources of income and qualify for regionals this winter.