Polo brings Darlington community together in Beaver County
Glenn Watterson Sr. mounted his horse and trotted it to the field, mallet in hand.
He was off to play polo — a sport that runs through his veins as much as the blood that keeps him alive.
“I play for the life of it,” says a smiling Watterson, who has been playing polo for 55 years. “It's about the camaraderie and being part of a team. I love it.”
The field where he plays is nestled inside the tight-knit community of Darlington, Beaver County. It's a place where locals know come Friday nights in the summer, the game is on.
“We are here practically every Friday night to watch,” says Mary Lou Gishbaugher of Darlington.
She was sitting in a lounge chair next to her husband Greg. “It's a social event. In Darlington, everyone knows everyone. It's a pretty special community. Polo connects us.”
It's not the fanciest of polo grounds, but it has significance to the generations of families who play there and the spectators who are on hand to watch.
It's not an elitest sport, says Watterson's son, Glenn Watterson Jr. of Darlington. You don't have to be elite to play, he says.
On this particular night, July 25, the game was the Bob Watterson Memorial, in honor of Watterson Sr.'s father, one of the founding members of the Darlington Polo Club, created in 1937.
It was all the more reason Watterson Sr. wanted to be out there playing. It was only the second time in the past year he's been able to play. He suffered a stroke in March 2013.
The Watterson family fell in love with polo in the mid-1930s when family members and friends attended a match in Zelienople. A stray ball rolled under one of their cars. They took it and fashioned brooms as mallets, gas cans as goalposts and strung lights on trees.
“Members of my family started practicing, and decided Friday night was the best time to play because they worked six days as week and would not play on Sundays, which was a day of rest,” the younger Watterson says.
That tradition at Darlington lasted over the years.
In 1938, it became the first lighted polo field in the country.
The field was eventually converted from grass to dirt because the former was often slippery and not safe for the players or animals. The 180-yard by 80-yard surface requires watering before, during and after matches.
Players and fans usually begin arriving hours before the 8 p.m. start time. The fee to watch is $5. It's free for those age 16 and under.
Spectators are a diverse crowd from the wine-and-cheese set to the bratwurst-and-beer bunch.
Polo is becoming popular again, Greg Gishbaugher says. “It is starting to get back to aggressive play, and it is better play than five years ago. We enjoy it. Everyone is family here.”
It's a sport you pass on to family members, Watterson Jr. says. “Anyone can learn this sport,” he says. “We have had doctors and lawyers and carpenters, players from all walks of life and players of all skill levels.”
The horses wait while connected outside to trailers, often neighing and snorting as their legs are wrapped and their tails braided (so the mallets don't get tangled). Thoroughbreds are predominantly used because of their agility and speed.
From young to old, polo brings families together — everyone willing to help each other out because they all know the work that goes into taking care of horses and getting ready for a match, Watterson Jr. says.
He says it's best to start young; age 12 is the youngest they will teach. Riding is the most important part of the sport, he says.
Those looking to learn the sport should talk with Mark Powers. The East Palestine, Ohio, resident owns Powers Polo School there.
Watterson Jr.'s daughter Ella has been around polo since she was born. She can walk the horse and hit the ball. She helps brush the horses and put saddles on the animals and braid their tails.
“Riding a horse is just an amazing feeling,” says Ella, 10. “I want to play soon. I have been riding. But you have to be ready.”
Powers can help a rider be properly prepared. A horse trainer at Mountaineer Race Track in West Virginia, he says he owns “20ish” horses and has earned a living through working with horses.
“I would say don't try polo, because you will like it so much you will get addicted,” Powers says. “I may tire of horses, but I never tire of polo.”
Powers' son Justin is director of national club development for the U.S. Polo Association.
“It's about getting new people involved in the sport,” Justin Powers says. “The sport is growing. There are a lot more new people coming in. It's exciting. I love what I do. I was born into it.”
Knowing how to ride is not required for a lesson. Polo can be dangerous, Justin Powers says.
Riders need to learn to control a horse, because it's a 1,000 to 1,500 pound weapon. Helmets are required, and riders can wear polo boots, knee pads and a mask. It's a sport in which men and woman can compete against each other.
Powers refers to the sport as “refined adrenaline.”
Frank Torres of the Cleveland Polo Club took lessons from the Powers Polo School at the age of 47. “I am an adrenaline junkie, so I loved it right away,” he says. “Playing polo is like playing golf on an earthquake. It is a unique sport.”
The Powers family is great, says student Remie Ferreira Jr. of Mars. “There is a lot to learn to play it properly,” he says. “There is a lot of multitasking. But I can't wait to play in a match.”
Ferreira won't be disappointed once he plays that first time, says Lybbie Lewis of Fox Chapel, because “Darlington is a special place.” She has played at Palm Beach Polo, Pilar Argentina, England, The Plains, Va., and MeadowBrook, N.Y. She was playing and teaching in Los Angeles before moving back to Pittsburgh and found Darlington.
“It was close to home, and I wanted to be part of it,” says Lewis, who designs a polo clothing line, including the Darlington team jerseys. “I still find Darlington to be a romantic setting with good people — so romantic that my husband (William Earl Kofmehl III) and I wedded at Darlington Polo Club on horseback.”
JoAnne Klimovich Harrop is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7889.
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