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As if polo weren’t obscure enough—one of the world’s oldest team sports, played on horseback by mallet-swinging riders—a Swiss hotelier decided to host a game on a frozen lake in St. Moritz in 1985. Thus, snow polo was born and has since been played in Austria, China, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Spain. Today, however, the winter version of the aristocratic pursuit is only regularly on display in two places in the world: Switzerland, where the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz is held every January, and…Colorado.
A match was first played in Aspen in 2010, but the spectacle that is now the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship, held annually in December, really got going after Marc and Melissa Ganzi founded the Aspen Valley Polo Club in 2014. Since then, the club has hosted Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, for multiple charity matches at its summer fields in Carbondale, including one this past August.
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Its winter event, however, is even more ritzy, drawing sponsors like Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille, Lugano Diamonds, NetJets, and superyacht broker Edmiston in addition to A-listers such as Kate Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Mariah Carey, and Anna Kendrick. “This is certainly the most celebrity-driven and flashiest polo tournament in the country,” says George J. DuPont Jr., executive director of Florida’s Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame.
It may come as a surprise, then, that anyone can spectate the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship, hosted by the Aspen Valley Polo Club, for free. (Access to VIP areas starts at $550.) As part of their effort to grow the sport, the Ganzis also open up a variety of summer events to the public, and it seems to be paying off, as their club has increased its membership by 75 percent over the past five seasons.
This year’s winter extravaganza in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park will begin on Tuesday, December 20, when seven teams of three riders each will face off in roughly 2.5-hour-long matches. (Argentinian-born Ignacio “Nacho” Figueras Bermejo, a Ralph Lauren model and arguably the most famous current polo player in the world, rides for the Aspen Valley Polo Club in summer and is a regular at the snow polo tournament.) The round-robin play leads up to two final games on Wednesday, December 21.
If you can’t make the Aspen tournament, you may not have to wait until next December to have another chance to see polo played in snow, though: After a nearly 70-year hiatus, the Broadmoor, which used to host world-famous players on its expansive grounds, is bringing the game back to Colorado Springs via the Winter Polo Classic (from $35) on February 25.
“We have great partners at the Colorado State University Polo Club who will bring their ponies to the tournament,” says Nicholas Francoeur, polo operations partner with the Broadmoor. “It’s amazing that we can resurrect the sport and give it a new chapter that acknowledges the past, with a fresh twist”—meaning, the possibility of snow on the outdoor field of the Norris Penrose Event Center. If that happens, Francoeur says, “we would switch out the horseshoes and then I suppose we, too, would have our own snow polo.”
Ready to spectate? Here, everything you need to fit in at a winter polo match—in addition to your chicest outerwear, of course.
Traditional polo has teams of four players, but there are only three players per side in snow polo. Riders attempt to score points by using wooden mallets to knock a snow polo ball—bigger than a normal polo ball and brightly colored to help with visibility against the white backdrop—through opposing sets of goal posts. Outdoor polo fields are nearly 10 acres (the area of nine football fields) with goal posts on either end set eight yards apart. Modern-day polo teams can consist of any mix of men and women, age 13 and up.
There are six periods, called chukkers, in outdoor polo games. Each chukker is 7 to 7.5 minutes, with matches lasting around 2.5 hours, including intermissions between chukkers. In the event of a tie, an additional chukker is played until a point is scored.
“The health and safety of the ponies are always at the forefront of the game,” Sydney Horwitz, manager of the Aspen Valley Polo Club, says. “In a typical match, snow or sunshine and grass, a player will switch out his or her polo pony each chukker. This is to ensure the pony can rest and be properly warmed up and down between matches.” Typically, two dozen ponies are used per team, per match, and for good reason: They run the equivalent of one to two miles during each chukker.
And yes, it’s “pony,” not “horse”: When modern-day polo was developed, no horse could be taller than 13 hands and 2 inches (54 inches), the typical size of a pony. Today, there is no limit on size and some are as big as 16 hands (64 to 66 inches), but they are still referred to as ponies and are typically between the ages of five and 15 years.
Each polo player is rated on a scale of -2 to +10. The number is based on the player’s prior performance in horsemanship, hitting, quality of ponies, team play, game sense, and sportsmanship. Professional polo players usually have a ranking of three or higher. A novice player begins with a -2. Players with a ranking of +10 are rare (and primarily Argentinian); only two dozen or so exist.
Each team takes the total of its players’ handicaps. The team with the higher handicap gives the difference in goals to the other team. For example, an 8-goal team will give two points to a 6-goal team at the start of a match. From there, each goal is worth one point.
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If you think polo is a sport for the rich and the famous, well, you’re not entirely wrong. Polo fields are incredibly expensive to maintain, and the sport’s essential equipment—ponies—are just a bit pricier than baseball mitts and soccer cleats. But Colorado’s three polo clubs offer lower-barrier-to-entry ways to get involved.
This 36-year-old group offers private one-hour lessons (no horseback riding experience required) at its fields south of the city that begin at $190 for nonmembers. Run by CSU graduate and highly decorated player Erica Gandomcar-Sachs, the club also hosts drop-in and league play for members who have priority access to ponies and events.
Every year, CSU’s student-run club, which has more than 30 polo ponies, takes 15 to 20 total newbies into its program. There are varsity and junior varsity teams in addition to club, beginner, and social memberships (dues range from $250 to $850 per semester).
During the summer, the Ganzis put on various grass and arena tournaments and special programming, such as Arena & Asado Nights and kid-specific events, that are free for the public.
Youngsters interested in the game can check out the Polo Training Foundation, which was founded in 1967 and now offers clinics, exchange programs, polo college fairs, and academic scholarships.
ChukkerTV is an online streaming channel that airs much of the polo played in America, including the St. Regis World Snow Polo Championship.