Started in 2010, matches bring teams and spectators together in rural setting
B liss Polo is proof that “If you build it, they will come.”
From defunct potato field to top-notch polo field, Mason Lampton’s own version of Field of Dreams is hitting its stride.
Lampton purchased the land, and an adjacent farm, near the Bliss Store in 2008 with a singular vision: to bring the sport of polo to Northern Michigan.
“I’d been thinking about it for years,” Lampton said. “Whenever I had time, I’d start driving around Emmet County looking for the right place. I saw Bliss and just loved the area.”
Lampton comes from a long line of equestrians and started playing polo at 12 years old.
“My father was a really good horseman and loved to play, loved the game. He got us into it,” Lampton said. “I played all through college and then, when I was in the army, stationed at Fort Benning, I took weekends to travel and play in places like Atlanta and Ocala.”
And when he wasn’t playing polo, he was riding in a fox hunt. “In the summer it was polo. And in the winter, it was fox hunting,” Lampton said.
Lampton’s wife, Mary Lu, also comes from an equestrian background. And together, they have raised their two children, Mason and Lucile, in the same vein. Now, another generation is taking the reins as their seven grandchildren show signs that the enthusiasm for equestrian sports will continue.
But in spite of this shared love, Lampton’s family initially wasn’t sold on the idea of building a polo field.
“We thought he was crazy trying to bring this kind of polo here,” said Lampton’s son, Mason.
Finding the right spot, preparing the field to ensure safe footing, building pastures, hauling horses, caring for horses, enticing teams to come north for a summer tournament: It’s a huge endeavor.
It took two years, and a lot of hard work, to get the place ready. But in 2010, Lampton saw his vision begin to come to fruition. The first polo matches were played that summer.
Now, eight years later, Bliss Polo has become a local event that has gained a community of support. This year, four teams were here for the duration of the summer playing in matches on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday each week. The crowd of spectators has grown from the handful of family and friends in the early days to hundreds of people.
“The crowds are amazing,” son, Mason, said. “There are easily 500 people showing up for some of these Sunday games. We don’t get crowds like this anywhere else that I’ve played.”
Like his father, Mason started playing polo at a young age. He’s continued to play over the years but didn’t get serious about it until a couple years ago.
“I grew up always messing around with it,” son, Mason, said. “But now I’m committed to it. This is my second year of having my own team, my own horses.”
Finding good horses is key…
Finding good horses is the key to having a successful team in polo. They are the heart of the game.
“Most players have a minimum of eight horses and a maximum of twelve,” Lampton said. “Then you can rotate them out.”
Polo matches are divided into timed periods called chukkers. Each chukker is seven minutes long. Horses are played for no more than two chukkers per game. In a fast chukker, a horse can cover 2 ½-3 miles.
Thoroughbreds are the horse of choice for polo. “Most of what we have are straight off the track thoroughbreds,” Lampton said.
Mares are preferred over geldings. It is rare to see geldings played in polo.
“For polo, you want a mare. They get in there and really scrap for the play,” Lampton explained. “The gelding is usually a little bit more of a chicken.”
Preferably, polo horses are started at a young age.
“We try and get them at three to four years old,” Lampton said.“We work with them to accept the mallet swinging around. And they have to learn to stop and turn on their hind quarters, like quarter horses do when chasing cows, so they can be balanced and turn quickly.”
Slowing down, learning to stop, and turn is a challenge for thoroughbreds off the track. They have to learn to listen to their rider and understand that it’s not all about moving forward. It usually takes about two years for a horse to start to become a solid polo horse.
“That first year, you start to play them in a very judicious way so you don’t push them or scare them,” Lampton said. “You wouldn’t play a tournament with them. They aren’t very good at that point. But then, you play them the next season. And by the end of that second year, you’ve got a pretty good horse.”
Polo Baez has played polo and worked with Lampton for 30 years. Baez grew up training horses. He then went to work for a company that imported and exported ranch horses and polo horses from Mexico to the United States. He was in Wellington, Florida, when he met Lampton’s brother-in-law who was playing polo there. That led Baez to Columbus, Georgia where he met Lampton.
“He needed someone like me and I was happy to get that break,” Baez said. “I grew up training ranch horses and polo horses. I knew how to ride. And I knew how to play polo. But, I had no clue about all the strategy and what it took to be a polo player at a higher level of competition.”
Today, Baez lives with his wife and children near the Lamptons in Georgia, and then comes to Northern Michigan each summer to play polo. He works to find good horses and retrain them for polo.
“Unfortunately, at the race track, the horses are taught to grab the bit and run with it because the jockeys hang onto the reins for balance,” Baez said. “So you have to retrain the horse.”
Thoroughbreds are taught one speed for racing. “They’re all go and no whoa,” Lampton explained.
The trick is to teach the horses to listen and respond to their rider in a more nuanced way.
“The good horses learn to read you,” Baez said. “They understand the slightest shift. Your weight shifts forward to go or back to slow down. They anticipate what you want from the slightest shift.”
But every rider is a little different. Some are stronger, some more timid, some are very well balanced and others not as much. It takes a great horse to learn to adjust to various riders and play the game well.
“These horses are so amazing,” Baez said. “I don’t know many horses that will do what these polo horses do. They adjust. They load up in trailers, stand quietly between games. They’re smart. They’re tough. They learn to do it all.”
Bliss polo has become a great training ground for young horses as well as for young players.
Bliss is an eight-goal tournament. Players are given handicaps from negative one to ten. There are four players per team. So in an eight-goal tournament, the combined handicap of the players can’t exceed eight.
“I was a three goal player at my peak,” Lampton said. “And I was really proud of that.”
Lampton, now 70, is playing with players as young as 18. “We’ve got kids here from Texas, California, and South Africa. They’re all young.”
But Lampton isn’t ready to stop playing anytime soon. “As long as I can still breathe, and hit the ball once or twice in a game, I’m in,” Lampton said with a laugh. He considers a competent player one who can “run down the field at a full gallop and score a goal.” In that case, Lampton is still quite competent.
While he sometimes jokes about the age difference, Lampton enjoys seeing young players learning the game. Ultimately, he’d like to help bring kids to the game. “I’d like to get more children out here and do some slow, beginner polo,” he said.
Baez, a certified instructor with the Unites States Polo Association, agrees. He and Lampton are throwing around ideas and making future plans to use this opportunity here, in Bliss, to encourage those who may want to try their hand at polo.
“There are some very good pros here who would be happy to help people learn,” Baez said.
Lampton’s son, Mason, agreed. “Polo is one of the more friendly equestrian sports,” he said. “Everyone in it is very encouraging of kids with an interest.”
Community big part of Bliss Polo success…
Lampton, son Mason, and Baez are quick to credit the larger Bliss community for creating such a friendly and encouraging atmosphere, too. From the volunteer First responders of the Carp Lake fire department, to the groundskeepers and spectators, everyone has embraced this endeavor.
“We are so thankful for the community here,” Baez said.
Lampton credits Barb and Mike Tracy, owners of The Bliss General store, for creating a way to get information about the games to the public. Barb updates the store’s Facebook page detailing changes in game times and other information for the public.
“The store has been fantastic,” Lampton said. “Barb and Mike have been a dream. They are so supportive and just so nice about it all.”
The store’s location, near the field, is perfect for spectators who want some polo swag or just a quick bite to eat.
Barb and Mike Tracy enjoy the crowds and like promoting this unique event.
“The beauty of it all is that it’s free, family friendly, and great for all ages,” Barb explained. “It’s wonderful to see people who would otherwise never be exposed to polo get to experience something so new and different. That’s why we like to promote it.”
Lampton is overwhelmed whenever he thinks of all the community support and the large number of spectators. “All these people, it’s really something,” he said. “They must be here waiting for Prince Charles to show up. It couldn’t be for us. Now I’m starting to wonder if he’s coming.”
Jokes aside, the word is out about Bliss polo. “It’s funny to me that it’s now being talked about on a national level,” son, Mason, said. “All these polo players from all these different places want to come play here.”
Mason credits his dad with staying true to his vision and creating such an accessible and friendly polo experience here in Northern Michigan. “I love the way my dad set it up—It’s open to the public, family friendly, encouraging, and inclusive,” Mason said.
Baez agreed that Lampton has created a good thing. “He started from the beginning doing it the right way, from the ground to the people. It’s wonderful all around.”
But Lampton isn’t one to take credit for such things. Instead he again lists all the people who have helped along the way and continue to support the Bliss Polo endeavor. When asked if he can believe how it’s grown in the last eight years, Lampton doesn’t hear the compliment. Instead he offered a shrug of his shoulders and a laugh.
“Well, I don’t play golf worth a lick,” he said.
Quick Polo Extras:
• A polo field is 300 x 160 yards. That’s the equivalent to about three football fields in length. A polo field is the largest field in organized sports.
• A polo match is divided into seven-minute time periods called chukkers.
• A polo team is made up of 4 players and each player has a string of 8-12 horses.
• The stomping of the divots is a tradition. During half time spectators go onto the field and help replace divots created by the horse’s hooves.
• Bliss polo had four teams play the tournament this year: Good Thunder, Orchard Hill, Upatoi Blue, and Bliss
• The Parton is the owner of the team.
• There were about 175 horses here for the summer with the various polo teams.
• There were about 50 extra people here all summer caring for horses and playing polo full-time.
• The youngest players this year were 18. The oldest 70.
• This is an 8-goal tournament.
• Polo players are given a handicap between -1 and 10 based on previous play and ability.
• There is a 40-goal tournament played in Argentina. That means that each of the four players on the team is ranked at the very top, a 10 handicap. That’s the best polo being played in the world.
• Pelon Escapitan is a 6-goal player. The best player here this year.
• Congratulations to Orchard Hill on winning the tournament this year.
Bliss Polo has ended for the season but will be back next year. To stay updated on Bliss Polo please visit: The Bliss Store and Bliss Polo Club on Facebook. They are constantly updating information and pictures.