By Eric Lagatta
The Henriot family opened the Play Polo Club at their Westervile farm in 2013 to teach the equestrian sport to central Ohioans. Horace Henriot played professionally for years, and now his son Alec has similar ambitions.
Midway through a polo match under a late-summer sun, the competitors were already looking weary.
Beet-red and dripping sweat, the eight players astride their horses bunched around a white, plastic ball, attempting to knock it loose from the huddle.
And then: Thwack!
As the 3-inch ball raced toward one of the goals, Alec Henriot, riding a 16-year-old horse named Tatchuela, pulled ahead of the pack chasing after it.
“Take it, Alec!” a teammate shouted as the 14-year-old spurred his horse onward. With a swing of his wooden mallet, he sent the ball careening through the blue padded goal posts on the north end of the field.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Alec said after the match as the players gathered near the stables to spray down their dirt-covered horses.
The weekly Saturday pickup games — participants don’t keep score, and the teams change from week to week — play out on a farm in Westerville owned by Alec’s parents, Tina and Horace Henriot.
The couple bought the 27-acre property, where they live, in 2013 to establish the Play Polo Club, which provides instruction and equipment for the equestrian sport.
It’s one of five clubs in the state, according to the U.S. Polo Association, the sport’s nonprofit governing body in the country. The village of Frazeysburg in Muskingum County and the Cleveland area each has a club, and the Cincinnati area has two.
In addition to offering lessons and hosting games, the Henriots also maintain a stable of 22 polo ponies trained in Argentina that club members pay monthly to board, said Tina Henriot, 39.
So far, Alec is the only one the Henriots’ six children to take up the game, but the others — Chloe, 12; twins Ben and Ace, 8; Sam; 4; and Lou Anna, 3 — pitch in to help the family business.
The four oldest children — stay-at-home students enrolled in the Ohio Virtual Academy — condition the horses by riding them three times a week. The younger two help with grooming and feeding.
“They’re a big part of taking care of the animals,” their mother said. “They love the horses, and they love the people.”
The idea for the polo club originated with Horace Henriot, 41, who learned to play at age 13 in his native Belgium. He trained in Argentina with some of the world’s best players and, at 19, became a professional player in the United States. He earned his living playing competitively in Europe and throughout the U.S. for years before taking a hiatus in 2001 to pursue work as a youth pastor.
“It’s really hard to do halfway,” Horace Henriot said. “You’re all in, or you’re not.”
He and his family moved to Belgium in 2008 to work in ministry and returned to the Columbus area in 2013 to found the Play Polo Club, hoping to grow the sport in central Ohio.
In the first year, more than 200 people in the Columbus area tried out polo through the club, Tina Henriot said, and 20 people began taking regular lessons, including some who bought polo ponies.
This year, she said, the club has 32 members — ranging in age from 12 to 70 — who take lessons and play in weekly matches. The Henriots also lead a trip each spring to Argentina, where the sport is an obsession.
Often called “the sport of kings,” polo dates to 600 B.C. in China and Iran, according to the polo association. In the 19th century, officers in the British military were introduced to the sport in
India and established the first modern polo club. It’s now played professionally in 16 countries.
The game pits two horseback-mounted teams of four players each against each other on a field measuring 300 yards long by 160 yards wide (the equivalent of nine U.S. football fields). The objective, as with soccer, is to knock a ball between an opponent’s goalposts.
Polo consists of four to eight periods, called chukkers, which last 7 1/2 minutes each, according to the polo association. Most of the Play Polo Club’s matches consist of four chukkers.
From spring to fall, club members compete on three fields: on Saturdays at the Los Gemelos Polo field on the Henriots’ propery in Westerville; on Sundays at the Great Lawn of Bryn Du Mansion in Granville; and on Thursdays at the Ackley Polo Field in Gahanna. The Thursday and Saturday games are casual scrimmages, but on Sundays club members vie in competitive tournaments through La Liga, a polo league within the club.
Members of the current season, set to end Oct. 14, pay $1,500 to participate in the Thursday and Saturday games and $1,000 for the Sunday games.
Chris Benintend, 50, has been a member since the club started. Both horseback riding and the sport itself were new to her, so she’s still mastering the skills.
“I love being around the horses, and everyone’s so nice and so encouraging,” said Benintend, a Blacklick resident who works in real-estate development. “The sport is just fast and exciting.”
Julien Guillaume, a veterinarian from Upper Arlington, has ridden horses his whole life but has been playing polo for only three years.
“It’s a team sport; it’s a ball sport; it’s an equestrian sport,” the 43-year-old said. “There’s nothing like it.”
Guillaume praised the Henriots for elevating the game in central Ohio.
“They created a good community here — a family where people can just play and enjoy.”