From humble beginnings to sweeping up the 2017 U.S. Open Best Playing Pony award, a woman’s achievement in the world of high-goal polo.
January is the time of year that brings the smell of fresh wood shavings being delivered to barns all over Wellington, Florida, and the population tripling in the form of people and freshly clipped horses. Representative of the earliest of newcomers are those that make it all possible for polo lovers and players. Behind the scenes of polo is an intricate network of dedicated individuals that handle everything from the nutrition, exercise, and presentation of the polo ponies witnessed on the fields. Referred to as polo “grooms,” their hard work and passion for the sport is the backbone of the industry. They find pride and gratification in the work they do to provide players and team owners with a top athlete that can take them to plays they wish to achieve and win highly sought-after tournaments. It is a seven day a week job, with no holidays or vacations until the polo season comes to a close.
Many grooms simply do the job because they enjoy the outdoors and working with the animals, others have dreams of taking home the Best Playing Pony prize in the U.S. Open Polo Championship®. In a sport dominated by men, Gloria D’Angelo is one such polo groom who has recently achieved that goal. The so called “horse of her career” has not only garnered high praise under her care in the United States, but carried on to achieve Best Playing Pony honors this year at the highest level in Argentina. After 18 years in the sport, she is considered one of the key contributors to what makes the Valiente polo team and Adolfo Cambiaso, leaders in the sport. Under the direction of Pablo Spinacci, she plays a major role in taking on the new polo pony initiates that have recently been brought up from Argentina or have been added to the polo string. Handling around 14 horses, with the help of two other grooms, she keeps herself very busy.
“It’s all in the details.” D’Angelo says, sitting down in one of the lounge areas available in the impressive Valiente stables. She finished her chores for the morning and took some time to share a bit of her story.
How did you get your start in polo?
“I was living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, near the Ottawa Polo Club; a small club with only some low-goal polo that went on during the summers. I was working at an adjacent farm and would watch polo from the other side of the fence. I became interested and decided to cross over just to help out and take on some summer jobs. Similar to others like me, I was instantly hooked. I was 16 years old and was addicted right away.”
When did you get your first opportunity in high-goal polo?
“I had just finished University in Canada and a group of friends and I decided to spend the winter holiday in Wellington, Florida, to watch some polo and enjoy the warm weather. I made the decision that if I found a job, I was just going to stay. I made a connection through my network of polo friends who introduced me to Toto Collardin, a member of the San Saba polo team. He needed a groom, and I didn’t want to go back to the cold winter in Canada!”
How did you end up working for one of the sport’s top powerhouses Valiente?
“I had been working for San Saba polo team for about six seasons and one winter they decided to take a step back from high-goal polo. I was walking through the courtyard at Outback [polo farm] and Pablo Spinacci, the pilot* for Adolfo Cambiaso was walking the other way. As we crossed paths, he mentioned he was looking for a Head Groom and I told him I was looking for a job. As luck would have it, he asked me to join the team and I’ve been with Valiente ever since.
As a polo groom, what do you think separates a good horse from a great one?
“Athleticism more than anything, but if they like to play polo they just have it in them—a special spark that makes them great.”
What has been the hardest obstacle you have had to overcome?
“Being the only girl in the barn is definitely up there! Women have to work hard to prove ourselves and it took some time, but I have been able to show people what I’m capable of. I have integrated well by being open and listening to the people I work with. I’m easy going and I try to look up to everyone. Everyone here has knowledge to share. I try not to put up blinders and do my own thing. Working in polo is like working with your family, you have to be able to get along and do the work right. I began gaining respect with what my polo ponies achieved, when Adolfo Cambiaso put horses in my care, and with the Best Playing Pony awards I have won.”
“I try not to put up blinders and do my own thing. Working in polo is like working with your family, you have to be able to get along and do the work right.” – Gloria D’Angelo
Do you have a favorite horse from your experience as a groom?
“Definitely the Cuartatera clone B09! Taking care of her has been the highlight of my career. I had her for two seasons and now she is calling Argentina home. Everyone has their own opinions on clones, but she was special. When she came to me she was four. She was similar to many young horses; fidgety and a little difficult at times. Some of the more difficult ones grow on me more than the easy ones because I have to spend more time with them. She was a bit nervous in the stall, so we all tried a few different things to settle her down. First, they brought me a sheep to keep her company, and that failed immediately. A week after the sheep left, they brought me a chicken named Elena. She loved the chicken! At first, we would close the chicken in with the horse so she couldn’t escape, but it didn’t take long before I felt comfortable enough to leave her door open so Elena could roam freely. By the end of the season, the chicken walked around the barn like another member of the team. One night, while I was doing my nightly check on the horses, I walked by her stall and Elena had jumped up onto her back! They were a very special pair. B09 brought me to my peak. She won the Willis L. Hartman Trophy for Best Playing Pony of the 2017 U.S. Open, and she cleaned up everything when she played at Palermo in this year’s Argentine Open as well! It makes me proud to do what I do when I can witness what all my horses achieve after they leave my care.”
“Many people treat the horses like robots or machines, I prefer the one-on-one with each horse.” – Gloria D’Angelo
What do you think is the most important aspect of horse care?
“Health and fitness of course, but it’s also a bit of everything. Because I tend to care for the younger horses, I practice patience on a daily basis. I like to put a great deal of care into them and get to know their personalities. Many people treat the horses like robots or machines, I prefer the one-on-one with each horse. The routine in polo is pretty much the same everywhere you go, but I stress the need for patience. I don’t want people to rush. These are animals and we need to take our time with them. I have horses with little quirks or issues, but I simply remind everyone I work with that if you’re calm and patient with them, you will work out those things together and it will be easier.”
Can you share some words of advice for women in polo?
“Just go for it! Prove what you’re capable of to yourself and everyone else by showing your abilities in your work. I always say in the back of my head, ‘if they are letting me take care of the horses that I have, then I must be doing something right!’ Only you stand in the way of what you may accomplish.”
*Pilot is a person that rides and plays the horses for the player when he or she is not available.