From the age of 10, Aiken native Tiger Kneece honed his polo skills on fields around Aiken and went on to a successful professional career on fields around the country and the world.
Now retired, Kneece is back where he started, on Aiken’s polo fields, teaching the next generation of young polo players and opening the door to a sport that, he admits, isn’t the easiest to get involved in.
“Mostly adults are playing. It takes a horse, a truck and a trailer,” Kneece said.
That’s how Aiken Youth Polo was born.
Kneece and his wife, Susie, founded the organization for middle and high school students almost four years ago after starting a similar program in Wyoming. Last year, Kneece helped reorganize USC Aiken’s Polo Team, bringing college students onto the field.
“It’s the vehicle we use to get kids started in polo,” Kneece said recently before a polo lesson at Winthrop Field in the heart of Aiken’s historic horse district. “For someone on the outside who doesn’t come from a horse family who doesn’t have a truck, trailer and horses, they’ll say that polo is too overwhelming to begin thinking of getting into.
“That’s where we want to step in. We have the infrastructure. We have the horses. We’ll offer that. They can give it a try. If they like it, they can continue, become part of our program, and we’ll guide them through it.”
Some kids fall in love with polo, and their families buy horses, a truck and a trailer, Kneece said.
“But our program is made to where we can offer it to anybody,” he said.
For Kneece and his wife, Aiken Youth Polo truly is a family affair, and their daughter, Summer, 13, was instrumental in getting the polo ball rolling.
“I’m not going to hide it, my daughter was the driving force behind it,” Kneece said. “She made it easy because she wanted to be here. She wanted to play. She wanted to be with other kids. When something does well and is successful, it means there was a need for it.”
Kneece’s older daughter, Faith, also rides but doesn’t share Summer’s passion for polo, Kneece said.
Aiken Youth Polo started with just a few kids but has grown to between 20 and 25 regular players, not including children whose families are in Aiken just for the horse season.
The program started at the Aiken Polo Club, which has been playing on Whitney Field since 1882, with matches played on a regulation grass fields and grew to include Intercollegiate/Interscholastic, or I/I, polo sanctioned by the U.S. Polo Association. I/I polo is played on a dirt surface in an arena enclosed by a wooden wall.
Aiken Youth Polo I/I plays in the arena at New Bridge Polo and Country Club northeast of downtown.
The I/I teams play other teams mostly from the Southeast. The USCA Polo Team plays club teams from major Division I universities, including the University of Kentucky and the University of Virginia.
“A lot of the big universities also have junior programs,” Kneece said. “We went to UVA, and the college boys played up there; but our high school girls also played against UVA’s high school team.
“There are tons of teams around. We play against teams from Raleigh, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Florence, Alabama. We also travel in the Northeast where we’ve played Garrison Forest, an all-girls team in Maryland.”
As the only I/I sanctioned team in South Carolina, Aiken Youth Polo can draw players from around the region and state.
“We are it in South Carolina,” Kneece said. “The polo association has a rule if a kid lives in Charleston and there’s not a school there that has an active program, he or she can join on to the nearest established youth program club. Even though, they live and go to school in Charleston, they can play for Aiken Youth Polo.”
Kneece said he originally expected Aiken Youth Polo to be active for about a month in the fall and another in the spring, but interest in the program and opportunities to compete and learn about the sport have made it year-round.
In the spring and fall, players play outdoor seasons on the big, grass fields. In the winter, the I/I teams play in the arena. In the summer, players travel to outdoor tournaments and clinics.
“It’s a full-time gig,” Kneece said.
Every year, Aiken Youth Polo has sponsored the National Youth Tournament Series in conjunction with the U.S. Polo Association. The series, held on outdoor fields around the country, is for students in seventh grade through college.
“Last year, we broke the national record and hosted the largest,” Kneece said. “We had 40 kids come into town to play.”
This year’s series will be April 27-28 at Powderhouse Field across Powderhouse Road from Bruce’s Field at the Aiken Horse Park Foundation. Kneece said he expects about the same number of young polo players this year.
Born and raised in Aiken, Kneece, 48, grew up in an equestrian family. His dad, Gene, and his mom, Barbara, fox hunted. His sister, Courtney Grimm, show jumped.
“They showed all the disciplines to me, and I was, like, I love horses; but none of them really suited me. But when they exposed me to polo, I loved it,” Kneece said.
Kneece started polo with the Aiken Polo Club, competing in tournaments and learning from professionals who came to Aiken to play. At 15, he started taking jobs and traveling with them in the summer.
Kneece’s professional career took him to Wellington, Florida, the hub of international polo in south Florida.
“It was where the all the polo was and where I needed to be,” Kneece said. “We were in Florida in the winter. We were in the Northeast. We were in England. We were out west. You have to travel where polo is.”
About 17 years ago, Kneece moved back to his hometown.
“I had to move away from Aiken for about 12 to 15 years. Then, I decided to have a family and thought Aiken was a great place to do it,” he said. “It was a great decision to move back.”
And it was a great decision to found Aiken Youth Polo, especially when Kneece sees the excitement the sport generates from young players.
“What gets kids excited is doing it with other kids. Let’s face it, when they’re out there with similar age groups and they’re playing together, it’s a just more exciting for them,” Kneece said. “That’s what we brought to the table, and it’s important to the sport to create new players for the longevity of the Aiken Polo Club.”