Located on 275 pastoral acres in Little Elm, Willow Bend Polo Club has been known to draw a crowd of about 100 people to watch two teams of six or eight players on horseback beating each other to death with mallets as they chase after a small hard ball.
I’m kidding, of course. They’re not actually beating each other to death, though they do have their violent moments. They use moves such as hooking — using your mallet to hook another player’s — and ride offs, which is basically like using your horse to cut off someone on the highway. Horse rage has been known to happen.
“It’s like hockey on horseback and a lot more rough and tumble than people realize,” says Scott Lancaster, the head instructor at Willow Bend Polo Club. He spent the last decade managing both the St. Louis and Sarasota Polo Clubs and recently joined the management team at Willow Bend. He’s preparing to return to North Texas from Florida for Willow Bend Polo Club’s upcoming spring season.
Polo isn’t a sport that first comes to mind when you think about Collin County. Nowadays, the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters at “The Star” comes to mind. Anything related to America’s Team dominates local headlines.
But polo was once a sport that drew thousands to Willow Bend Polo Club when it was located on the site of a former turkey farm in Plano, prior to the city becoming a suburb of Dallas. Between the 1970s and 1990s, Willow Bend Polo Club was the “epicenter of Lone Star polo fever,” Paper City magazine pointed out in a June 28, 2018 article “Dallas’ Great Polo Comeback.”
Now, they’re about to have a smaller comeback, this time from the COVID-19 shutdown.
Due to rising COVID-19 health concerns, The U.S. Polo Association announced March 17 that it was suspending all USPA tournaments and events. They were also following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had limited gatherings to no more than 10 people.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic is taking a new turn, we at U.S. Polo Assn. are committed to doing our part to protect our customers and employees to the best of our ability,” according to a March 23 announcement. “Throughout this difficult time, the safety and well-being of our customers and associates remains our top priority.”
Social distancing practices kick off May 2, with matches beginning the weekend of May 15 shortly after the governor announces the second phase of his Open Texas plan. Abbott’s new regulations could determine the number of players on the field and there may be other safety precautions Willow Bend and the U.S. Polo Association need to take as they move into the season.
“The rules have been changing quite a bit these days,” Lancaster says. “Hopefully, we find the measures are opening up [on May 15] and don’t create a setback.”
Last week, Willow Bend Polo Club sent out a press release about social distancing practices beginning May 2. Lancaster says it isn’t a difficult requirement to meet since it’s mostly family that come to watch the players practice.
On Monday, Abbott discussed phase 1 of his Open Texas plan and announced that sporting events could continue as long as no more than four players are playing together at one time. Lancaster says this is the reason why they’re waiting until May 15 to host the Spring Fling tournament play. They’ll follow it with the Memorial Day/Heroes Cup on May 22-24, the Rosemary Cup on May 29-31, and the Heart of Texas Cup on June 5-7.
Another reason they’re holding off on matches until May 15 is because the U.S. Polo Association made a decision on April 18 to suspend tournaments and events until then, announcing in a mid April press release: “In addition, we strongly advise and recommend that every USPA Club suspends all Club Events for at least the same period. We encourage clubs to follow the requirements of your local authorities with regards to your club polo operations.”
Similar to the U.S. Polo Association officials, Willow Bend Polo Club officials are monitoring the COVID-19 situation and the governor’s Open Texas plan. If the governor eases back on the sporting event restrictions in mid-May, polo officials plan to ease into the game slowly and limit some of the signature moves normally seen in polo matches. For example, they’re going to hold off on the “ride off,” which is a big part of polo, “until further down the line when we know it’s safe,” Lancaster says.
For more information about the polo club and updates, visit the Willow Bend Polo Club website.
Photo: Courtesy of Kristin Armbruster