Polo on the Plains: Auburn was south’s dominant team in the 1930s

THE FIVE HORSEMEN OF THE POLOCALYPSE: Not sure of their names, but they were really good at polo.

Auburn was kind of a horse college in the 1930s. Like, a really good one.

“I believe we had about 85 horses, enough to mount two teams for six periods,” W.J. Klepinger told Inside The Auburn Tigers magazine in 1982. Klepinger was the head coach of Auburn’s 1935 polo team. Yes, polo.

“We used riding horses as much as we could. But we had to use some draft (pulling) horses that really weren’t great for polo.”

Polo first came to the Plains in 1932 and was organized through Auburn’s ROTC program. Auburn president Dr. Bradford Knapp supposedly encouraged forming a team at the request of Georgia president Dr. S.V. Sanford, who wanted some competition for the Bulldogs. But since the War Department thought polo promoted “skill in horsemanship and daring” and other noble, militaristic manners, it was kind of coming regardless. And when it got here, it took. Hundreds of fans showed up for matches.

For seven years, Auburn was arguably the dominant polo power in the South.

“Polo is recognized as a minor sport here, but recognition as a major sport is now pending,” wrote the 1934 Glomerata. “The remarkable progress made in the short period of two years plus the athletic fame gained by the team has already influenced school authorities that the elevation of polo to the rank of a major sport would be justifiable.”

Elmer Salter, Auburn first sports publicity director, thought that the whole ‘major sport’ bit may have been wishful thinking. But the “athletic fame” thing was dead on.

Auburn’s home polo matches were played on what was once an ROTC drill field between where Haley Center and the library now stand. They drew several hundred fans.

In its inaugural season, Auburn split games with Georgia and won all four against Florida. In 1934, the team’s record was 6-2-1. In 1935, polo at Georgia, the team’s biggest rival, went strictly intramural. So the Tigers took their mallets north. They split matches with Ohio State, and beat Missouri and Iowa State, all of which had well established polo programs.

“They would come here and use our ponies and when we went on the road we used the other team’s ponies,” Klepinger said. “It wasn’t practical to transport 100 horses around.”

Why did the sport die off at Auburn, and presumably elsewhere, in 1939? Mechanized warfare. That’s such an awesome sentence, and it’s true. No more need for Army horses meant no more polo. But in its final season, Auburn dropped the mic—undefeated, untied! And not just against the military teams from Fort Benning and Maxwell Field — club squads from Atlanta and New Orleans, and some of the stiffest college opponents around: Ohio State, Iowa State, Missouri, Illinois.

“The Auburn boys did very, very well,” Salter said. “Ohio State was a major power in polo and when we beat them it was really something. Everybody was very proud of the team.”

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