Detroit Polo Club has been a ‘hidden gem’ in’ Hartland for over 20 years

HARTLAND — The Hartland Polo Classic returned Saturday at the Detroit Polo Club, bringing together people who love the sport and horses, and those just looking for an entertaining afternoon.

“This is our big event of the season,” club Director Emmalyn Wheaton said. 

The Hartland Polo Classic began in 2017, Wheaton said, when former Hartland Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Katie Chuba stepped into the position looking for a unique event in Hartland.

Katie Chuba, attending her last function as the Hartland Chamber executive director, poses with Mary Robinson at the Hartland Polo Classic Saturday, June 18, 2022. Chuba has stepped down from her position.

“A mutual friend of ours started talking polo and Katie said, ‘You know, let’s have an event out there let’s do something.’ As we started to talk about it and share it with other people it just grew into this big thing that all the community and the business community really love,” Wheaton said. “It’s grown into this big event every year. People are so excited and so happy to get on board with this,” Wheaton said. 

In anticipation for the event, Wheaton said attendees plan elaborate outfits.

“People really dress for this and it’s a ton of fun to watch,” she said. 

Wheaton said the club partners with Derby Hats by Rachelle. People can go to Tony’s Sacco’s Coal Oven Pizza in early May and pick out a hat that matches the outfit they are planning to wear to the event. 

“It’s something kind of different. We don’t have a lot of that in Livingston County,” Wheaton said.

The Hartland Polo Classic, in partnership with the Chamber, is a fundraiser to support the chamber’s scholarship and community giveback programs. This year, the funds collected will benefit Warrior Path Home, a nonprofit that serves veterans in Livingston County by providing life coaching, education and equine guided learning. 

A Grace and Porta team member winds up to pass the ball, pursued by a Lake Trust competitor in the Hartland Polo Classic Saturday, June 18, 2022.

The game of polo 

According to Wheaton, polo can be played indoors or outside. Typically there are four players on each side. Additionally, there are two umpires mounted on horseback as well. 

The game is played in periods called chukkers. A chukker is typically 7½ minutes and there may be four to six chukkers. Players ride on ponies with a mallet to hit the ball.

Depending on the temperature, players may change their ponies multiple times.

“If we’re playing, say, a four-chukker game, you can expect each player is going to be playing three or four horses, four players on a team, so that’s quite a few horses on the field at a time. It’s a very horse-intensive sport,” Wheaton said. 

The History of the Detroit Polo Club 

A jockey warms up their horse before the match begins at the Hartland Polo Classic Saturday, June 18, 2022.

The Detroit Polo Club was established in 1962 by Merle Jenkins. In 1972, the club found its first official home in Milford, directly behind the high school.

With its growing success, the club eventually made its way to Hartland, at 500 Chukker Cove, where it has been based since 1999. The property has 160 acres with two regulation fields and a practice field, 60 stalls and more than 50 acres of pasture.

“We’re sort of like a hidden gem back here,” Wheaton said. 

Wheaton said she discovered polo in college. She grew up with horses, and when she went off to Michigan State University, she was looking for something she could do to work with horses. 

Her friend suggested polo tryouts and she admits that she was willing to try it even though she had never watched or played polo before.

“That was sort of the beginning of the end for me,” Wheaton said. 

Detroit Polo School instructor Paul Wheaton officiates the Hartland Polo Classic, riding Rita Saturday, June 18, 2022.

She said she played polo throughout college and, after she graduated, she started working for Jenkins. She said he mentored her and she started managing a polo team and a group of horses.

“From there, I just kept going with it. It’s how I met my husband and now that’s what our life is,” Wheaton said. “Our kids are around with us for the ride.”

In addition to the Hartland Polo Classic, the club also hosts a number of events throughout the season, which runs from April to October. Wheaton said the club hosts tailgate events at which attendees can park along the sidelines, have a picnic, bring their dogs on leashes and watch. 

“It’s very casual, very community friendly. We do those throughout the summer as well,” Wheaton said. 

In the fall, they conduct the Detroit Gold Cup, which was played in Southfield for many years, according to Wheaton. 

“We decided to bring that back in 2017 as a way to honor some of the old traditions of the club as it was when it was in Milford,” she said. 

She said the event is very low-key and casual, true to the kind of polo they play. 

Dr. Kimber Kelley makes an impression on hat contest judges in the Hartland Polo Classic Saturday, June 18, 2022.

“We try to make it very family-friendly and easy to watch,” she said. 

Aside from events, the club conducts a Detroit Polo School, where beginners can learn how to play. They also host the University of Michigan Polo Team in the fall and spring. Additionally, they work with Detroit Horse Power, a nonprofit that brings children from downtown Detroit to teach them how to ride and care for horses as part of their curriculum.

In comparison to other clubs in metropolitan areas, the Hartland club is relatively small, with about 20 members. Wheaton said the members are primarily “weekend warriors,” participating in polo as a hobby while working a regular 9-5 job.

“We’re so happy to be out here in Livingston County. The community loves us and we love being here. We’re growing which is a great thing and we’re able to share the sport with a lot of people which is also a really great thing,” Wheaton said.

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