Scaling everything from the scoreboard at OC Polo Club (Silverado, California) to a warped wall constructed for his American Ninja Warrior (ANW) training facility, Spencer Hurtt chooses to approach every obstacle as a challenging opportunity waiting to be overcome. As is the case with many intercollegiate polo players, Hurtt reluctantly left the game behind upon graduation, replaced by the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood.
Although several attempts had been made to reignite Hurtt’s arena polo days it wasn’t until his youngest daughter caught horse fever that he also found his way back to the game at 42. Branded the “Polo Ninja” as a four-time ANW contestant (Seasons 2,4,5,6), Hurtt is a competitor to the core, creatively incorporating polo into his extreme fitness routines to gain the edge in the arena.
Spencer Hurtt has stepped back into the arena for OC Polo for the first time since playing at the intercollegiate level. ©Jim Bremner
Now an active member of OC Polo Club for the past two years, the California native is once again full throttle with a palpable passion for the game, competing in the Pacific Coast Arena League (PCAL) and the 2021 U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship®. The sport he once thought might take away from quality time spent with his family has now become a unique opportunity to bond especially with his daughter Lanie who competes in the Middle School League.
A personality both in and out of the arena, Hurtt has enthusiastically bought everything from custom mallets to eye-catching tack to accessorize their growing string of polo ponies and encourage family involvement. Bursting with boundless energy and relentless determination, Hurtt’s story is a reminder that polo can add value and fulfillment in any season of life.
“Polo can have a reputation that it’s untouchable, but when you encounter college polo it’s totally different. It’s accessible, it’s gritty.” – Spencer Hurtt
What is your equestrian background and how were you introduced to polo?
“When I was 11 or 12 years old my family moved to the horse community of Orange Park Acres [Orange County, California]. There was even a two-stable barn in our backyard. We talked to some of the neighbors who told us there was a girl down the street who was taking English lessons and they’d put us in touch with her. She helped set me up and when I first began riding my trainer was a fox hunter so I learned to jump right off the bat and developed an English seat.
After that I was at the barn every day after school and on the weekends. After about a year of lessons, I started asking for a horse and with the help of my trainer my parents got me an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Big John. I wanted to keep him at home so we fixed up the barn in our backyard and we actually built a small pipe corral. I was up every morning at 6:00am before school cleaning the stall and in the middle of the night feeding and doing night check.
For college I decided I wanted to do the pre-vet track and went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo [San Luis Obispo, California]. I remember it was club day at the University Union and I saw a horse fully tacked up in polo gear right in the middle of campus. I’d heard about polo, but I never expected to have the opportunity to play it. Megan Judge and I started the same year and I played on the intercollegiate team all four years – my life was classes and polo.”
Tell us about your journey over the years with American Ninja Warrior.
“NBC’s American Ninja Warrior brings together the most elite athletes in the country to compete on the world’s most difficult obstacle courses. The top prize of one million dollars goes to the winner who can conquer all four stages at the National Finals in Las Vegas, Nevada, but to get there you have to make it past the qualifying rounds and semifinals. You have to train all year long for a shot at it. When you get to the course you are not allowed to pre run or test it out so if you slip off an obstacle or even dip a toe in the water you’re out.
My motivation to compete came from watching the Japanese version of the show, Sasuke, which is the original American Ninja Warrior. I just went for it and submitted a video and amazingly I got on the show for the first time in Season 2. Unfortunately, I was never able to hit the buzzer and move to the semifinals each time I competed. I’ve continued to train and send in my submission videos every year (except for Season 9 when I was injured), but I have not competed since Season 6 in 2016. I’ve been auditioning for so long I don’t get bummed when I don’t get the call. I just tighten my boot straps and start working toward the next year.
I continue to do it because it keeps me young and very in shape. Plus it’s a much more enjoyable way to work out than going and spending hours in a traditional gym. This kind of training requires complete body control, awareness and a lot of mental focus to master certain obstacles. It’s a fun and exhilarating challenge to see how far I can push my body.”
The Hurtt family of five and their polo ponies (L to R) – Lanie, Spencer, Lily, Molly and Logan. ©Izzy Anderson
Who inspired your return to polo?
“When my youngest daughter Lanie was almost 8 years old we went on a family vacation and stayed at the Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, Virginia. They had an equestrian center and I wanted the family to go on a trail ride together, but at the time Lanie was too young to go. However, the trainer told us she could take a lesson on this little full-sized pony in the arena. The rest of us went on our trail ride and as we were coming back towards the barn I looked up at the arena and I saw this little girl with perfect posture. She was able to ride again the next day and when we got home she kept talking about horses so I looked into riding lessons for her.
At that time OC Polo Club had moved from Cota de Caza to Silverado Canyon which was now only a 15-minute drive so I brought Lanie there for riding lessons. I’d stay to watch her and Heather Perkins would always come up and ask, ‘when are we going to get you on a horse?’ Finally, I decided to take a couple lessons, played a couple chukkers and eventually half leased a gray Thoroughbred named Carla. I still had my polo boots, old mallets, and helmet all these years later and I think it was really meant to be. About six months in we wanted to find a horse that my daughter and I could share and both of us could play and that’s what brought our first polo ponies Yolo and Mistik into our lives two years ago.”
Emma Lou is Spencer’s go-to polo pony. ©Josh Kizziar
“I still had my polo boots, old mallets, and helmet all these years later and I think it was really meant to be.” – Spencer Hurtt
How have you personalized your polo ponies?
“I love making everything my own so when we got our first polo ponies I said Yolo was going to be tacked in neon green because that’s my color. Lanie wanted Mistik to be outfitted in teal. Unfortunately, Yolo passed away so we ended up purchasing two horses from Memo Gracida soon after: Emma Lou for my daughter and I to share and a paint gelding, Manhattan, for my wife Molly. Molly is not a huge horse person, but because Lanie and I are so into it she has taken to it and enjoyed some polo lessons.
Lola our palomino we put in pink. It’s ironic that she wears pink because that’s not her personality at all. She’s a battle ax and all business in the arena. Manhattan is in navy blue – they’re all color coordinated. When I showed up at the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® I got some looks from some of the pros. It actually played to my advantage because I was highly underestimated when they saw the horses, but then I came out guns blazing!”
Hurtt playing Lola in the 2021 U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® at Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. ©Kaile Roos
“When I showed up at the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® I got some looks from some of the pros. It actually played to my advantage because I was highly underestimated when they saw the horses, but then I came out guns blazing!” – Spencer Hurtt
How does it feel to share polo with your daughter Lanie?
“I’m so excited because she loves polo and she’s only 10 so she’s just going to keep getting better with time. Every Wednesday I pick her up from school and we go straight to the barn. That’s our day to spend time together riding and hanging out. She just recently played in her first tournament with the Middle School League. I always tell her that when she gets older we can actually play on the same team – I’m still looking forward to that. She told me she really wants to ride Lola someday and I said you can definitely play her, but you need to be a little bigger and stronger first.”
Hurtt with youngest daughter and avid polo player Lanie. ©Josh Kizziar
How has training for American Ninja Warrior impacted the way you approach polo?
“Playing polo and training for the show definitely complement each other. Although I had to get my legs, arms and swing back, everything came back pretty quickly when I returned to playing in the arena. One of the biggest factors that helps me with polo is the regimen and workouts. I’m so used to training constantly for American Ninja Warrior and I’ve pushed that onto my polo. I’m always in the mindset of improving myself and trying to get better at my game.
“I like to incorporate my workout ethics and routine into my polo ponies’ workouts.” – Spencer Hurtt
If I’m not riding, I’m doing some kind of workout in my secret training area at the warehouse of our family’s business. A few of my workouts definitely cater towards good shoulder rotation and mobility and some of my leg workouts are definitely catered more towards the riding muscles. My endurance is pretty good from the conditioning – I can play six chukkers pretty easily if I need to. I like to balance on the Indo board and swing a small, weighted club which would kind of simulate a polo swing. I also race around the warehouse with an E-Wheel and foot mallet. I’ve even built a hitting horse in my gym area so I can hit balls at the wall whenever I want to. The training helps with injuries and recovering quickly after a fall.
When I go out and do sets I usually have a specific game plan instead of just going out there without a plan. I love working my horses out to the same degree that I work out and putting them on a routine to get them in their best condition. I treat them like athletes, they’re on a program and I’m always supplementing them. I use the Bemer blanket, an equine therapy blanket, and I ice them after hard chukkers. I like to incorporate my workout ethics and routine into their workouts.”
Hurtt on Manhattan takes his high level of commitment to training and fitness into his competitive play. ©Josh Kizziar
Are you planning to compete in the U.S. Open Arena Polo Championship® again?
“We’re talking about the possibility of going to Twilight Polo Club [Middleburg, Virginia] this September to compete with the same OC Polo Club team, but definitely in 2023 when the tournament returns to the west coast.”