A USPA Armed Services polo team traveled to the U.K. in early July for the Chapple Cup, a three-match series against the U.K. Armed Forces Polo Association. Organized by USPA Armed Forces Committee Chairman Major (Ret.) Mark Gillespie, the trip included friendly yet competitive rivalry between the U.S. and the U.K. Armed Forces at three English clubs, including Druids Lodge Polo Club, Tedworth Park Polo Club and Guards Polo Club. The U.S. team’s excursion also featured visiting several tourist attractions to sites like the ancient burial tombs near Stonehenge and the Queen’s Household Cavalry as well as many opportunities to create meaningful relationships with members of the U.K. Armed Forces.
The idea for the trip, Major (Ret.) Gillespie shared, was inspired by previous collaborations between the United States and the United Kingdom. “28 years ago, we did a 50th anniversary of D-Day polo tour. That was the last time we had a U.S. military team go over to play.” Traveling this time as the team coach, Major (Ret.) Gillespie accompanied the USPA Armed Services team and helped guide the trajectory of the trip.
Private First Class Zak Coleman in action during the second game at the Tedworth Park Polo Club.
Members of the USPA Armed Services team were selected from a pool of interested players who are currently on Active Duty in the United States Armed Forces. Gillespie added, “The Armed Forces Committee created a subcommittee to select who would be appropriate [based on] the criteria that the British put forth. They wanted [a] 2-goal team of serving members, meaning that they were to be Active Duty or Active Reserve.” The subcommittee nominated Private First Class Zak Coleman, Petty Officer Second Class Alex Jenkins, Lieutenant Colonel Amos Peterson and Captain Beth Byles to join the team. Chief Warrant Officer Joe England was also selected as an alternate.
Prior to departing, the team assembled to practice together to ensure that they would be well prepared to match the strength and power of the U.K. Armed Forces teams. Private First Class Coleman noted, “We practiced a few times in Virginia at Chetwood Park near Warrenton [with] horses from Army Polo Club [The Plains, Virginia] and Liberty Hall Polo Club [Rixeyville, Virginia]. Before we left, we had a final send off at Twilight Polo Club [Middleburg, Virginia] playing a local team on ‘Stars and Stripes Night’ on July 2 to prepare us for playing in front of a large crowd.” Gillespie noted the importance of these practices, saying, “We had practices to shake out the dust and figure out positions.”
Captain Beth Byles was drawn into the sport by her USPA Armed Services teammate, Lieutenant Colonel Peterson
A newcomer to polo but an experienced rider, Captain Byles, who began playing at Army Polo Club, joined the team eager to play despite having only a few months of experience in the sport. “I just started playing last August. [That] was the first time [Lieutenant Colonel Peterson] brought me out and then I had to go away for some military schooling for about four months. So really [I] only [had] about five months under my belt.”
From a horseback riding background, Captain Byles was drawn into the sport by her USPA Armed Services teammate, Lieutenant Colonel Peterson, when she was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. “It always looked cool. I never thought I could do it,” she said. She continued, “It was trial by fire, I learned [more] every chukker, it’s a constant learning experience […] [This] was really my first time playing on the field.”
USPA Armed Forces compete against the U.K. Armed Forces at the packed Tedworth Park Polo Club.
Finding their footing as a team, the USPA Armed Services squadron was off the evening of July 4 for the trip of a lifetime. “England was very hospitable to us; we were put in an amazing lodge called The Marlborough where we stayed throughout the whole trip. The English game coordinator, Air Commodore (Ret.) Tim Brown, would meet us there and take us to dinners and local monuments and tell us about our games,” shared Private First Class Coleman.
The first game of the tournament was played on Thursday, July 7, at the Druids Lodge Polo Club in Salisbury, whose polo ponies served largely as the string for the U.S. team throughout the trip. Captain Byles recalls being in awe of the club’s beauty, sharing, “It was right by Stonehenge, the polo field was gorgeous. It opens up down on Stonehenge and this big valley.” The U.S. team took this first game as an opportunity to get to know the horses, the fields and understand how to play together in an unfamiliar setting.
Private First Class Coleman remarked, “We were supplied horses from Druids Lodge Polo Club in Wiltshire. We struggled with them the first game, as nobody knew who would be good on which horse. [By] the third game, we had the horses completely figured out and that helped lead to a quality victory. My personal favorite was the grey horse, Pepper.” Learning as they played, the U.S. team lost to the U.K. Armed Forces by only three goals, 9-6, in the first edition of play but gained a lot of valuable insights on how to work together.
Private First Class Zak Coleman on Pepper.
“Hearing them react to each play was fun because, oddly enough, they would cheer for us too. Once the tie was broken in favor of the British side, I heard groans in the crowd. Being at a military base, I think that crowd was there to support all military personnel, no matter the nation. And I truly respected that.” – Private First Class Zak Coleman
The second game on Saturday, July 9, found the Americans traveling to Tedworth Park Polo Club in Tidworth, a historic club owned by the U.K. army. Their game prefaced the annual Rundle Cup battle between the British Army and the Royal Navy polo teams, thus drawing in a large crowd of eager spectators to attend both matches. “The atmosphere felt like an NFL game. [They] had the paratroopers flying in [on] parachute[s] down to the [polo] field, huge sponsor tents, tons of different little bars and food vendors [and] so forth. It was easily 5,000 people. [It was] the biggest crowd I’ve ever played polo in front of. [They] even livestreamed the match on YouTube, so my family got to watch from home! It was pretty phenomenal,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Peterson.
Petty Officer Second Class Alex Jenkins on the ball during competition at Druids Lodge Polo Club.
Private First Class Coleman added, “The spectator factor was very thrilling. I have routinely played at Twilight Polo Club in front of crowds of 1,000-2,000 people, but this crowd was 5,000-6,000 and it was truly exhilarating.” He continued, “Hearing them react to each play was fun because, oddly enough, they would cheer for us too. Once the tie was broken in favor of the British side, I heard groans in the crowd. Being at a military base, I think that crowd was there to support all military personnel, no matter the nation. And I truly respected that.” Close right until the very end, the U.S. team noted clear improvement in their play, losing to the U.K. by only one goal this time, 6-5 in the last minue of the match. Lieutenant Colonel Peterson’s horse, Pico Blanco, was awarded Best Playing Pony, largely for his amazing goal in the fourth chukker. “He had a sick backshot that just [went] off the post into the goal,” recounted Petty Officer Second Class Jenkins. “It was one of those high-goal level plays.”
Best Playing Pony Pico Blanco, pictured with Lieutenant Colonel Amos Peterson and Gracie.
The final game of the three-part tournament was played on Sunday, July 10, at the illustrious Guards Polo Club in Windsor, home of the prestigious high-goal Cartier Queen’s Cup. One of the most iconic locations in the sport of polo, the U.S. team capitalized on what they learned in their first two games to fall more in sync with each other, communicate better and ultimately generate a more nuanced sense of teamwork. Their admirable efforts and drive to work together to find success earned them a 6-4.5 victory over the formidable British military team.
Private First Class Zak Coleman, Petty Officer Alex Jenkins, Lieutenant Commander Amos Peterson and Captain Beth Byles’ admirable efforts and drive to work together to find success earned them a 6-4.5 victory over the formidable British military team in the final event of the series.
An immaculate setting to win, Petty Officer Second Class Jenkins noted, “That [field] was beautiful. The footing was probably the best of the three games, so the ball really just flew.” Also having played two games and improving each time, the team felt much more confident heading into the final match. “By that last game we had a lot ironed out and we [were] playing more as a team. I felt like we constantly evolved over the whole trip,” shared Captain Byles. Lieutenant Colonel Peterson chimed in, saying, “From a polo perspective, we felt really happy with our performance. We [also] viewed this [trip] as an opportunity to enhance relationships [and] to continue to inculcate that special relationship we have with the United Kingdom.”
Exhibiting true sportsmanship on both ends, the U.K. team and the U.S. teams bonded over playing against one another and even traded advice throughout the tournament. “When we were having dinner, it was constant conversation, ‘Remember [that] one play?’ And we’d sit down with the other team [and] their highest-rated player and say, ‘We had you on this one,’ ‘what do you think we could have done better?’ They were great [at] giving us [advice]. It was super cool,” shared Petty Officer Second Class Jenkins. He continued, “One of the things that’s really big and important to me is the social aspect of polo. The British team, they were super awesome. Even their 2-goalers that were on the other team [would] come and have a drink with us. It’s part of the spirit of the sport and that’s what I really cherished.”
Petty Officer Second Class Alex Jenkins enjoying the camaraderie of the experience.
Outside of the saddle, the U.S. team was able to explore and form relationships with several members of the U.K. Armed Forces. “Will [Mawby] from the British Armed Forces took us into London one day and gave us [a] behind-the-scenes tour of the Queens Household Cavalry’s Mounted Guard. We went and visited their stables and then we watched them get all tacked up and one of their corporals actually gave [us the] criteria of how they get evaluated every morning and judged based on how well they turn out their horse and how well they turn out their tack and everything like that.
It was [a] really cool little [visit] behind the scenes,” Captain Byles recalled. She continued, “[Another] one of the nights we had [a black tie] dinner with [officers of] the Queen’s Royal Hussars, which is like a tank [regiment]. They treated us to the whole British dining experience. It was a three-course candlelit dinner. Just being able to hang out with them and talk about things going on in our military, their struggles [and] our struggles, [we found] out we’re all dealing with the same stuff.”
“One of the things that’s really big and important to me is the social aspect of polo. The British team, they were super awesome. Even their 2-goalers that were on the other team [would] come and have a drink with us. It’s part of the spirit of the sport and that’s what I really cherished.” – Petty Officer Second Class Alex Jenkins
Major Ret. Mark Gillespie, Armed Forces Committee Chairman, accompanied the USPA Armed Services team and helped guide the trajectory of the trip.
An overall great success for the USPA Armed Services, Major (Ret.) Gillespie along with others in the Armed Forces Committee hope to host a British military team at some point in the near future, as well as to make efforts to organize regular exchanges between military teams across the world to foster military relationships through the sport of polo. Extremely pleased with and grateful for this experience, the U.S. players are also eager to see the continuation of programs like this, especially to help improve NATO and U.S. relations and create an open line of communication between countries in the alliance. In closing, Petty Officer Second Class Jenkins excitedly shared, “We’re all military and we’re allies, so this is a great way to build that relationship.”
All photos courtesy of ©Michael Berkeley.