story and photos by Josh Souza, special to the City Wire
A secluded, green pasture, with beautifully groomed horses doesn't seem like an unusual scene for Northwest Arkansas until you start throwing around terms like "pony goal" and "chukker."
Non-traditional sports are nothing new to Bentonville, which already has leagues for cricket, rugby and lacrosse. The city-wide trend of incoming world culture took another step forward Thursday (May 29) when the Northwest Arkansas Polo Club celebrated its official ribbon cutting at a newly acquired field three miles east of the downtown business district.
Eight players and a handful of club supporters were on hand to take part in the festivities. Mayor Bob McCaslin attended the event and performed the ceremonial "first-bowl-in.”
"It has been a treat to watch this club come together and accomplish what they set out to accomplish, despite some of the bumps these fine people have had to endure along the way," said McCaslin. "Any time a new endeavor of this magnitude is bestowed on our community its a good thing."
This club sport is another way Bentonville is celebrating its diversity which is enhanced by the presence of Wal-Mart and its growing supplier base. The NWA Polo Club, which has eight members and counting, was the brain child of several equestrian lovers in the community who struck up a conversation around the water cooler at Wal-Mart.
No one has played a more instrumental role in bringing the club to life than president John Wilson, who has family ties to the game dating back to the 1920's, when his grandfather began breeding polo-ponies in Midland, Texas.
"The old saying about polo horses was if they weren't fast enough to be a race horse, they would try to use them for polo, but precise breeding has seen a shift in the types of horses we use today," said Wilson. "The biggest difference is in size, agility and stamina. Polo horses need to be shifty and have the ability to run for long periods of time.”
Polo horses are generally under 16-hands in size and can range in age from 4-to-20 years. Each horse is equipped with leg wraps and have their tails braided to protect against swinging mallets.
"Safety is the number one thing on my mind when I am mounted on the field," said Wilson. "We provide all the necessary protective gear like the shin-guards, helmets and gloves and while most of our players are experienced to some degree, newcomers are encouraged to come out and play as well."
Club co-founders Bob and Susan Koehler have a long history with the game, too. Bob is the club-pro and both coached and played in Colorado. The couple were involved in the sport for years and were desperate to bring polo with them after moving to Bentonville last year with Susan’s job at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"Bob and I have been heavily involved with the sport since we were kids," said Susan Koehler. "After we moved here from Colorado, polo was probably the thing we missed the most. Bob was still commuting back and forth to stay involved with his club. Having a new club in Northwest Arkansas is so huge for us. ... We have so many people to thank, from the Bradley's who own the land to the city of Bentonville and so many folks who helped make this happen."
The NWA Polo Club will hold matches every Sunday and practices on Thursdays at its new field off Coffee Price Road. The club is leasing the land from owner Derek Bradley. They are holding a tailgate-party on Fathers Day (June 15). The field, which covers roughly 300 yards in length, will also be used for other community events as well as club events.
"We have events scheduled throughout the summer and are really looking forward to having the opportunity to use this field for whatever we can as a part of the community," said Koehler. "We hope to have around 16 members by this fall."
Kevin Gardner, vice president of the club, said he grew riding horses and played a little polo during a period when he lived in Dallas. Gardner also works at Wal-Mart’s corporate offices.
“There is growing number of people in this area that love horses and it’s certainly cheaper to keep a horse here than in other places in the country. We are very excited about the opportunity to introduce this sport to people of all ages,” Gardner said.
The NWA Polo Club is a member of the U.S. Polo Association and the Great Plains Circuit. Koeler said the group will schedule matches with clubs in Springfield, Tulsa and Wichita, after the field work has been completed.
“We need to level out the playing field some to meet USPA guidelines. That work is ongoing,” Koelher said.
More information about the Northwest Arkansas Polo Club can be found on the club's Facebook page.