With teammates and opponents whizzing by him at over 30 miles per hour, the last thing Ricardo Falla wanted to do was fall off Dreamer, his trusty horse.
Falla, 23, a Webster University international relations graduate student, was in the midst of a polo match one month ago. With the ball and an opponent on his left side and his goal in danger of being scored on, the right-handed Falla maneuvered out of his saddle, reached across his body and tried to smack the ball with his mallet.
But when a buckle broke during this maneuver, Falla knew for the first time in his polo-playing career he was about to tumble off his horse.
“Fortunately enough, I was able to get a little bit of equilibrium and just roll down the horse and lay on my back,” Falla said. “No fractures, no broken bones or major injuries. I continued playing. One of the things they tell you is if you fall down from the horse, the best thing you can do is get back on the saddle, because sometimes the fear of it will not allow you to play the next time.”
So it goes in the heart-stopping sport of polo. Falla, who was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, moved to St. Louis more than five years ago. He first heard about the sport while he was studying abroad in Geneva in June 2009.
When he returned to St. Louis, Falla decided he wanted to give polo a shot. He researched the local polo-playing scene to see what his options were and, like many St. Louisans, Falla was surprised to learn of the rich polo tradition that was in his own backyard. The St. Louis Polo Club was established in 1883 and is the second-oldest existing club in the U.S.
Falla decided to begin taking lessons at the St. Louis Polo Club in August 2009, and he’s been playing ever since. This past semester Falla played up to three times per week, and loved every minute of it.
“I have a passion for horses,” Falla said. “I come from a culture, especially my family, that has a lot of relationships with horses. The first time I learned to ride I was around like 5 or 6. After I was in high school and came to college here in the United States, I kind of forgot a little bit.
“But when I saw the people playing (polo), how passionate they were for the sport, that was one thing. The adrenaline you have with polo is like, I can’t describe it whenever I’m on the field. I can only have my mind to play the sport. I forget about everything else — problems, school, work. It’s one of the best ways to relieve stress.”
When Falla attended his first lesson at the St. Louis Polo Club, he hadn’t ridden a horse in five years. But Scott Lancaster, manager and instructor at the St. Louis Polo Club, wasted no time in getting Falla reacclimated.
“For the first practice, Scott was like, ‘Well, have you had previous riding experience?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ ‘OK, pop onto the horse and we’ll start playing.’ There was no going through the safety or anything,” Falla said. “It was like, ‘Hop into the saddle, here’s the way you hold the mallet, here’s the way you hold the reins.’ Went right into the game.”
Lancaster, who has been working in the polo industry for 25 years, said the U.S.’s polo-playing population has stayed between 3,000 and 4,000 for the past 30 to 40 years and there are only 10,000 players worldwide.
Even though polo is not as popular on the local scene as Lancaster would like, it’s young players like Falla who give Lancaster hope for the sport’s future.
“He’s pretty much surpassed probably what he thought he would do and certainly what I thought he would do,” Lancaster said. “Polo takes a lifetime to master, and unless someone starts at a childhood age, they’re not likely to master the sport. He’s a young guy, and I hope he sticks with it. He has the potential to have a lot of fun and a lot of years with it.”
For Falla, the polo season lasts from late March until early October, before the horses are transported to a warmer climate. This past season, Falla played in four official matches and scored six goals.
Each time Falla plays at the St. Louis Polo Club, it costs him $75. Falla estimated that he spends $600 a month on polo, and $4,200 a year. Some of that money comes out of his own pocket, but a majority of it comes from his parents.
Falla said his parents have been very supportive in his academic and sporting pursuits. This has motivated Falla to challenge the perception that polo is an activity played exclusively by the financially elite.
“After our last practice, we went to have lunch with Scott,” Falla said. “He was saying, ‘You know, usually polo has been reserved for the bluebloods.’ But in St. Louis, you can find people that are not part of that small group. There’s a kid who’s 13. The age range can go from 13 to mid-50s.”
Cindy Allen, a 54-year-old American Airlines pilot, is a testament to the idea that truly anyone can play polo. Allen began taking lessons at the St. Louis Polo Club the same time as Falla. The two have made great strides in the brief amount of time they’ve been playing polo.
“Ricardo’s 23 and I’m 54. But in this sport, it doesn’t matter what age you are or what sex you are,” Allen said. “Everybody plays as equals. Honestly, I’ve heard it said that the polo pony does 80 percent of the work. It’s total teamwork — not only between the four players within your team — but with your polo pony.”
Once Falla graduates from Webster at the end of the fall semester, he would like to get a job in either Washington, D.C., or St. Louis. Falla isn’t sure what role polo will play in his future, but he would like to keep the sport a part of his life.
“I still want to continue because I remember when I started, I was not so sure that this would be an activity I would continue through my life,” Falla said. “But after going to a couple games and working with other amazing people in the field, it’s something I really want to continue.”
Other polo players haven’t been as fortunate as Falla, who got right back on when he fell of his horse. Falla knows the dangers associated with the sport he loves. But he keeps playing, because his passion for polo outweighs his fear of getting hurt.
“It’s one of the riskiest sports,” Falla said. “You’re riding probably 40 mph on a horse. If you fall down from the horse, you can have a serious injury or even get hit by the ball. I wish there were not as many risks in the games. But I think that’s what makes it interesting.”