Every tradition has a beginning, including Roseland Polo at King Family Vineyards near Charlottesville, and it’s no exception for the ancient sport of polo. Tracing its origin back to ancient Persia (now Iran) sometime between 600 BC and 100 AD, this sport for man and horse is played worldwide with the majority of clubs being found in the United States, Argentina, India and Western Europe. It is often associated as the sport of royalty the world over, but most famously played by the men of the British royal family.

In the U.S., however, polo has been iconized by the high-end designer, Ralph Lauren and Nacho Figueras, a world-renowned Argentine polo player and fashion model with Ralph Lauren. In Charlottesville, polo matches can be found just west of town under the leadership of the King family. 

The Roseland Polo club, located at the family’s vineyard, King Family Vineyards near Crozet, holds matches each Sunday from June through mid-October. Each weekly match draws several hundred spectators, some who dress up in high-society fashion and some who enjoy the matches in jeans and shorts (no dress code is required). But all who come, encircle the field in festive tailgating fashion to watch friendly competition, to enjoy their picnics and the good company of friends and family, and to savor the vineyard’s wines.

As I sat beside the Roseland Polo field for my first experience with the sport in 2015, I was engrossed with the coming together of past traditions and today’s spectators. All around me, visitors from near and far joined spirits under the beautiful Virginia sky with clouds casting shadows over the mountains for what felt like miles. I enjoyed the scene the family had created on this vineyard property, one merging Virginia wine country with Virginia hunt country. Not competitive in any league, these matches, which owners David (seen above) and Ellen King started here in 1996, are still carried on since David’s passing (1955–2019) in remembrance of his love for the sport, ponies, players and spectators, 

The Story of Roseland Polo at King Family Vineyards

When the Kings arrived in Virginia from Houston, Texas in 1996, it was important to them to find a property that would suit a polo field for Roseland Polo. With the number of rolling hills in our region, it was not an easy task. But, they found just the place on the farm property we all know as Roseland Farm. It wasn’t until later when they were approached by a viticulturist who pointed out that the property would grow excellent grapes for making wine that the family considered getting into the vineyard business. Stemming from King’s vision and commitment to excellence, Roseland Farm’s polo field is now surrounded by nearly 30 acres of stunning vineyards that produce just over 10,000 cases per year of some of the area’s finest wines.

Prior to passing away in 2019, David, a fellow polo player and retired lawyer, would dress for the day’s match in his usual spot under a small tree near the stables. Used to this routine, he could be seen zipping up his boots and pulling on his red polo jersey sporting the King Family Vineyards logo, his white helmet and gloves, all the while conversing with folks passing by on their way around the field.

After watching numerous interactions between curious spectators and King, I had asked him what the two most frequently asked questions were. With a hint of a smile, he said chuckling, “What should I wear to the match?” and “What side of the mallet do you hit the ball with?” He had shared that most Americans associate polo with scenes from movies like “Pretty Woman” and are curious about the mallet, which they sometimes associate with a croquet mallet.

King had participated in his first polo match in Houston, Texas, in 1980, igniting a spirit, passion and competitive nature of which his family is, to this day, clearly proud. His first pony, “Mother Dumper,” was aptly named, having dumped King on the ground the first two times he rode him. King’s deep respect for the sport drove him to ensuring its 18th-century traditions were upheld. And, for the horse enthusiasts who know their breeds, it should be clarified that polo players ride horses, but they still use the traditional term “ponies.”

What to Expect at A Virginia Polo Match

The game of polo is a magnificent sight, one filled with finesse, strategy and athleticism. Looking at the crowd lined around the field preparing for the match before them is nothing less. Trunks pop open, tents go up, and blankets are spread out with picnic foods for kids and adults alike.

Well over an hour before the opening whistle, chairs and blankets were already set up for an afternoon of picnicking. As I sat on my own blanket at that day’s Roseland Polo match, I heard talk of everything from the rules of the sport and the picnic spreads they were sampling to which King Family wine they would select from the golf cart driven around the field by friendly staff. I also overheard stories of someone’s own family members playing the sport along with plans being made for the next week’s matchup. I quickly learned that neither the length of the match nor the weather hindered the weekly outing for regular attendees. “Last Sunday, we had blankets draped over our legs to lessen the brunt of the wind,” a girl said to me as I commented on the sun. 

The game of polo is a magnificent sight, one filled with finesse, strategy and athleticism.

In the background, you could see ponies being prepped at the stables and the trailers that brought in the guest teams and their ponies. Horse trainers and stable hands were busy taping up the pony’s legs to protect them from swinging mallets during the match, and riders were putting on their protective gear and checking in with their ponies to make saddle adjustments.

It quickly became clear that players must first be advanced and seasoned riders before learning the sport, and that the ponies are no exception. Training a polo pony, as King had explained, begins around age 3, and actual play could begin as early as age 5. However, it relies heavily on the pony’s skill level and abilities in knowing when each is ready to join the team. “We’re training the ponies to do things that don’t come naturally to them,” explained King. “A polo pony needs to learn to rush at or bump against other ponies and to manage the short and quick maneuvers involved in the sport. Some ponies take to it enough to tolerate it, some love it and others just aren’t cut out for it.”

And it’s more than just having the capabilities to ride the pony across the field; it’s about having the ability to anticipate. “Every player and referee must be prepared to anticipate what could happen next,” King noted. Having played the sport for 30+ years, he shared that the most challenging part of the game is “to ride the horse well enough to get you to where you need to be, adjusting to the movement of the ball, and to be able to take a shot or make a pass with the ball.” Given all the components of ponies, players, swinging mallets and one tiny white ball roughly 5 feet below the riders, one can imagine the immense challenge and skill involved.

Polo 101

The safety of not only the riders but also the ponies has always been one of the most important goals of the referees. Of course like any other sport, injuries cannot always be avoided. King testified to the truth in this statement after having suffered a broken right shoulder during his time playing at the Houston Polo Club. Further “contact” rules were established for the player advancing in the line of the ball and an opponent trying to reverse the ball’s direction. Specifically, an opponent can initiate shoulder-to-shoulder contact to push the offender off the line, they can hook the offender’s mallet, and they can bump others with their pony or steal the ball.

Watching from the sidelines, the 300 x 160-yard polo field appeared to leave the players and their ponies with plenty of space to play the sport. Always wanting everyone, from players to spectators, to have an enjoyable and safe experience, King was known for circling past the crowd of onlookers just before the game to warn them of getting too close to the railing and to watch for the possible stray ball coming their way. While I saw the players exercising caution as to where they directed the ball, the risks were evident. Players raced across the field, sending the plastic ball sailing ahead of the pack, only to race to it again.

At the end of a match, a polo ball, which is filled with air, is left with marks and indents where the mallets hit it and release air pockets. When hitting the ball, a player usually uses both flat sides of their mallet (unlike croquet which uses the mallet’s end), and the shaft is made with an especially strong variety of bamboo.

Every game of polo is called a match and is broken up into six time periods called “chukkers,” which are seven minutes long. At the end of every chukker, riders will switch ponies out to lessen the pony’s chance of heat exhaustion. With that in mind, every player uses multiple ponies throughout one match and brings an extra pony in case one cannot play that day. If the score is tied at the end of the six chukkers, a seventh is played to establish a winner (fans of King’s lovely fortified red wine named “7” will now understand the reference). 

Interestingly, the age range of participating ponies varies widely. “They can play into their 20s depending on the care,” King explained. “In terms of breeding ponies for the sport, the mare determines the sex and skills, and nearly 90 percent of all polo ponies are mares.” Argentina native Naza Acosta (seen below) played an important part during King’s polo-playing days. Acosta would stay at the farm from mid-April until mid-October to help care for and train the ponies.

Along with the care of the ponies, the field of Riviera Bermuda grass, which is dormant in the winter, must be well maintained and groomed, or, like a weed, it will spread well beyond the field’s parameters. At half-time and at the end of each match, fans are encouraged to join the King family out on the field for the traditional “divot stomping.” Throughout the course of the game, the ponies’ continuous stopping and turning leads to small patches of grass and dirt being kicked up. So, upholding the tradition, all spectators help stomp the divots back into place, ultimately helping keep the field safe for ponies and players.

Roseland Polo also works closely with UVA’s polo club, whose ponies have been donated from all over the country. At each match at Roseland Farm, you can find a pony or two loaned for the game from the club. This “cooperative” relationship between the Kings and UVA’s intercollegiate, student-run program has been consistent over the years. And during the summer months, if UVA students are around, they can be seen joining in the Sunday matches at Roseland Farm. Watch our calendar for polo and other equestrian events. 

Roseland Farm and King Family Vineyards is truly a family business. All three of the King’s sons and their families live on the property and work to grow the vineyard side. The seven grandchildren can often be seen cheering on the players or manning the scoreboard. “We never take for granted the opportunity to wake up to the beautiful views we enjoy here every morning and to have all that we do,” Ellen King shared. “It is one of our greatest joys to share it all with our visitors—the view, the sport, the experience and the wine.”  ~

See our Style & Culture page for more articles on Virginia polo, equestrian sports and other sporting life. Be sure to also read Northern Virginia Polo about the Virginia United Polo League and polo superstar Nacho Figueras in Northern Virginia hunt country. If you’re looking for the perfect polo attire and tailgating accessories, be sure to also visit the Wine & Country Shop.

This article appears in Book 2 of Wine & Country Life. Start your subscription here or give a gift subscription here.

 

Our senior editor, SARAH SHORT writes for all of our publications and websites and has degrees in English and journalism with a master’s in HR. She enjoys writing on every topic that pertains to Virginia wine country, from entertaining and sporting life to vineyards, makers and home décor.

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