Q&A: Horace Henriot, former professional polo player

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From the March 21, 2013 edition

Horace Henriot began playing polo at 13 in his home country Belgium. After high school he traveled to Argentina, the “Mecca of polo,” and the United States to play professionally. After a few years as a professional, Henriot decided to make a change. He studied theology and spent the last 10 years as a youth pastor and working with nonprofits.

Recently, Henriot was giving a speech about not letting your talents go to waste and realized he wasn’t following his own advice. So he got back into polo and started Play Polo LLC, but nonprofit work — involving polo — is in Henriot’s future too.

Play Polo is launching with lessons beginning the first week of May, when the weather is ideal. This is also a huge opportunity because no one in the Midwest is doing this. We’re creating a market for this. We are doing a promotion of 10 lessons for $899 if people sign up by April 15.

The classes are for all ages and you don’t need any riding experience. We’ll also have four wooden horses that you’ll use to learn the movements on first. It’s a life-size horse with a saddle on it that basically saves the horse from getting whacked in the feet and stuff like that.

In a nutshell, polo is played four-on-four and best described as hockey on a horse. It has some physical elements. You can hit each other — not in the body — [on] the mallet with the mallet. I can bump you with my horse. The most famous rule is called the line of the ball. When you hit the ball it creates an invisible line that you can’t cross with the horse. You have to come up [parallel] to them to take the ball.

A regulation size polo field is 10 acres. The one we’re using is a little bit shorter. And polo is a high-scoring game. It’s not like soccer … eight to 10 would be an average score.

People have this image that polo is for the rich, and we would like to break that stereotype. I think that stereotypes exist in certain places, but in most of the world it’s not like that. It’s much more accessible than people think. Polo is a great sport that’s not about the fancy hats and the high heels.

In America, they primarily use thoroughbreds, some quarter horses and a mix between the two called an appendix. The horse has to be fast, but also has to be able to stop and turn and be very agile. There are no restrictions on size … so a clydesdale could show up on the field; there’s no rule against it, but it wouldn’t be very effective.

Our dream is to give inner city kids who would never have the opportunity to play polo [a chance to play]. We want to teach them about leadership and character by introducing them to polo. We considered doing this as a non-profit … but we felt like we’d be fundraising all the time. So we can fundraise for our own non-profit for things like this. There’s an example called Work to Ride that was featured on “60 Minutes.” This woman bought a barn in Philadelphia and got inner city kids to ride horses and play. Now they’re kicking the butts of Harvard, and it’s incredible.

Photo by Meghan Ralston