City Living: Polo memories revived in Southlands

An older gentleman watching the exhibition polo game from the southeast side of the field at Southlands Riding Club Sunday afternoon was audibly excited when the ponies thundered by. He nodded when a foul was called and cheered with each goal. Clearly, he wasn’t watching with the eye of a rank novice.

Who was he?

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“Oh, that’s Patrick Oswald,” said Suzanne Warner out from under her large brown hat where the VIP tent was filled with similar large hats and fancy dress in attendance for the Southlands Cup. “He’s infamous and famous.”

Oswald, as it turned out, is one of the original polo players of Southlands. He played on the same field, albeit a larger version back in the ’50s and ’60s before the nearby riding arenas were built for dressage, and he played on Canada’s national team in the 1970s. The sport of kings, as polo is often called, and Oswald looked the part with his navy blazer, crème Panama hat, with both shirt and tie adorned with classic polo motifs. A kerchief with a tiny mallet imprinted on it poked out of the jacket’s breast pocket. The love of horses runs in the family — Oswald’s brother managed the Royal Stud farms and was racing manager for the late Queen Mother.

“No, I didn’t expect to see it here again, that’s why it’s so wonderful,” said Oswald, now 78. “I have a lot of memories, and they’re all very special.” He remembered the camaraderie of visiting teams, the after-match parties he described as being “wonderful” and exercising his horses every morning — riding one and walking two at the same time (each player is required to have at least two or three so tired mounts can be traded for fresh legs between each chukka, which is, to borrow a hockey term, a period). He also remembers how tough a sport it is. His front false teeth are evidence as they were knocked out by a swinging mallet on the Southlands field years ago.

The field is also one of memories for Warner. Twenty-five years ago to the day she and her husband Gery married at the club and a polo game was part of the day’s celebration. Ten years later, in 1999, they had an anniversary party at the club and another game was played, which, until this past Sunday, was the last time organized polo had been played in Vancouver where, incidentally, Gery was playing in the final.

While the field used for Sunday’s games was roughly the same size as a soccer pitch, it is nowhere near the size of fields used for traditional polo where the field is 10 acres, roughly eight times the size of a soccer field. Even so, the fact that there is even an equestrian centre within city limits makes Vancouver special, said Cup social coordinator Kimberley St. Pierre who is also on the board of directors for the Southlands Riding Club.

“This property is the only Agricultural Land Reserve that’s dedicated to equestrian sports in city limits in North America,” she said, pointing out that while she lives downtown, her horse, a retiree from the Hastings Racecourse, is stabled only 20 minutes away in bucolic Southlands.

Naturally, not everybody has the time or the money to stable polo ponies. And that’s where George Dill comes in. Dill, who owns a ranch in La Conner, Wash., is in the business of renting out his 59 horses for polo games.

“People don’t want the overhead of carrying ponies, they want to put on their gloves and helmet and then go directly to the bar when they’re done. We take care of everything else,” said Dill before donning the No. 1 jersey to wear in the final for Team West Coast Equine Clinic.  

Dill started playing polo in 1995 when “a guy bought me a mallet and I already had a horse” and now, almost 20 years later, he is on the board of governors for the United States Polo Association. He brought 16 of his “quiet” horses to Southlands for the beginner’s clinic as he, along with other players, is keen for more people to play.

“It’s competitive, it’s flowing, you’re moving 35 to 40 miles per hour hitting a ball with other guys moving that fast. It’s a pretty adrenalin-rich experience,” he said.

But foremost: “You gotta like the horse. Like I say, most of my horses, we’ve raised them from babies and I don’t have any kids so I know all their names, remember when they were born...”

When asked to predict Vancouver’s interest in the sport, Dill surveyed the nearby crowd in their finery and glittery movement of champagne glasses as he might when inspecting the potential of a galloping polo pony.

“I think this market’s in,” he said. “They’re in the deal. There’s too many British magazines with the Royals playing polo so we’re just giving them the opportunity to be royal.”

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