Back in the Saddle

The Ocala Polo Club is paving the way for a new era in the local polo scene.

While preserving polo’s traditions, the Ocala Polo Club is implementing innovative strategies to captivate a wider audience and inspire a new generation of polo enthusiasts in Marion County. The club’s fresh approach is changing perceptions, inspiring new players and captivating local audiences with a modern take on the age-old sport. 

Resurrected by Dr. Lauren Proctor-Brown and her business partner David Eldredge, the Ocala Polo Club is redefining polo’s image by fostering a supportive community and curating an inclusive atmosphere that is making the sport accessible to people from all walks of life. Beyond the exciting contests on the field, the club hosts themed match days and family-friendly activities that have woven the fabric of polo into the cultural tapestry of the community.

Eldredge and Sissy Sugarman

Proctor-Brown, who operates Resolute Equine Sports Medicine, and Eldredge, a former Cornell University polo coach, are both Ocala residents. 

Dormant for about 15 years, the Ocala Polo Club traces its formative roots back some 30 years. Proctor-Brown and Eldredge combined their respective passions for the sport in 2020 to revive the club just as the COVID-19 pandemic brought many sporting events to a halt. Now a member of the United States Polo Association (USPA), the governing body of the sport in the U.S., the Ocala Polo Club has a winter season that runs from December to March and a summer season from June to September. The matches are played at the Florida Horse Park in southwest Marion County.

“We’re really trying to build a community here,” says Proctor-Brown. “Even in the short time we’ve been here, the number of spectators continues to grow and they are building a community around the sport and the players are forming a community on the field. It’s a very welcoming environment. We call it horseman’s polo, it’s very Ocala, very welcoming and laid back. These are your local community members out there playing and competing on weekends, along with some professionals, which is cool.

“The summer seasons consist of mostly locals, just like the rest of the horse industry here,” she adds. “We have some transplants that are here year-round and we also have snowbirds who are here and compete only in the winter. The club is pretty young still, yet we have grown a ton since we started. There is still plenty of room if anyone is interested in getting involved and trying out the sport.”

RESURGENCE

The Ocala Polo Club has a long history in the area, although it didn’t have much of a presence locally until Proctor-Brown and Eldredge sparked its resurgence.

“There was a lot more polo here in the early 2000s,” explains Proctor-Brown, who is originally from Wisconsin and was introduced to polo while attending vet school at Cornell University, where she met Eldredge. “There were a couple of other clubs around and then this one  eventually fell dormant. Ocala is horse paradise. I grew up with horses doing hunter-jumpers and eventing, and then got into polo.

“We got the club started back up in 2020,” she continues. “Not quite the perfect time to start a polo club and bring people together. Honestly, it has worked out pretty well, though. Because of the pandemic, we ended up staying in Ocala year-round that first year. Polo up north was canceled; the northern states canceled everything, including all sports events. So, we had normally gone back to New England for polo in the summer, but since it looked like there wouldn’t be anything, we stayed in Florida. We played around and dabbled with a close group of people. We played later in the day over the summer, just trying to be smart about it. We realized playing in Florida year-round isn’t that bad. It kind of blossomed from there.”

Proctor-Brown and Eldredge both play, coach and offer polo lessons. Proctor-Brown, a Division I athlete at the University of Louisville, where she attended school on a rowing scholarship, obtained a BA in Biology and a BSBA in Equine Business. From there, she earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Cornell University, where she discovered polo in earnest. Her love of the game has continued to grow and today she is enjoying life in the Horse Capital of the World, where she recently bought a 15-acre farm, competes with Team Resolute on the polo field and offers veterinary services to horses of all disciplines through her business.

Eldredge poses with Buffalo

“When I was an undergrad at Louisville, I was rowing and they found out I could ride,” recalls Proctor-Brown. “My coach understandably told me no. When you’re on a full ride, they don’t want you getting hurt playing a different sport. So, of course, when someone tells you no, it’s like ‘Now, I want to do it.’ I went to Cornell for vet school and I ended up having my horse at the equestrian center where the polo team practiced.

“The winters are long there and, at one point, I picked up a mallet and was just messing around with my jumper and someone saw me and said, ‘I can teach you how to do that correctly.’ That someone might have been David. Once you get into it, it is a really cool horse discipline. I was a rower and that is a team sport, but in most other horse disciplines you don’t have a team. It’s just you and your horse. So, for polo, you have you and your horse, and you’re working as a team and have teammates to compete with. It’s one of the only horse disciplines where you compete as a team. Polo marries all of it for me.”

Eldredge, who started playing polo at the age of 9 and was competing in his first game by age 10, boasts 50 years of experience playing and coaching both in arena and outdoor polo. He is recognized as an honorary certified polo instructor by the USPA and competed in intercollegiate polo for Cornell University, starting all four years and as captain of the team for three. He was the assistant coach at Cornell from 1981-85 and then served 33 years as the head coach, winning a Cornell University record 988 matches. During his tenure, Eldredge led the men’s and women’s polo to a combined 14 national titles and 37 national championship appearances. He also held his own during his professional career and gives back to the polo community by serving the USPA on arena and outdoor rules committees.

“With Ocala Polo Club, we have gotten back to what club polo really was,” Eldredge offers. “In some venues, club polo is not viewed as a positive term. I have a different view. I grew up and learned to play in club polo. I was fortunate enough and talented enough to go on and have a professional career and become a long-time coach, but I never forgot where I came from. The essence of which is if you have one horse you are just as important as someone with 10 horses. We’re all out here for the enjoyment of the game and we’re all out here to have fun. This is a fun sport that is very addictive, and you can play it for a lifetime. I’ve known players playing well into their 70s. You can play this game from 10 years old and younger all the way up to the 70s, so it’s a lifetime sport. We have embraced that and we are trying to bring new interest and new participants to the sport.

“I was taught the game by my father who learned the game at Cornell University,” he shares. “He brought it back to the dairy farm I was raised on and he taught my brother and I to play. That’s where my passion came from. My father played at a local club and that’s where it all started for me.”

Proctor-Brown adds, “When David was growing up, there were a lot of little polo clubs in small communities and they would compete against each other in the area and it was friendly low goal community polo. Then you had the high goal (polo is divided into three levels—low, medium and high goal), high level polo where all the multi-millionaires competed and that’s a different kind of game. That is major leagues versus your minor league baseball team and that’s just not inviting to bring more people in. It has also alienated a lot of people.”

REDIRECTION

According to Proctor-Brown, polo is no longer just a game for the posh and, due in part to outfits like the Ocala Polo Club, the sport is more welcoming with people of all ages and backgrounds getting involved.

“We have players from all sorts of different backgrounds,” notes Proctor-Brown. “We have people who have been casual riders their whole life, as well as people who have never ridden, and even people who have competed at a high level in various other disciplines and find polo later at a different point in their life. It’s a fun sport.

“Polo has been undergoing changes,” she continues. “The number of players has decreased, and the number of clubs has also decreased. So, we thought, let’s bring people back together and let’s build a community to compete together and have people be successful. If they are successful and move up in the ranks and go play at a high goal level, we love that, and we can all grow together. There are also a lot more women in the USPA playing polo now, so building a safe place for women where they feel they can get out there and compete and take some risks and learn a new sport and play on co-ed teams was important.”

As far as growth and expansion are concerned, the club is making great strides within the local community.

“In the summer, we do matches at 6pm after the sun begins to go down and after the storms have come through and cooled everything off,” Proctor-Brown says. “In the winter, we do Sundays at 1pm, which is a typical time for Sunday afternoon polo and tailgating. It’s great.

“I think the fans love it,” she adds. “Our spectatorship has grown. When we first started, it was me and a couple of friends. That’s how it felt. Now, in the winter, we can fill the sideline (300 yards). We’ve really grown a lot and it’s exciting for us and we love our spectators. It makes for a fun day for people. It’s family-friendly, it’s still reasonably affordable and it’s easy to just drive up and tailgate and spend a couple of hours in the fresh air with friends. We have retired people come out who’ve never seen a horse sport in person. We see families with kids and even college students from the University of Florida.”

The Ocala Polo Club’s relationship with the Florida Horse Park is proving to be an ideal union in bringing together equestrian enthusiasts. 

“The Florida Horse Park is just great,” Proctor-Brown enthuses. “We love that it is multi-disciplined. We love it when we get opportunities to work with them and we like being involved in a horse community. A lot of people who play polo have done other (equestrian) disciplines in the past or currently. Some people are really involved in the racing community or involved with jumpers. Polo brings a lot of people together, and that’s what we like.

“At the Horse Park, we see different disciplines every week and we get to talk to everybody,” she adds. “You can see polo, cutters, dressage, evening and even dog shows. Ocala is amazing. You can do so many different disciplines here that you just can’t do in many other places, and you can do them at a high level here. You just can’t find that everywhere, and that’s what makes it cool.”

Eldredge adds, “When we got involved with the people at the Florida Horse Park, we struck up a very good relationship. They had one field when we got here and now we have two fields,. We are a spectator sport and we bring people in, while a lot of other disciplines are not necessarily spectator sports.”

The natural amenities found in the soil, as well as the location, make Ocala an ideal base for the club and its participants. The composition of equestrian-friendly soil can play a crucial role in providing a supportive and safe surface for horses and riders, as well as providing good drainage, adequate moisture retention, and proper footing. 

“Ocala is a great location as far as polo is concerned,” Proctor-Brown says. “We can easily travel to other locations such as Aiken, South Caroline, or Wellington and Sarasota down south. Plus, we’re able to compete outside 12 months a year. In Ocala, you do have to deal with the heat but never the cold. You don’t ever have to deal with snow or mud and the fields drain very well here. We could play polo 12 months out of the year, realistically. Hopefully, in a few more years, we’ll have even more polo fields and we will be playing continuously.”

For those interested in attending a match or possibly giving polo a whirl, Proctor-Brown suggests attending a  match and sticking around after the contest to speak with the participants.

“Come out and check out a game,” she says. “We usually have a wooden horse at the field so you can check out how to swing a stroke. You can hold a mallet and see what the balls are like and meet and talk to the people involved.

“There is a little more pomp to the winter season and it’s a faster game,” she adds. “In the summer, it’s all about the locals. We get newer players on the field and train younger horses in the summer. It’s more focused on giving people opportunities and it’s a slower game. If people want to get involved, we can get you going in any direction, whether you want season passes or to get involved in lessons. We welcome everyone with open arms and that’s a beautiful thing because it’s not like that with all polo clubs.” OS

Visit ocalapolo.com for tickets and more information.

Proctor-Brown hugs Dianna

OCALA POLO
SUMMER SCHEDULE

  JULY
    1 Independence Cup
    8 Hat Day
  15 Life’s a Beach Day
  22 Holidays in July
  29 Horsepower Cup

  AUGUST
    5 Throwback Day
  12 Sportsmanship Cup
  19 Citrus Cup
  26 Super Hero Day

  SEPTEMBER
    2 Andy Moran Memorial
    9 Luck of the Irish Cup
  16 Women’s Finals
  23 Horseman’s Cup
  30 Season Finale

Posted in Community Spotlight, Ocala Style Features

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