Hockey on Horseback

On a crisp February morning, light streams in the barn windows at Lowell's Meadowview Farm. Despite the snow outside, instructor Katie Johnson leads a small group of horses and riders around the indoor arena, mallets held high.

Right in the midst of the Midwest winter, it's time to learn how to play polo.

"I grew up riding and showing horses, but I had never played polo until college," says Johnson, who graduated from Lowell High School and earned a bachelor's in business administration and master's in business management from Aquinas College. "I was horrible at first, but now I love it."

As her love for the sport grew, Johnson knew Meadowview could play a key role in making polo more accessible to other riders in West Michigan.

"Normally you have to have a truck, trailer, horse, and all your own equipment in order to play," she says. "Here, for $50 a session, you can lease a horse and equipment and come out and play at your convenience." The cost includes all coaching, equipment, and the care and use of a polo horse at each practice session. Meadowview's indoor arena means that players are able to practice and compete year-round.

And people do. Since the polo school began, there's been an increase in awareness that a sport usually associated with East and West Coast cities is available here in metro Grand Rapids.

"This winter we have enough players to have a beginner league of around eight students who come to ride on a regular basis," Johnson says. Practices are held three to five times per week, and summer brings tournaments and travel, often to Toronto, Detroit and Chicago.

Horse Sense
Meadowview Farm, 80 acres of fields and pastures between Ada and Lowell, has been in the Johnson family for 28 years. Johnson's parents, Les and Cathy Johnson, both grew up riding and raised their family on the property while they taught riding lessons as well as showed and boarded horses.

"I grew up skinning my knees in this barn," says Johnson, 28, whose parents still live in the white house surrounded by red barns and fields. And while her parents and extended family are still active in training, riding, and showing horses, it's Johnson who decided to launch a polo school on the property almost three years ago.

Johnson says students range from college students to professionals and come from both riding and non-riding backgrounds.

Her cousin, Matt Johnson, 34, an attorney at Warner, Norcross & Judd who grew up around horses but never rode, learned to ride and play polo at the same time. Matt was a reluctant convert to the sport. "I had all these notions of an aristocratic sport that involved a lot of technical English riding," he says. At his Uncle Les's repeated suggestion, he finally gave in and gave the sport a try.

No Fisticuffs
"I quickly realized that polo is a fun, competitive sport played by people from very different backgrounds and skill levels," Matt Johnson says. "This 'sport of kings' is really like playing hockey on horseback, with a few different rules -- and no fist fights."

Matt Johnson is the president of the Meadowview Farm Polo Club, a not-for-profit arm of the farm that hosts the tournaments and polo club activities that take place there throughout the summer. He also serves as assistant coach to the Michigan State University Polo Club and assists Johnson with teaching the rules of polo as well as game strategy at the beginner's polo school.

Another polo school student, Shannon Reincke, 42, came to the sport differently. Johnson and Reincke met at a monthly wine-tasting dinner at The Schnitz in Ada, hosted by Grand River Grocery. When Johnson discovered that Reincke had grown up riding, she talked her into coming to a polo practice at Meadowview the very next morning.

"I hadn't ridden in 15 years," laughs Reincke, "but even as a kid I had wanted to play polo. It was one of my 'bucket-list' things, but how would you ever do that as a 40-year-old in Grand Rapids?"

Even though she had grown up in Ada and had riding experience, Reincke was thrilled to discover polo at Meadowview. "The thing I was amazed about was, having some connection to the culture, I still never knew this existed here. I think there are other people out there like me, who think of polo as something intimidating, but it's not."

A Cool Way to Escape
Reincke came to that Saturday morning practice, and "now I'm hooked." A graphic designer, parent, and life-long Grand Rapidian, Reincke sees polo as a little escape from real life. "It's just fun. When you're the mom of a teenager, it's hard for your kid to think you're cool, but my kid thinks this is cool."

Reincke also affirms the convenience of playing at Meadowview. "It's easy to be involved. It's low responsibility: everything is here and available, so I can just show up with my boots on and play."

Polo school students begin with a private lesson to assess their riding ability and learn the basics of the swing. At each practice, students ride one of Meadowview's 19 polo horses and wear plenty of safety equipment, including hard helmets with a face mask, knee guards, and boots. As protection against the wooden mallets and balls, even the horses wear protective legwear.

While her parents and sister, Hillary, continue to manage the farm and teach at the riding school, Johnson wants to keep growing the polo school. As one of only two polo clubs in Michigan, Meadowview is poised to figure in the sport's resurgence in the area. Noting that polo flourished in Grand Rapids during the 1980s, with 100 members in the club and regular games at Fallasburg Park, Johnson believes that "the next generation is just getting started again as the torch is passed."

She points out that because metro Grand Rapids is surrounded by rural areas, people with horse backgrounds are not difficult to find, and she thinks those people could be drawn to polo as something new and challenging to do on a horse.

With two outdoor arenas, one 150 by 300 feet and the other 160 by 300 yards, in addition to the indoor arena, Meadowview is making the year-round sport as accessible as possible, a change that Johnson says reflects changes in the culture of the sport, too.

"It's becoming more female-oriented and it's conducive to building relationships. You're an individual, but you're also a part of a team," she says. Students hang back to talk after practice, drinking coffee in the heated observation area.

Johnson also sees the sport becoming more club-like rather than structured around professional competitions. "It has competition and camaraderie. Plus it's family-friendly and a lot of fun to come watch on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a picnic," which Johnson encourages.

After the Saturday morning polo school students have galloped back and forth in the indoor arena, the horse's breath visible and the barn cat watching lazily, Reincke gives a beginner's take on the sport: "I just like it when I hit the ball."

Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.


Meadowview Farm  Lowell

Shannon Reinke

Saddling up for polo

Polo team

Katie Johnson team founder

Polo game in play

Shannon Reinke leads her horse off the field

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved