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Aemilia Phillips
July 22, 2015
CHUKKERS IN CHINA: A Wild Ride Abroad for Ivy League Polo Team
By Aemilia Phillips blogging exclusively for
Wednesday, July 22, 2015 :: Posted 10:34:14 AM UTC

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Tianjin, China – July 21, 2015 - The flight from Boston to Beijing was long. And by long, I mean the squeezed-in-the-middle-of-the-row at the very back of the plane kind of long. But four hours, three movies, two containers of Hainan Airlines prepared chicken and one Advil PM later, I made it to China, along with the rest of the Harvard University Polo Team.

We’re here at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club to compete in the Metropolitan Intervarsity Tournament against five other polo teams from top universities in the U.S. and U.K. This week Harvard, Stanford and Yale face off with Cambridge, Oxford and the University of London for the 2015 trophy.
When we landed, I was too exhausted to notice much about my surroundings. The next morning I woke up at 5 a.m. and found myself in a massive, palatial hotel with marbled floors, crystal chandeliers, polo sculptures, bubbling fountains, gourmet restaurants and luxury lounges. It seemed like something outside of reality. How did a college player who spends most of her polo time mucking stalls end up in paradise on the other side of the world?

© Aemilia Phillips/Phelps Media Group: the lobby of the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo ClubThe lobby of the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.
Photo: Aemilia Phillips/Phelps Media Group.

After a breakfast of fried eggs and pan sautéed noodles, we made our way to an introductory session covering everything from Chinese currency to weekly laundry allowance to which member of a team can defend on penalty threes. Then we took to the newly constructed stick and ball field to try out the horses. With a string of 20 mounts for four players, we had only an hour to decide who would fit best with which horse. Things got pretty hectic, with players jumping from horse to horse every few minutes, trying to put together the most cohesive team.

Once everyone was in the irons, our coach had us practice a series of drills—approaching ride-offs, calling open and tail back shots, dribbling the ball at speed and hitting—to see which horses fit our personalities, preferences and riding abilities.

At my generous height of 5’5”, I like the smaller horses, ones that I can really wrap my legs around and feel. I can hit well enough off a shorter stride and prefer to zip around the field instead of getting into aggressive ride offs. Our number four was looking for bigger horses with a solid hitting platform, and our number three was hoping for horses with even, steady gaits. Dividing our 20 horses into four strings of four turned in to some sort of logic puzzle.

Our string has a range of sizes and origins. Most are larger, 52-53” mallet sized bays, with a few chestnuts scattered about and a single paint. The majority are Argentine, imported through a strict quarantine and inspection process mandated by the Chinese government. A couple are from New Zealand, and one even has Austrian in parenthesis next to his name.

I tried several of them and was really happy with a small but athletic bay mare and a chestnut with a smooth, steady stride. A squirrely black mare likes to swerve left while approaching a backshot, but she turns incredibly well. I almost dropped my mallet trying to stay on the first time I asked her to turn right! Some of the hot horses need a deep seat and strong hands. Used to playing high-goal polo, they’re not what we’re used to in the intercollegiate arena. Most are fast rather than steady, able to reach impressive speeds. We focused on our riding and on moving the horse with our legs, keeping our hands quiet and direct. They’re all responsive, quality horses, and we’ll need to ride at their level to play well.

There was only one problem horse, and we figured out who that was pretty quickly. As one of our most experienced players cantered in a controlled circle, the large gelding flattened his ears, tossed his head and took off at a dead run. She ditched her mallet and whip, and she was already strides away when they hit the ground. Sitting back with her legs braced forward and both hands pulling on the reins, she eventually managed to get control about halfway down the field. She slowed him down to a jumpy canter so she could turn enough to guide him back to the pony line.  

She hopped off, a little shaky but none the worse for wear. An Argentine groom tried to reassure us, “No need to worry; this horse is a good one.  I’ll stick and ball him tomorrow morning, and then he’ll be fine!” Let’s just say we’ll list this one as one of our four spares for now.

© Aemilia Phillips/Phelps Media Group: The main polo field at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club`The main polo field at the Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club.
Photo: Aemilia Phillips/Phelps Media Group.

The afternoon air was thick and hot, with the sun breaking through the thick smog to reach the newly constructed stick and ball field. Within just a few minutes we were drenched in sweat, and after the full hour was up we had each ridden more than seven horses.

There was just enough time for a quick shower before the official welcome dinner. All the teams got together for a several course traditional Chinese meal. Derek Reid, director of polo operations at the Metropolitan Polo Club, welcomed us to the start of the tournament with a toast to intercollegiate programs, all the athletes (human and equine) and the sport of polo.

I sat at a table with all the team captains and coaches. Amidst the mingling of accents, ages, locations and personalities, we were able to come together over a shared love of polo. Laughter and random personal connections, horse stories and a general sense of excitement, all wafted over the multi-course meal of fried rice, teriyaki-glazed fish and Peking duck.

As jet-lagged as we were (and as of this writing, still are), almost as soon as the last dish was set on the table we were ready to go to bed to rest for tomorrow’s opening match. This is going to be a nonstop week of 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.—and no doubt, one heck of a ride.


Harvard University Polo Women's Captain Aemilia Phillips is spending the summer before her senior year as a writer for Phelps Media Group. Follow her blog, “Chukkers in China,” about the experiences of an intercollegiate polo player competing abroad, exclusively on

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