The Art of Life|Jun 23, 2011 2:09 PM| by:

A Ph.D. in Polo

Polo and Me

When I tell people, “I wouldn’t have a Ph.D. if I didn’t play polo,” they either tilt their heads like puppies or simply dismiss me. If they are genuinely interested, I am only too happy to explain and make clear what I mean.  I got to live out my passion for polo while I garnered advanced degrees at the University of Virginia. Originally, I came to UVA for a second master’s degree in 1998 and ended up staying four more years for my doctorate in English Education. Though I didn’t really get a Ph.D. in Polo, I like the sound of it.

Currently, I am an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The focus of my research is Cognitive Affective Learning (CAL), which involves attention to attitudes, motivational levels, and values; this also includes passion! And all of these elements are integral to any space of teaching and learning for both students and teachers alike. Reflecting on my time at UVA, I now realize that polo was the cognitive affective linchpin that kept me engaged and interested in my schooling. I was able to follow my passion. This is a story of how I followed my passion. And to borrow from Robert Frost’s notion in the “Road Not Taken,” I chose the road less travelled and my passion for polo has made all the difference.

“Position” by Jeanne Maguire Thieme

How It All Started

The polo bug took root in 1993 when I started playing at the Sugarbush Polo Club in central Vermont. Two years later at a summer match, Holly Ward introduced me to Brian Barquin, who was one of the former polo coaches at UVA and also from Vermont.  Holly told me, “You should meet Brian—especially if you are thinking about going back to graduate school.”  And Brian’s words almost mimicked Holly’s.  Brian told me, “If you are thinking about going back to school—why don’t you come to UVA—you can play polo every day.” The wheels were then set in motion, and, after hearing the mention of being able to play polo every day, I didn’t apply anywhere else for graduate school. This meeting with Brian Barquin set me on my “Ph.D. in Polo” trajectory, and what a difference that has made.

I came to visit UVA with a friend in 1996, the year after I met Brian. Sue Space, my friend, demanded that I have my picture taken in front of the sign in the Virginia Polo driveway that says, “Share the excitement of polo with your friends.”  She thought it was funny—because I already did share the excitement of polo with my friends. As a seasoned polo player, I can now entertain many conversational topics outside of polo and horses. It wasn’t always that way.

Unpacking the Passion: What’s All the Fuss?

Explaining the passion for polo may not be needed for this readership, but I believe that each person’s passion has a different shape and route navigated. Though all polo players might share an addiction for the game, and, it can be quite addictive, but you only know your passion—really know it—from the inside out. For me, it has been about a couple of things that polo dynamically offers up to those who play.

Horses, horses, and more horses. They have always been a part of my life, and I do love them.  They are majestic and earthly creatures. They are beautiful and lovely animals that reside here with us. I have so many sense memories with horses. These memories are indelible and have shaped my life. Interestingly enough, there are more and more studies being done on the power of horses for healing. Winston Churchill said, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” I don’t think Winston really meant to leave women out, but he is forgiven if he did. Churchill also had a saying about how one’s polo rating was one’s “passport to the world.” It wasn’t Winston, but there is another saying about how there are only two ways out of polo once you are in.  Those two routes are bankruptcy or death.

The thrill of the game. Speaking of danger, galloping full speed on a green ten-acre field and connecting with the ball while an opponent chases you—now that is fun. I really can’t think of a sport that is more thrilling than that, but I do not skydive or race cars.  Though those “sports” may be quite engaging to some, polo is the thing for me.  Feeling the wind through your hair, riding a sturdy and trustworthy horse (hopefully!), and being out in the sunshine—does it get any better than that?  Well there are always tropical beach vacations to be had…  But that is the thing—if you play polo you might have already spent your disposable income, and the beach just doesn’t fit in the budget.

Present moment.  When you play polo, a heightened sense of awareness must prevail. With soft eyes, you try to sense not only where your teammates are, but, more importantly for polo, where your teammates will be going next.  I used to spend a lot of time skiing, and here is a segue to skiing.  You have to be in the present moment in both sports.  You have to be there completely, your mind must engage in split-second decisions and, at times, change direction in the exact next moment.

The eclectic collection of folks who play polo! When I started playing in Vermont, I found the assortment of people and their experiences and worldviews were as diverse as any group I had ever been a part. Architects, lumber mill owners, chefs—even people in the hair replacement business! I was a teacher—adding to the mix. Granted, this was a Vermont experience, but I would venture a guess that the majority of low-goal polo clubs around the nation are made up of a group of pretty interesting folks.  And the adjective “interesting” was intentionally chosen for its nebulous meaning. I could share anecdotes about people who showed incredible kindness or tales of others who I sometimes refer to as “soft criminals.”  The point is that the mix of people who play polo is a lot less homogeneous than the popular stereotypical assumptions made by the larger society.  In any case, people who play polo are all connected by a passion for horses and the sport. Nothing really replaces polo.

“Play Tough” by Jeanne Maguire Thieme

What happened once I got to UVA?

I arrived in Charlottesville in the fall of 1998.  My goal was to finish a one-year master’s program in English and American Studies. I have always loved to learn, but I have to admit that my return to school was a mid-career crossroads for me. After teaching high school for several years, I looked around at the teachers with whom I taught. Some were still authentically enthusiastic about teaching, and others were burned out and staying in just long enough to qualify for retirement benefits. I wasn’t sure where my career was going, and, in coming to UVA, I crafted my own “retreat” of a sort.  I had a year to invest myself in more education and some much needed time to reflect on my next steps, ones that were meaningful to me. And, on top of that, the idea that I could play polo regularly while in school was very seductive.

A fellow polo player from Vermont gave me a hard time about going to UVA.  He said, “You are too old to play there. They aren’t going to let you play.” I knew he relished giving me a hard time, but in retrospect I think he was downright jealous of my plan. I told him that I was hoping to play, and that I didn’t think I would be discriminated against for my age.  I had good genes for aging anyway, and old age was not at all near.

And so, upon arrival, I went out to Virginia Polo and watched some of the last summer games before the semester began.  I signed up to play that first semester, and I had a great time.  Admittedly, I was one of only a handful of graduate students there—but it didn’t matter.  The atmosphere of the Virginia Polo Barn was one of cooperation and fun; it was a welcoming place.  There was a community of people all gathered together around the dynamic sport of polo and a love of horses.

How did polo actually help me achieve my bigger goal?Following one’s passion has a route all its own. My goals changed after one semester of study at UVA and polo-playing at Virginia Polo.  Originally, I had come to complete a one-year master’s degree and to think about the next steps in my career.  During that first semester, I realized many things.  First of all, I loved Charlottesville—everything about it.  The fall weather was nicer for a longer period of time, which was a drastic change (in a good way) from New Hampshire and Vermont’s more “sudden” fall into winter. UVA’s grounds were beautiful; the outdoor “room” of Jefferson’s lawn was gorgeous.  Secondly, I began to get more excited about learning new things–academically. As a component of American Studies, I started to study architectural history and film.  I had the revelation that people often get when they spend time in a library—not because the space itself is so wonderful—but because one realizes how many interesting things there are to study.  And last, and certainly not least, I got to play polo constantly.  It became a part of my routine.  Before this, Fall meant it was time to hang the mallets up, turn the horses out, and prepare for winter. At Virginia Polo, the mild fall temperatures allowed for many, many beautiful days of playing polo in the outdoor arena.

Marcel Proust has said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I began to see other opportunities for myself.  Granted, I was in Virginia, a new landscape for me. I decided after that first semester that it was not a foregone conclusion that I would leave UVA at the end of the year. I was no longer so sure I would go back to teach high school in New Hampshire; I had taken a one-year leave of absence from my teaching job for this Virginia adventure. After the winter break, I began my application to the Ph.D. program.

My passion for polo fed my other passions.  Polo and academics were operating in tandem, one generating energies for the other. My life was good; my passions were ignited, I was growing and learning, and playing more polo than I ever dreamed.  I felt lucky.  Polo had opened my eyes and offered me new directions.

“The Chase” by Jeanne Maguire Thieme

Background Information

The work of this essay has been to describe how my involvement with Virginia Polo at the University of Virginia was a critical factor for pursuing and finishing my doctoral degree and for charting new directions in my academic career. I count myself fortunate that the polo art of Jeanne Maguire Thieme has accompanied my story. Her paintings provide a glorious visual backdrop to my story, and, in many ways, help to move my narrative along.

But more than shaping just my story here, Jeanne Thieme has and continues to be an important person shaping my journey. In my former life as a high school teacher in New Hampshire, I was lucky enough to have had Jeanne Thieme assigned to be my mentor. Our former principal matched us up as mentor and mentee in part because of our common interest in horses and also because of the high energy we also shared. The story goes that the principal said to Jeanne, “I’ve got a real live one for you.” Our friendship then began.

Jeanne has recently helped me see how the energy of our mentor-mentee relationship moves in both directions. I always thought that Jeanne was my mentor.  That was the relationship. But Jeanne has helped me see how I have mentored her as well.  She said I was a role model for her because I followed my passion for polo.  We have helped shape each other’s passions. In 2001, three years after I went to UVA, Jeanne left her teaching job to pursue her painting full time.  Her passion in painting centers on horses in all different disciplines and on the landscape of southern New Hampshire. Jeanne told me, “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be doing polo paintings.”  In many ways, our energies have fed one another. We are both working to follow our passions.

Dr. Maureen P.Hall

(Dr. Maureen P. Hall is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She received her Ph.D. in English Education from the University of Virginia. She has been awarded a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar award for a five-month research fellowship in India in 2010-2011. Her first book, Transforming Literacy will be released at the end of May. Maureen is a lifelong equestrian and passionate about horses and playing polo.)


Frost, R. (1969). “The Road Not Taken.” In E. C. Lathem (ed.), The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems 105. New York: Holt and Company.
Proust, Marcel. (1906). On Reading, ed. J.Autret and W. Burford (trans. 1971). New York: Macmillan, p. 56.