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Polo
Polo, known as a "rich-man's sport," now has wider appeal. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Polo, for the people

NEWBURY -- Joyce Dostale signed up for a horseback riding and grooming class two years ago at Stage Hill Polo. While there, she saw a group of riders learning to play polo and decided to give it a try.

"I was instantly addicted," said Dostale. No w the 51-year-old high-tech consultant from Chestnut Hill spends three days a week atop a horse, wielding a mallet. Her classmates have included a nurse, an assortment of business owners, and a chemist.

"The nice thing about the polo group that we're involved with is that it's regular people, not stuffy folks," said Dostale. "It isn't only geared to super-rich people."

To hear Dostale and other relative newbies tell it, you no longer have to be heir to a throne or an Argentinean cattle mogul to gallop across a polo field. The sport is attracting a wide array of players, and women are gaining ground in what was, until recently, a male-dominated sport.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Peter Poor, owner of Stage Hill Polo, laced up his brown leather boots and discussed the basics. In his mid 50s, Poor has been involved with the sport since the age of 8, when he was a flag boy at Myopia Hunt and Polo Club in Hamilton.

"When I was 10 my dad dropped dead right in front of me playing polo," said Poor. "He really loved the sport and I've continued on playing for the past 25-30 years."

Poor bought Stage Hill seven years ago, after his ambulance company went out of business. He's known across the nation for promoting polo to newcomers, and many of his students attribute their passion to his enthusiasm. Some learned of Poor by word of mouth, and others, like Dostale, found him through a Boston Adult Education catalog.

Polo originated in Persia, made its way to England in the mid-18th century, and was brought to the United States in the late 1800s. Hollywood embraced it when stars like Clark Gable and Will Rogers picked up mallets. Today, Tommy Lee Jones tops the list of polo-playing celebs.

But perhaps more than anyone else, designer Ralph Lauren made polo synonymous with wealth, beauty, and privilege. Most people will never set foot on a polo field. But Lauren's insignia of a polo player on a shirt? Like McDonald's golden arches or Mercedes' three-pointed star, it is a branding icon, immediately conveying a certain taste and status.

Polo is played on a field that is 300 yards long and 160-200 yards wide, with two teams of four players each. Players must get a six-inch ball between two goalposts using a mallet made from a bamboo shoot and a hard wood, such as maple, for the head. All players are required to use their right hand while playing.

There are six periods, or "chukkers," in a polo match, each lasting seven minutes. A typical match runs between an hour and an hour and a half. Polo can become an incredibly expensive sport if a player owns six different horses -- one for each seven-minute chukker.

Real polo, says Dostale, is like playing for the Red Sox. She likens her skills to backyard baseball. "At the starting level it's less about competition," she says, "and more about reveling in your accomplishments."

Adam Molinski, a 19-year-old film major at Boston University, rode horses as a child and dabbled in polo. But it wasn't until last summer, when he popped by a match at Myopia, that his interest was again piqued. An avid snowboarder and hockey player, he says the sport satisfies his need for speed. "It's like hockey at 40 miles per hour," said Molinski, who's become so dedicated that he spent March at a polo school in Argentina and hopes to start a team at Boston University this fall. "I think it takes it a certain kind of person to play polo. It takes an adventurous personality as you have to be a little bit of a thrill seeker."

Dostale says she remembers the excitement of her first strong hit.

"It's the same thrill you'd get from that absolutely perfect tennis serve or the wonderful [golf] putt," she says. "It's just a jump of adrenaline."

But for Dostale, the pleasure of polo is about more than the game itself. "It's the enjoyment of the perfect evening outside on the horses. I don't know what I could do to make life better."

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com.

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