Written by James Ward
Polo. In today’s world, the word conjures up thoughts of fashion labels, of casual cool. In a small experiment to see what relevance the word currently had, I asked ten friends what sport first popped into mind when they heard the word “polo.” It was an even split between tennis and golf. It was almost like answering, “what sport do you think of when you hear ‘baseball’?” with “hockey.”
Polo is still nicknamed “The Sport of Kings,” but there is no question that this title is grandfathered in and that its popularity and global relevance have shrunk exponentially over the years. It seems reserved for scenes in period dramas like The Crown, or the small icon on a Ralph Lauren product. I can tell you that going into this piece; I had very little knowledge and, admittedly, very little interest in what seemed to be a niche sport, outdated and exclusively for the wealthy.
After interviewing our subject, my mind was completely changed. I found myself with a new, deep respect and appreciation for the sport and its players, particularly the next generation of polo athletes. I think it’s all but impossible to speak to someone so effusive about their passion, so full of enthusiasm, and not be affected by it.
Agustin Arellano is a 25-year-old, third-generation American Polo player. He has spent his entire life around the sport and possesses a deep, ever-growing love for the game and the animals that are so central to it. But that is not to say that his interests begin and end on the field of play. He cares deeply about all animals, not just horses – something he inherited from his mother – and is dedicated to conservation. He has also recently taken his first steps into the world of professional fashion and modeling.
This man of many talents was gracious enough to spend some time with us and give us some insight into the things he is passionate about.
Agustin, thanks so much for spending some time with us. Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself, what you do, and where you’re from?
I’m a professional polo player. I’ve been playing since I was 14 years old. It’s practically in my blood. My dad played professionally and was the best American player for ten years. My mother helped train his horses for his entire career. Both of my siblings also play professionally. It’s everything to me.
I was born in San Diego, where my mom is originally from. My dad met her there while he was playing polo in the summer. In polo, the playing season is split into the actual seasons: spring, summer, fall, and winter. My parents used to do all the summers in Southern California. But even though I was born there, I really call Palm Beach, Florida home since we’ve been coming here for the winters since I was a kid. My grandfather has a farm here that we keep our horses at. My family also has a farm in South Carolina, where my parents and siblings spend most of their time these days.
You seem to always be on the move. Are you just constantly hopping from place to place?
Believe it or not, I’ve settled down a lot more in the past two years. I’ll spend around seven months a year in Florida, which is like my home base. Pretty much everyone that plays polo comes down to Florida for the winter to play. Then a lot of people – especially the high rollers – will go to Europe to play in the summer, but it really just depends on where you get a gig. Then it’s Argentina in the fall. Polo is more popular in Argentina than anywhere else in the world.
This summer, I’ll be heading to Europe for a few weeks to network a little bit, then I’ll spend the rest of the season in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s going to be amazing: a polo club in a vineyard. It’s beautiful.
Was it inevitable, given your family history, that you would pursue a career playing professional polo? Or did you come to it in your own way?
I get asked this a lot. My parents never pushed it on any of us, which was really, really nice. You know, my mom is kind of a self-proclaimed animal savior. Any baby animal that was orphaned or any animal that was injured or needed to be raised would show up in our house. She’d just be raising these wild animals in our home while we were traveling around with my dad playing polo. When I grew up, I began to look back and was like, “wow, that was an unusual childhood.”
Honestly, it sounds almost like a fairy tale.
Totally. I didn’t realize until I was older what a charmed childhood I had. It was really, really great. There was this exotic animal sale about two hours from our farm in South Carolina that would happen twice a year. My dad dreaded that day because my mom would always come home with something. We grew up with a ringtail lemur in our house for about eight years. I don’t know if you saw the photos, but we have a zebra donkey that lives on the farm now … and the raccoons – it’s just crazy.
So it was your love of animals that ultimately drew you to the sport?
There’s just something about horses that I think draws you in. They’re just such soulful creatures. That’s what I really fell in love with. Having such easy access to polo obviously helped, but it’s the horses that I love more than anything. I think if I wasn’t playing polo, I’d be doing something else with horses.
One fact that I never get tired of telling people is that horses can hear your heartbeat from eight feet away. It’s just amazing. For me, when you’re riding, you can’t just “have a bad day.” When you bring that negative energy, the horses feel it. They are so incredibly emotional and sensitive. You have to check your energy, check yourself before you spend time with these animals, and that’s something I love. It’s really helped me a lot in my life and many people I know in their lives.
How many horses do you have, and can you tell us anything special about them?
I currently own seven horses. Two of them are particularly special to me. One’s name is Trueboy. His dad is a famous stallion owned by the best polo player ever, Adolfo Cambiaso, and his mom won best pony in the US open under my dad. He is so special to me, and he’s the best horse. Everyone who knows me knows Trueboy. He’s all over my Instagram; I talk about him all the time.
The other one is a mare named Mi India. Her dad was a stallion owned by another famous player, and her mom was a Quarter Horse that my dad bought when we were on an RV vacation – we were at this random ranch, and he bought this young horse, and she ended up playing in the US Open with him. So Mi India is half Argentine Polo Horse and Half Quarter Horse. I just love her so much. She was born on our farm, and raised on our farm. She’ll be playing her first tournament this summer.
Perhaps I should have asked this sooner, but can you give us a broad overview of the rules of polo?
The basic object of polo is to score more points than the opposition. Your aim is to move the ball into the opposition’s half of the pitch, eventually hitting it through the goal to score. The positions are numbers 1 to 4. Number 1 is the most offensive position. Number 2 is another aggressive, offensive position whose main goal is to make holes. Number 3 is kind of the playmaker and is usually – but not always – the captain. Number 4 plays back, usually exclusively in a defensive role.
Which position do you play?
I play all positions, but my favorite is 1 or 4.
The game is broken up into four to six periods, or chukkas. Each chukka is seven and a half minutes, but time stops every time there is a foul. Games can go on for anywhere between an hour to two and a half hours.
All the rules are built around the safety for the rider and the horse.
It does seem like there is an inherent base level of real danger in the sport. How dangerous is polo really?
I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve always heard that polo is the second most dangerous sport after NASCAR. It’s extremely dangerous. You’re basically playing hockey on live animals. As I said, all the rules are designed with the safety of the players and horses in mind, but the very nature of the game is filled with risk. You’re on a live animal, going upwards of 35 miles per hour at times. Other players can come up and crash into you – as long as it’s even, as in “shoulder to shoulder.” You can get hit with a stray ball or a stray mallet.
You must be always aware of your surroundings and know the limits of you and your animal. You must take yourself out of it in a way and just focus on playing by the rules.
The NASCAR comparison feels accurate in other ways as well. In motorsports, the car is half of the equation. The driver can only do so much on their own. It seems that in polo, it’s a similar situation with the rider and the horse.
One hundred percent. As much as you can do, as much as you can prepare before you get to the field, it’s going to come down to your relationship with the horse and how the horse is that day. And you also have to add in the factors of the other players and horses, which you can’t control. You have to focus on what you can control: the health and fitness of your animal, your own health and fitness, and your own awareness.
The heart of the matter is – and I’m sure the race driver would say the same if you asked them – your love of the sport is so much that it outweighs your fear of it.
It’s clearly very physical, but how mental is the sport?
One of the things I’ve come to love about the sport as I get older is how much of a mental game it is. It’s like playing chess while also playing a physical sport. There are so many factors that go into winning a match. There is a beautiful complexity to the game.
It’s interesting that you say you’re still finding new things to appreciate about the sport since you’ve been playing it for so long.
Absolutely. I also have recently really started learning about and admiring natural horsemanship. It’s basically like … organic horsemanship. Teaching and training the horses without any fear, really becoming their partner. A quote I came across recently that really spoke to me was basically, “if you’re willing, you’ll never stop learning from horses.” So there’s always something new to learn, right?
What are the physical demands on you when playing Polo? What does your training regimen look like?
I’ll work out in the gym, obviously, to stay generally fit. Yoga has been a huge part of my career, especially as far as injury prevention goes. But for the actual polo side, just riding is the biggest factor. It’s broken into a few categories. There’s “stick and balling,” which is just going out alone with the horse and practicing with them and a ball. There’s practice, where we play a safer version of the game. Then there are the actual games. And for the horses, there’s a regimen for endurance training.
How is professional polo organized in today’s world?
Polo is the only sport where the team owner actually plays on the team. It’s usually one amateur – the owner – and three professionals that they pay to play with. It’s so unique among other sports in that way. You get picked up to play on a team. For example, take this summer where I will play in Charlottesville. I’m lucky that the owner of the team is actually a very good friend of mine. He’s hired me to play on his team with him.
Most polo competition comes in the form of tournaments, usually hosted by polo clubs. Usually, there will be four teams playing in a tournament. We’ll play against all three of the other teams, and the two that have the best record will go to the final.
You mentioned Florida as a polo hotspot in the US. Is there anywhere else in the country where it’s popular?
The California desert is big in the winter, though not quite like Florida. In the summer, Santa Barbara is a very big area. New York. Aspen. Virginia. Realistically, polo in the United States during the summer isn’t as competitive as in the winter because most of the talent pool plays in Europe during the summer: England, France, and Spain. In the fall, it’s Argentina. We’re only going where there’s good weather to be had.
I know this is an obvious thing to say, but it sounds like such a consuming commitment to be in this sport.
It’s a whole lifestyle. You just have to embrace it, you know? It truly becomes your life. I have a friend who is an actress, and we’ve spoken about this before. It feels very similar to Hollywood. Either you’re in the scene one hundred percent, or you aren’t going to succeed.
You talked about how your love of animals is a big part of your life. One of the ways this love is most evident is in your involvement with nonprofits. Can you talk a bit about that?
Obviously, my mom being such an animal lover, really nurtured a deep passion in me for the natural world. So when I grew up – I’m not the same as my mom in that I’m raising all these wild animals in my house, but I started to give back by working with conservation nonprofits. One that I really love is Fauna & Flora, the oldest wildlife conservation organization continually running. I’m an ambassador with them. They’re based in Cambridge, but they do stuff all around the world. It’s so rewarding to work with them.
And there’s WildLandscapes International, who partners with diverse stakeholders to create large-scale, globally important wildlife corridors. I am a volunteer for fundraising and awareness for them.
Let’s step away from polo and animals for a moment. You’ve recently taken your first steps into professional modeling. What drew you to that world, and how have you found it so far?
I had really never thought about modeling or anything like that as part of my career. A year ago, a friend of mine who is an agent came up to me and asked if I’d ever thought about doing any modeling work. The answer was no, as it’s obviously so hard to juggle everything else as it is. She thought it would complement what I do well and asked if I would consider it. I did, and they introduced me to the Marilyn agency in New York, which has been amazing. I spent some time in NYC and did some shoots.
I’m finding it really rewarding in how I’ve made so many connections, gone to so many places, and met so many good people. I always joke that I live an athlete’s life but have an artist’s mind. It’s been really fun for me to be around so much creativity and so many brands doing different things. Earlier, we discussed how polo has so many moving parts; I feel the same about fashion. There are so many different pieces. The art direction, the photographer, the designers. It’s pretty amazing for me to dip my toe in the water and be a part of this world.
I know we’ve only been chatting for a little while, but it’s extremely clear to me that you are a man of many talents and many interests.
For me, I just love taking the chances and the opportunities to go to all these different places and meet all these different people and making learning experiences out of all of it. It’s one of my biggest passions.
What do you have on the horizon, other than Europe and Charlottesville, in the coming months?
In probably the biggest step in my career thus far, I made the US team for the FIPs, the World Cup of polo. That’s coming up in October in Florida. The rest of my year will largely be training for that.
I wanted to end with a question that is, admittedly, a pretty big one. You are an openly gay professional athlete slash model. I know you are only 25 and have so much of your career and life ahead of you, but what do you want your legacy and impact to be?
I want to be a force for good. Personally, when I was coming out, I was lucky enough to have an amazing and supportive family. But I didn’t identify so much with the community because I didn’t really see anyone doing what I was doing who I felt connected to. So I really would love to be somebody that people can look at playing polo, playing a professional sport, loving animals, growing up on a farm – all that stuff – and see some of themselves there, to have that connection. I want to be someone who I would have looked up to when I was a kid and been proud of. A regular guy who happens to be gay. A lot of times, when you come out, people want to put you into this box of who they expect you to be. I would love to show that you’re just you.
To keep up with the globetrotting adventures of Agustin in polo and beyond, follow him on Instagram at @agus_arellano.
All photos courtesy of Augustin Arellano