By James D. Watts Jr. Tulsa World

Five years ago, the thought of climbing onto a horse and galloping around at 40 miles an hour to whack at a baseball-sized orb with a long-handled mallet was the last thing on Rachel Robson’s mind.

Then she came across an announcement for the Center Polo Classic, the annual polo tournament held to benefit the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

“I said to my husband that it sounded like a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon,” Robson recalled. “We had just moved back to the Tulsa area because of his job, and we were looking for something to do.”

The Robsons watched the first half of the event, then took part in the traditional “divot stomping,” when members of the audience go out onto the playing field and stamp down the clumps of grass and soil disturbed by the horses’ pounding hooves.

“While we were doing that,” Robson said, “this lady came up and asked if I had ever thought about playing polo. I’ve been around horses all my life, but I was used to Western-style riding, which is a lot more laid back.”

But the woman handed Robson a card for Summers Performance Horses, a horse training farm not too far from the Robsons’ own acreage south of Bixby.

Robson made the call, asking for polo lessons.

“And by I think the third practice, I was hooked,” Robson said.

The Robsons run Green Country Polo, one of the region’s major polo clubs. A member of the U.S. Polo Association, Green Country Polo works with Greg Summers of Summers Performance Horses to provide everything from horse training to polo lessons.

“We have four regulation fields on the property, although two of them we aren’t able to use right now because of all the rain we’ve had,” Robson said. “But we’ve hosted USPA tournaments here in the past.”

Green Country Polo also takes part in varying ways in the Center Polo Classic, the annual benefit for the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, which will take place this weekend on the polo fields at Mohawk Park.

“We will help with supplying players, and two of our people will be taking part in the flag ceremony at the start,” Robson said. “We’re primarily there to provide support.

Long known as “the sport of kings,” polo has been popular in Tulsa in the past, particularly in the 1960s and ’70s. Oil man John T. Oxley, whose contributions to the city include the Oxley Nature Center at Mohawk Park, was a world-class player, leading teams to national and international success including two U.S. Open Polo Championships. Southern Hills for many years had an area reserved for playing polo.

“Our goal is to bring polo back to Tulsa,” Robson said.

“Its popularity has kind of faded in and out over the years, so we’re trying to do what we can to get people interested in the sport.”

Polo is played with teams of four players on horseback, who guide and race their mounts around the field to maneuver a hard plastic ball through goal posts to score points. A game is divided into four periods, called “chukkas,” which last seven and a half minutes. At the end of each chukka, the horses are replaced by another horse in that player’s “string” of ponies and play resumes.

Polo ponies can range in age from 3 to 15 years and often are thoroughbreds. They need to be quick and agile, easy to turn and with a good temperament, Robson said.

“We chose to use quarter-horses because we have a working cattle ranch, and this way, we can continue to use our horses during the off-season,” she said. “There are a lot of clubs whose horses are used for polo only, so they just turn them out to pasture once the season’s over.”

Robson has played in the Center Polo Classic in the past, but earlier this year, she suffered a broken wrist during a game. However, she said, injuries — whether to riders or horses — are relatively rare.

For those who are new to the sport, Robson said it’s a good idea to pay close attention to the game’s announcer as he or she describes the action on the field, as horses thunder back and forth as riders swing their bamboo cane mallets to send the ball skittering over the turf.

However, Robson said, one really can’t experience the true thrill of polo until one plays it.

“It’s hard to explain, but there is something about that relationship between the horse and rider,” she said. “To me, you are working with a 1,200-pound athlete. You’re dependent on each other, and you have to be able to communicate and respond to each other instantly. It’s something that goes beyond the adrenaline rush of competition.”