PHOTO: Attendees gather on the polo field at halftime to check out classic cars at the 2017 event. / Brooke Wanser

By BROOKE WANSER

In the 22nd year of the Chukkers for Charity polo match, an all-women’s team will take the field in the Grassland Community on September 8.

Held annually on Orrin Ingram’s Riverview Farm, the event last year raised $200,000 to support Saddle Up!, a nonprofit that provides equine therapy to children with disabilities and the Rochelle Center, a nonprofit that helps adults with disabilities live independently.

The name of the event derives from the seven-and-a-half-minute period of continuous play, known as a chukker.

Lexie Armstrong, who co-owns and operate Franklin Polo Academy with her husband, James, said the all-women matchup was actually his idea. Armstrong will be among the eight players.

“Women are the number one biggest, fastest growing part of the sport,” she said, joining and becoming members of the United States Polo Association in high volumes over the past few years.

For various reasons, “It seems like it’s definitely the year of the woman,” Armstrong said.

Dawn Jones, a decorated player who will compete this year at Chukkers, agreed with Armstrong’s estimation of the sport’s growth in the female community

The 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™ winners, two of whom will compete at Chukkers. From left: Hope Arellano, Dawn Jones, Lia Salvo, Sarah Wiseman. / Photo courtesy of the U.S. Polo Association

“Light years of difference”

While women in the United States began competing in polo in the 1930s, the advent of World War II refocused priorities towards the war effort and subsequent entrance of women into the workforce.

After stops and starts, a reinvigoration spurred the return of the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship in 2011, with Jones competing on the winning team that year and in 2017.

Most recently, Jones was a member of the victorious 18-goal Women’s International Polo Network squad at this year’s inaugural East Coast Open Women’s Polo Championship.

She learned the sport after meeting her husband, actor Tommy Lee Jones, also an avid polo player who grew up in Texas.

“I decided I really wanted to share something with him together,” she said.

Now, she has a deep appreciation of athletes who play and the horses who guide them.

When Jones began playing 23 years ago, she said far fewer women were actively involved in the United States Polo Association, compared with 42 percent of women who make up their membership now.

“There’s a vast difference,” she said. “It’s light years of difference.”

Part of that is due to a familial tendency to pass down the sport; many of the best players had a parent who rode professionally, like rising teenage phenom Hope Arellano. Arellano’s father is professional Julio Arellano.

“There are more young women that are picking up the game and having chances to learn from the better players, and their fathers and mothers,” Jones said.

Jones is currently working on the Women’s International Polo Network, a resource to connect female players.

South African native James Armstrong said in traditional style English riding, “women are more into the sport,” while the rest of the world is catching up.

In the Armstrong’s Franklin polo club, though, 85 to 90 percent of their students are female.

Healing through horses

Jones agreed to play at Chukkers after the Armstrongs reached out to her. In the small polo community, she also knew the Ingram family.

Though she has never been to Franklin, “I always thought it would be something special to do,” Jones said. “We can’t deny the hospitality of people in Tennessee and the kindness and willingness to share.”

A personal connection to the charities involved is a motivating factor: Jones’ mother worked in special education, and she grew up working with the children in those classes.

“I became comfortable with people who were wheelchair bound or struggled with autism or Down Syndrome,” she said. “They were as important as everyone else, and had something to give to society.”

“Any support for people with disabilities and any way to combine riding,” she added, excited her. “I think that horses are very healing.”

Check out the team rosters below:

Colonial Hill Farm– Eleanor Menefee Parkes

  1. Gracie Brown
  2. Lexie Armstrong
  3. Dawn Jones
  4. Allie Henderson

Ironhorse Farms– Crispin and John Menefee

  1. Martha Bennett
  2. Virginia Ingram
  3. Hope Arellano
  4. Gillian Johnston

For more information on Chukkers for Charity, click here.