From The Blog

Horsing Around on Kiawah

In March 1979, excited spectators for the third annual Great Kiawah Island Horse Race eagerly awaited the start of the 440-yard sprint on the beach, in which the previous year’s winner was competing. “As everyone watched, he dashed from the starting gate, left the rest of the racers behind him, and ran straight into the surf at full speed. He didn’t want to come out, either.” (as recounted by Jockey Sharon Ryan in the Kiawah Sun Times, Spring 1981)

Horses have been a part of the Kiawah landscape for much of the 20th century. They have featured in island recreation, beginning when Vanderhorst family members started a hunting club early in the century to generate revenue from the island, and ending in 1984 when the Kuwaiti-owned Kiawah Island Company (KIC) ceased sponsoring The Great Kiawah Horse Race. Bob Moore, KIC marketing director, recalled that the original Kiawah marketing brochure pictured horses on the cover. “We were marketing the wild side of a newly developed island,” he said.

When C.C. Royal purchased Kiawah from the Vanderhorsts in the 1950s, Kiawah sported a pack of free-roaming horses. Mark Permar, who with his wife Diana is Kiawah’s second longest-term resident, recalls that perhaps 12-15 horses were still roaming the island when he and Diana arrived in 1979.

In the meantime, annual horse races on the beach by the Kiawah Island Inn had become a well-organized, highly anticipated social event. From 1976 or ‘77 to 1983 or ‘84, quarter horses jockeyed by both professionals and amateurs competed annually in the Great Kiawah Island Horse Race, which featured several sprint races of 250-450 yards. In its final few years, a children’s race provided additional excitement.

Mark Permar reminisces about the social aspects as well as the excitement of race day: “Some people would dress up in unusual apparel, with big hats. It was impressive to be so close to the races in an idyllic setting with the backdrop of the beach, and to see those horses take off so incredibly fast for a short distance.” He remembers the wonderful family outing. The race start before the purchase of the starting gate was perhaps the most dramatic part of the race. “The course wasn’t roped off as in a normal racing environment – it was informal. When the horses started, they would rear up and head off in semi-odd directions. By the end, though, they were running flat out.”

Horses Return to Kiawah’s Beaches
After an absence of almost 25 years, a joint effort between KICA and the Kiawah Island Club brought horses back to the island’s beaches. The Beach Polo Exhibition, which took place in September of 2009, included as polo exhibition featuring regional professional and amateur polo athletes, as well as a lavish post-match party held poolside at the Beach Club. This party was inspired by the social gatherings held during Kiawah’s original beach races.

The event, which attracted over 250 association members, was a first for many in attendance, introducing them to the sport of polo.

Polo: The Sport of Kings
Traditionally known as the sport of kings, polo enjoys a rich history as the first known team sport. Polo dates back to mounted nomads in Central Asia around approximately 600 B.C. Today, there are more than 250 active polo clubs in the United States Polo Association, and its popularity is growing. Currently, the highest level of polo is played in Argentina, the United States and England. Polo is played in more than 60 countries and enjoyed by more than 50 million people each year.

Whether you’ve seen polo played before or not, when you watch it, the players make it look much easier than it is. Players(who are not called jockeys) have to constantly think about all aspects of the game such as putting the right amount of pressure on the reins, staying balanced in the saddle while lining up the ball, and aiming to hit the ball in close proximity to teammates and horses. Professionals reach speeds of 35 mph and have to master ovals, figure eights, stops and turns. It is a thrilling and unique sport for both players and spectators.

Player and Pony
Though a polo rider’s mount is referred to as a “polo pony,” few are actual ponies (less than 14.2 hands high, or about 4’10”), but all must meet certain physical requirements. The ideal polo pony has a combination of speed, intelligence and endurance, as well as a love of the game. A polo pony must have strong leg bones to carry riders at full speed and turn or stop at a second’s notice. Many experienced polo ponies develop an ability to anticipate the roll of the ball and precede it to its destination.

The Kiawah Cup Brings Polo Back to the Island
Six years after Kiawah’s first beach polo match, the sport has returned to the island, this time as a fundraiser for the Kiawah Cares Foundation. The Kiawah Cup Beach Polo Invitational is a uniquely fresh fundraising approach. Beach polo is an exciting departure from the typical fundraiser; few have experienced the excitement of a competitive polo match, much less one on the beach! It is fast-paced, competitive and requires great skill on the part of the horse and the rider. While common in Europe and other countries, there is very little opportunity in the US for polo on the beach, with the exception of limited matches in Florida and California.

This event aims to showcase the excitement of beach polo while also harkening back to the grand beach horse races during Kiawah’s early years with social events in addition to the match. The pre-match VIP Pony Club Cocktail Hour will be highlighted by sweeping ocean views overlooking the playing field in front of the Sandcastle. The Sport of Kings Reception, which takes place after the match, will give guests an opportunity to mingle and take photos with the athletes, sample delicious poolside fare and drinks, browse select silent auction items, dance to live music and more.

The Match, The Teams, The Players
The Kiawah Cup is an invitation-only match featuring experienced professional and amateur polo players from the Charleston region and beyond. Polo is unique in the international sports arena in that it is the only sport in the world where professional athletes play regularly with amateurs. Polo Players are rated yearly by their peers in the USPA on a scale of -2 to 10 goals. Player handicaps range from Novice (-2) to “Perfect” (10 goal). The term “goal” does not refer to how many goals the player will score in a match but indicates the player’s value to the team, considering the player’s knowledge of the game, horsemanship, team play, strategy and horse skill.

Two teams will be competing at the Kiawah Cup. Team 1 consists of Amy Flowers, Marcos Onetto and Ben Gregoncza. Amy is the owner of Hyde Park Farm and Polo Club in Ravenel and team coordinator for the Kiawah Cup. She is a very experienced amateur player with a 0-goal handicap.

Marcos is a 4-goal professional player originally from Argentina who now resides in Aiken, SC. Frequently a match high-goaler and most valuable player, Marcos trains and travels extensively, playing in tournaments and matches all across the country. Recently, he led all scorers with seven goals in the 2015 Metropolitan Cup 6-goal tournament at the Grand Champions Polo Club in Florida.

Rounding out the team, Ben is a professional player with a 2-goal handicap. He is originally from Ohio but now lives in Aiken and is a fixture in Aiken’s blossoming polo scene. Like Marcos, he is also a high-scoring player, once scoring seven goals in a single match.

Team 2 is made up of three brothers – Brad, Barry and Chip Limehouse. Members of the Limehouse family have long been known as polo enthusiasts. Barry and Chip are both 0-goal amateur players. Barry has been a member of the US Polo Association for thirty years and has played polo in England, South America and Canada. Chip has served as a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives since 1995 and is currently 1st Vice Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Brad is a 2-goal professional player and polo pro at Florida Horse Park.

This combination of professional and amateur players will make for a thrilling and highly-competitive match.

Kiawah Cup: Fun for a Good Cause
The Kiawah Cup takes place on Sunday, Oct. 11. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Kiawah Cares Foundation (KCF), which works to improve the quality of life of Kiawah’s rural neighbors on Johns and Wadmalaw islands, with a focus on education.

“We didn’t just want to host an event for the benefit of attendees,” said Bailey. “We wanted to do something that could affect the entire community. By doing this as a fundraiser for the foundation, we assure that this event will not only entertain, but will have a positive impact on our Sea Island neighbors.”

Tickets remain for the event but are nearly sold out! Visit kiawahcup.org to purchase tickets or for other information on the event. Are you on Facebook? Be sure to “Like” the Kiawah Cup Beach Polo Invitational (facebook.com/kiawahpolo) for updates as the Invitational draws near!