Hockey on Horses

“Hockey on Horses” is the way that Sean Keys ’93 describes polo. And now, thanks to him, there are Broncos on those ponies.

Hockey on Horses
Photography by Chris Ho

A match is fast: 42 minutes, divided into six chukkas, with no time to ease into the game. Polo ponies gallop up and down the field—nine times the size of a football field. It’s an exhausting pace for the ponies—so steeds are rotated in and out of the game each chukka. And now Broncos play polo, too.

The first-ever SCU polo match was hosted last August by Sean Keys ’93 and Gretchen Keys at Hidden Creek Polo Club in West Linn, Oregon—not far from Portland. The occasion: a send-off party for SCU-bound first-year students unlike any other. Alumni, family, and friends were treated to a polo match at Sean’s polo club—and they enjoyed fare from local food trucks and a Champagne divot after the third chukka.

Why polo? By chance; Sean and Gretchen went to a match in the early 2000s. “I fell in love with the sport itself, and that year Gretchen got me polo lessons,” Keys said. Then it’s fair to say he went head over heels for polo—literally. “After I fell off the horse a number of times, I was hooked for good.”

Sean Keys hails from Portland, where his family had established business in homebuilding and development. In college Keys took coursework in civil engineering and accounting—because he, too, wanted to build things. He did a stint with Pricewaterhouse as a CPA before coming back to his building roots. He is now a managing member at Metropolitan Land Group, a real estate development and investment firm based in Beaverton, Oregon.

Keys played lacrosse at SCU, but he doesn’t credit his polo prowess to his days of swinging around a lacrosse stick. “If you asked all my old buddies, I was not the most athletic guy on the field,” he admits. Though lacrosse didn’t hurt when it came to building hand-eye coordination.

Sean and Gretchen opened Hidden Creek Polo Club in 2005. For the match in August, one team wore Bronco red. The other? Santa Clara white.

Preparing for a polo game takes time— and training—both for the players and the horses: “It takes about four years to train a horse to play polo after they’re 3 years old,” Keys notes. The biggest hurdle is getting the horses not to dart out when mallets are swung at their faces. Some horses never make it past that.

His favorite horse? A 16-year-old named Scarface. (The horse once got caught in a fence and tore his face.) “He’s a little skittish and a little crazy,” Keys says, “but it tends to be a really good chukka for me when I get him in the right mood.”

For players, being smaller is advantageous. And hand-eye coordination is crucial: “You’re running on a moving animal trying to hit a moving ball,” Keys says.

Injuries? Unavoidable. “It’s not a matter of if you’re going to fall, it’s when.” Coming from a man who has broken a wrist, a shoulder, and several ribs; sprained a bunch of things; and had a concussion or two, Keys is no longer fazed when he tumbles off a horse. “You gotta keep going if you’re passionate about it,” he says.

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