NCHA Executive Director Jay Winborn has a background in an equine sport you don’t hear much of in performance horse circles. For 15 years, Winborn was an international, professional polo player!
He started off as a groom in a polo club. As a third generation polo player, it was a natural progression for the young rider. He not only competed in the sport, but trained polo horses and ran polo clubs in the Dallas district.
Playing professionally meant a lot of traveling. He would spend four to five months a year in Florida for the winter training and riding. In the summer, the team would travel to New York, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and other states to play in month-long tournaments.
When you think of Texas, you’re more likely to think of cutting horses and other western disciplines and not, what is often referred to as “the sport of kings,” polo. But interestingly, Texas has a long history with the sport. Polo was first introduced to the United States in the later part of the 1800s, by a New York publisher who’d been to England. When the sport hit the East Coast, the polo players needed horses. So, they came to Texas.
The perfect polo horse was a stock horse, said Winborn. “[The] foundation of the American Polo Horse is the stock horse.” The horses had all the skills needed to be a good polo horse, they could stop, turn quickly and accelerate quickly.
A lot of the men that were in Texas training stock horses went on to become polo trainers because the money was better training a polo horse than a ranch horse. Winborn said the greatest polo player to ever play the game was from Boerne, Texas. He was a ranch cowboy and windmill mechanic.
Throughout the 1940s to 70s and even early 80s, Texas had more high rated polo players than anywhere else in the country. The Lone Star state had one of the biggest polo clubs in the country during the late 70s and into the early 90s. Winborn said he played in one of the big clubs, Willow Bend Polo and Hunt Club, and he grew up with the son of the man who owned the club.
Winborn said when he came to the cow horse world, people were concerned with his fit for the role because of his polo background. But he said there are actually many similarities between the two disciplines that also apply to cutting.
“You’ve got to be able to ride a horse. First of all, you’ve got to understand how to read a horse and read other horses, much like you read cattle. There’s a strategy behind it as there is in cutting. Positioning, and competition is obviously a big part of it.”
“There’s also the money factor, you’re only as good as what you’re sitting on. Eighty percent of the game in polo is what you’re riding. I think it’s more than that quite frankly, because the best player in the world… put him on a dink and he won’t be able to accomplish very much,” he added.
Both cutting and polo are also seen as very elitist, which is not the case for those inside the industry Winborn added. To overcome this perception and be more inclusive, the polo community started a program called Work To Ride in Philadelphia.
“That was huge,” he said.
They brought inner city kids under their wing and taught them how to take care of horses. He said they “…put them in a scholastic polo program and they won that national championship and these are kids that would never have the exposure before to do that.”
Inspired by that youth program in polo, Winborn is keen to look at similar ways to improve cutting’s image to the wider community. We want cutting to be perceived as an elite sport because of the level of skill it takes not because it is exclusive he said.
“We want to be welcoming to all and have a place for everybody to participate,” he said. Winborn believes giving back to the community is a great way to get new people involved in the sport. Some of his ideas to expand cutting’s appeal include hosting a major showcase event of the top riders and horses to wow new audiences, maybe even some form of extreme sports style of cutting where the focus is on horsemanship, putting bounties on cows or seeing how many cows you can cut in a time limit to name a few.
“I talked about also putting on ranch cutting classes and having jackpot cuttings. I want it not just to be [offered] to limited age guys [but all levels of competitors]. We need to build our spectators as well and these are the type of people that will come to the event and stay for the finals,” he said.
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