HN Exclusive: Q&A with Sunny Hale
Amanda Uechi Ronan catches up with the most famous female polo player in the world, Sunny Hale.
Sunny’s legendary status began before she was born when her mother, Sue Sally Hale, disguised herself as a man to pursue polo at a time when women were not permitted. “Sue Sal, as she was known, had a knack for the sport, but women were not accepted except at minor club matches. So Sue Sal disguised herself as a man by tucking up her hair, taping down her breasts and painting on a mustache. She played under the name A. Jones.” — New York Times
Photo Courtesy of SSHALE
With that sort of heritage, Sunny began riding practically before she could walk. She commented, “I had a big dream on my mind and a short time to get there!”
Sunny competed in her first polo match at 10 years old and the rest as they say is history.
We caught up with Sunny recently to talk about
conquering the world polo. Here’s the full interview.
Hi Sunny! Welcome to Horse Nation!
Your accomplishments in the sport of polo are almost too long to list. First woman in US History to win the US Open Polo Championship, Cowgirl Hall of Fame inductee, 7-time winner of Polo Magazine’s Woman Player of the Year award … it just goes on and on. Spanning all those years, all those tournaments, what is your personal proudest achievement?
That I conquered my dream in the sport of polo which was to play with the best polo players in the world, because they asked me to be there. I have played over 20 seasons as a professional alongside some of the top professional male players of all time in the biggest tournaments. I am most proud of accomplishing that and the respect I have earned along the way in pursuit of that dream. I am also proud of the fact that I stayed true to myself in the process. That was always a very important element to my dream.
You’ve been called “the most famous female polo player in the world,” which could be seen as an interesting distinction. Where do you stand on the disparity between being known as a “polo player” versus a “woman polo player”?
A great polo player is a great polo player, regardless of gender. That particular quote I am very proud of and especially since it came from an article in the New York Times. The article was focused on the huge growth that women’s polo is experiencing in the world and my influence on that tremendous spike. To accomplish what I did in my dream in polo meant that I had to be considered the best “polo player at my handicap” male or female, when I was chosen by the top players to play. To play over 20 seasons at the top of the sport as a professional player alongside some of the greatest professional players of all time means you are the best player at your handicap or they would not call on you. For me it’s about being the best you can be, regardless of gender.
I’m thinking of a recent interview with a Team USPA member who said, “I just consider myself in the sport … not a women’s sport.” What would you say for or against that line of thinking?
What most people do not realize is that the sport of polo has many great opportunities and one of the most unique elements is the ability to compete coed and or in specialized tournaments for women or specialized age groups or skill levels. This is a huge and amazing opportunity as well as the ability to play mixed amateurs with professionals, junior tournaments, senior tournaments, military tournaments, men’s and women’s intercollegiate and with any mix of age as well. Which means families can literally enjoy competing in a sport together. The largest growing sector of the sport all over the world happens to be women’s polo at the moment so to be considered at the top as a female player today is a large accomplishment in its own right and one any woman can be proud of given the statistics on the growing number of specialized women’s polo events around the world today.
Tell us about your vision behind founding the Women’s Championship Tournament.
When I founded the WCT Women’s Polo League, women’s polo was not on anyone’s radar as the growing force it is today. When I was growing up, most women’s games happened on backfields during the week and almost never got top billing as a feature event. My vision was to connect and recognize all of the women around the world who shared the same passion in polo and wanted to compete against other women in top-level women’s polo competitions. Today the WCT Women’s Polo League represents the most well respected women’s polo brand within the sport of polo and has grown to recognize women’s polo events in 5 countries. The WCT has also provided the opportunity for anyone to be able to join the league and learn about women’s polo events, the players and become a part of our mission: New friendships, good polo and a shared passion. The league is all about promoting the camaraderie among players, fans and sponsors that has kept the sport of polo alive for over 2,000 years and is accomplishing its original vision to connect women’s polo and players in a united mission and shared passion. Today women’s polo is one of the largest growing sectors of the sport all over the world due to the quality of the events, visibility and following it now has.
You also founded the American Polo Horse Association in 2006, which has over 10,000 Facebook fans worldwide. Tell us why you wanted to bring recognition to American polo ponies.
When I started American Polo Horse, there was no place in the Untied States to follow the horses in the sport or find pedigree information on them, which sounds ridiculous, but was the truth back then. I felt, we as polo players and horse lovers needed to do something to recognize our equine partner in the sport…so I created American Polo Horse to do just that. Polo is played on a wide variety of breeds and therefore we recognize them all, which is absolute fun to promote, as most people are not aware of this fact. I am proud to say that polo ponies in America, now have a place to be recognized and seen all over the world for their accomplishments and is especially important given our social media numbers and the exposure we can generate through that audience. The fun for me in having such a large fan base that is open to everyone and constantly growing, means that when there is a popular story or polo pony highlight it literally brings so much positive attention to some amazing athletes and that was the whole point of what I set out to do.
Off the field, you train with Steve Trager, an NAGA World Cup Champion and professional bodyguard. Tell us a little about your workout routine and how that positively affects your riding.
Training with Steve is a huge factor in being able to travel the word like I do now and be able to perform well when I arrive, especially after a long flights. And when I say long flight, I mean the round the globe 24-30 hour kind of long flight and on some of the trips that are back to back, with little or no time to recuperate. He is a champion athlete himself and his job as a bodyguard to top celebrities means he has to be at a high level of awareness and personal conditioning always, so training with him is no walk in the park counting reps. The workout is a constantly changing routine split between the gym working pads/technique in the martial art of Muay Thai and at the beach in the deep sand on conditioning. I really like the MMA training as it challenges you to stay sharp mentally and physically. You have to be able to see a window of opportunity open and then be able to pull the trigger in making good contact in the blink of an eye. To be good in mixed martial arts you have to be physically and mentally capable of executing what you see. This is the core of a good polo player as well, being able to execute what you see immediately and I love the challenge he brings to the table when we train. This type of training has been a great benefit to my overall stability on the horse, as it adds a lot of flexibility and a whole new set of supporting core muscles that really compliment the unique set of muscles that riders possess without adding the bulk of a regular gym muscle building routine.
In the saddle, what would be your #1 tip for a beginner player?
Stay in the saddle on top of your horse or it’s a case of beer you’re buying…and no excuses unless the horse goes down with you. #1 tradition in polo, all new players should know.
Which brings me to your new book, Let’s Talk Polo. What sort of information will be covered in the book and what level of player is it best suited?
Let’s Talk Polo is the first book being released in a series aimed at helping polo players with insider information on how to improve. This first book is very easy to read and is suited for anyone who wants to improve their polo knowledge and abilities on the field at any level of the sport. It is unlike any other book I have seen available on polo and covers things most people never explain in simple terms that are easy to follow. It also lines out actual techniques and knowledge someone can implement to improve their ball striking abilities, their performance in practice and tournament games, their knowledge of polo ponies, polo mallets, traditional strategies of polo, improving their handicap, polo pony fitness concepts and much more.
You have a second book coming out, Conquering the Dream, that is not specific to polo. Tell us a little about the contents and the inspiration behind the writing.
Conquering the Dream is a book I was inspired to write upon the passing of one of my closest friends and largest personal inspirations Michael J Mancini. I felt it was important to share with people the importance and power that inspiration holds in every one of us. This is the story of conquering my dream in the sport of polo, to play with the best polo players in the world because they asked me to be there. My dream would be like saying a woman was going to be “hired by the best NFL or MLB teams in the league to play in the Super Bowl or World Series as a starter and winning the championships.” I did exactly that for over 20 seasons in polo and this is my story of conquering that dream.
Looking ahead, what are your plans for the remainder of 2015 and onward? What dreams do you still need to conquer?
I have a third world tour coming up that I am looking forward to into 5 countries and across the United States for Polo, a few books to finalize before release and a few new opportunities in professional motivational speaking to corporate America and private groups that I am very excited about. One new dream I would love to conquer after seeing how much fun it is to connect with other people at these speaking events, is to become a professional speaker on tour just having fun helping others with what I have learned so far in pursuit of my dreams. There is something truly powerful when you connect with this kind of energy to be inspired.
HN Celebrity Lightning Round:
Favorite horse movie? Black Stallion
Lamborghini or Dodge Dually pickup truck? Dodge Dually
Ride at sunrise or sunset? Sunset, best time to ride.
Tea, soda or whiskey? Did you say Coffee? Yes, Coffee.
#1 thing horses have taught you? Trust is earned and they take notes on your character … make no mistake on those details.
Thanks for chatting with us, Sunny!
For more information check out the American Polo Horse Association, Sunny Hale Polo and Sunny’s Facebook.
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