— By Sabin Russell
From the vantage point of a polo ball, Nigel Quinn can be an intimidating figure. He bears down upon it astride a galloping horse named Zulu, and swings a 50-inch-long mallet like a cavalry sword. With a well-placed thwack, he propels this softball-sized sphere of plastic past four opposing riders at a speed of up to 100 mph, toward goal posts eight yards apart. This is Quinn’s way to relax on a Sunday morning, after a week’s work at Berkeley Lab.
For 24 years in the Earth Sciences Division, Quinn has specialized in surface and groundwater hydrology, focused on salinity and other water quality challenges in the vast San Joaquin River Basin. He leads the HydroEcological Engineering Advanced Decision Support research group at Berkeley Lab, and serves a dual role as a water resources expert for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. He deploys and monitors flow and salinity sensors, and develops computer-based decision support systems for managing water resources important to agriculture and managed wetlands. “Water and energy use are very connected,” says Quinn. “The amount of energy used to move water around in the State is huge.” He also leads a small bioenergy group with ties to the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley – exploring scale-up issues related to algae biofuel production. Nigel has been mentoring young environmental scientists in his Lab in Berkeley Lab’s Old Town for the past 18 years.
His water resources activities puts him in close contact with farmers, agricultural water districts and wetland refuge managers and his outdoor laboratory stretches through the fields, wetlands, and the waterways of central California. It is a good fit for his equestrian pursuits since many of his San Joaquin Valley collaborators are also horse owners. He has ridden horses since he was a six year old, an Anglo-Irishman who spent much of his childhood in Zimbabwe within galloping distance of a racetrack and members of the national polo team which provided his first exposure to the competitive thrill of polo. His father took him along to international polo matches where the home side always gave a good showing against teams from Argentina, England and South Africa.
It was while earning his PhD at Cornell in the 1980s Quinn was able to reconnect with the game: albeit at intramural “broomstick” polo, batting around a soccer ball for halftime spectator entertainment during inter-collegiate matches of the Cornell polo squad. “I teamed up with a Brazilian grad student whose father was a rancher and a woman from Ag Econ.,’’ he recalls. “We won the co-ed intramurals in three of six years.” When his work took him to California, Quinn began playing with the UC Davis polo team, and with a polo club near Sacramento. He’s been playing ever since, on weekends, and is currently a member and co-manager of the Wine Country Polo Club outside Santa Rosa.
Polo matches are played in segments known as chukkers, each lasting about 15 minutes with play stoppages taken into account. Most matches run four to six chukkers. Two teams of four riders battle for control of the ball on grass expanses the size of 10 football fields, and each team typically scores 5–10 goals in a four-game match. “It’s the oldest ballgame in the world – depicted in 2,000 year old tapestries,” says Quinn, “apparently first played in ancient Persia using tiny Manipuri ponies by both men and women.” It is a very global sport — Winston Churchill, an avid player himself, believed a polo handicap was the world’s best passport. Polo is believed to be derived from pulu, Tibetian for ball. It is “The Sport of Kings,” played by the British Royal Family, and the best polo riders in the world are Argentine, raised in the traditions of the Patagonian gauchos.
For Quinn, it’s all about the ponies. He owns three of them. Zulu is a 27-year old gelding, who won nine races on the track during his thoroughbred racing career. He also rides two mares: Brigid, named for a goddess of ancient Ireland; and his fastest, Nikita, the name a variant of the Greek victory goddess Nike. “Most horses absolutely love this game,” says Quinn. “They are doing something that comes naturally to them: racing each other in fields, stopping, whirling.” During a chukker, they often reach speeds of 35 mph; yet a good polo pony can bring a rider to a halt within inches of where he or she has to be to strike the ball with the mallet. “A good polo pony senses your shifting weight. The best horses are very responsive — like driving a Ferrari. Because you’ve got a mallet in one hand, you learn to ride almost entirely with your seat and legs,” he adds. “A well trained pony is like a natural extension of yourself. That’s part of the thrill.”
Quinn says that, despite its elitist image, polo is played by skilled riders from different economic backgrounds and is equally popular with men and women of all ages. It is rare for people to leave the game for another equestrian sport — nothing is as thrilling. In England, the sport is enjoying a surge in popularity. At the higher levels of play teams may be sponsored, and some professionals can earn a very good living. The game can be dangerous, the ponies all wear wraps on all four legs, and the riders are required to wear helmets. Quinn is confident he’ll be playing the game well into the future: one of his teammates recently retired from the game at 71 years old.