All the Kings' Horses

The Busches, the Orthweins and other St. Louis royalty get down and dirty playing polo. It's the passion that grounds their lives.

He sounds a little envious.

Just outside the stable door, Steve Orthwein places a scuffed boot on a blue plastic milk crate and swings himself onto Llamito ("little llama"), bred on the family horse farm in Cooperstown, N.Y. His jeans and red T-shirt are already sweat-soaked, and he grimaces as he settles into the saddle. One hip needs replacing and both knees are shot, but he insists none of it's the result of polo. "Old age," says the grinning 57-year-old, who once carried an amazing 6-goal rating, one higher than Andy Busch's, and played for the U.S. in Pakistan and scored in front of the queen of England. He has slowed considerably -- "I don't lean out anymore -- the horse has to put me right next to the ball!" -- but he's wiser about the horses, too, less impulsive, better at reading their reactions and pacing them to save their energy.

Billy Busch: This is the only place he isn't laid-back.
Jennifer Silverberg
Billy Busch: This is the only place he isn't laid-back.
New Zealander Geoff Cameron can't believe it took him so long to do what he loves.
Jennifer Silverberg
New Zealander Geoff Cameron can't believe it took him so long to do what he loves.

Steve could afford to hire a groom for every horse and drop in occasionally to have his ride saddled for him; instead, he goes to his stable every evening, exercises at least four horses, pitches hay, checks shoes, drills the "green" 3-year-olds. "It takes your mind," he explains. "When you are working a horse, you are thinking about only that." He pauses. "As for polo, it's not what people think. There are horseflies, and it's hot -- and you don't see many spit-shined boots."

As if on cue, Geoff Cameron rides up on a gray horse, one of Orthwein's finest mares, his boots caked with mud. Geoff grew up playing polo in New Zealand, where the game is more common, land being cheap and horses easy to acquire. He wanted steady work, though, so he became a farrier, and for nine years he waved away friends who told him he should be playing polo instead of shoeing horses. Last fall his old friend Hamish Bray, a fellow New Zealander and polo player who'd been running Steve Orthwein's barn, gave it one more try: He called to see whether Geoff wanted his job. Geoff surprised himself by saying yes. He arrived in St. Louis on Dec. 17, and a week later he was in Florida, playing medium-goal polo (a step above club) with the Orthweins' Huntleigh Oaks team. "If I knew it was like this," he mutters, "I would have done it a long time ago."

Leaning against the Orthwein's splintery gray paddock fence, the younger horses rub their noses over newcomers' hair as tenderly as a lover, looking for sugar. There's Smidgen, out of the sweet mare Midget. Frisky Pollen, out of Blossom. And Chrissie, whose father, Grayson, won more than $90,000 on the racetrack. "Chrissie's temperamental -- it takes a long time to get her settled before you can teach her," says Geoff, who adores her in spite or because of it. "She's full of energy and tricks." He takes a second to check her hooves, making sure the toes aren't growing long and straining the tendons at the backs of her ankles. "I can shoe a horse in 30 minutes," he remarks, "but if it's the first time for a young horse, it can be a long process. It's a matter of taking your time, handling them really quietly, not upsetting them, because they always win."

Of all the Orthwein horses, Geoff has the highest hopes for Lucky, who pulled a muscle in her hindquarter last year and now seems twice as eager to run. "Besides," he adds, "any horse Stevie Jr. grabs for his own string you know is going to be good."

Stevie, an open-faced, unassuming 20-year-old who swears he doesn't mind the familial "ie" that has stuck fast to his name, captains the polo team at the University of Virginia and works at the family stable all summer. Asked about his picks, he pulls himself up on the deck railing, wild turkeys skittering across the polo field behind him, and talks happily. "A lot of it comes down to speed -- although you can't have a horse that's so fast you can't stop. They have their own mind -- some will carry you right past the ball or stop short. You can't be fighting with the horse out there. I like a horse I can handle, although as I get older and play more, I'm starting to like a little more power."

He can't help but mention he's caught up alongside his dad (Stevie's goal rating moved up to a 3 this year, just as Steve's dropped to a 3). Yet what Stevie loves most is "the training, the working outside of the games. We get them moving in a correct way, with speed but in control, responsive." Unlike a racehorse, which runs in one direction on the track, a polo pony must be able to shift, leading first with the right side and then with the left. The polo pony also needs to be less extended than a racehorse, positioned right under the rider's body. Stevie takes the young horses across the creek to the "stick-and-ball field," teaches them the mallet, gets them used to the "traffic" of other horses running toward them. By the end of their third summer, they're playing slow practice games. Then they winter in Pacific, Mo., where there's even more grass and open space, and return for pre-competition conditioning: slow trots to get their legs fit, so they don't bow a tendon, and then hard play, to "give them the wind." "Year four is triple-A baseball, the minor leagues, when they get into the flow of the game," Stevie says. "Year five, you get them into the faster play, and by year six or seven, they're pros." Do they really love the game, or is that just human spin, rationalizing the players' fun? "They wouldn't do it if they didn't love it," he grins. "They perk up as you go out there; they're ready at the trailer, pawing."

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