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 glances up toward the exercise paddock, where Geoff is cantering Easy E. The pair makes a jigsaw-puzzle scene -- pine trees behind them, an improbably blue sky, sunlight turning the horse's hindquarters a glossy teak. Geoff's body rises as he slows the horse to a trot and begins to post, English-style. Easy E. tosses her head, snorting in pure joy. Horses don't hide much. Slowing, Geoff steers her around circles of grass, making perfect figure-eights, then nudges her into a long straight gallop. The two wear the same expression, intense and focused yet utterly relaxed.

Inside the barn, golden late-afternoon sun glances off bales of hay in the loft, and in the tack room, an Australian shepherd naps beneath a row of old-fashioned bamboo mallets. Today's rules allow graphite. But this is not a high-tech world. It's a ritualized world, and a dangerous one, nobility barely tempering the bloodlust that's stirred by speed and animal heat and a crush of bodies with a single goal. Last year, Stevie's face mask got hooked on Billy Busch's horse's bit, pulling him off his horse and leaving him swinging from Billy's, just luck saving him from a broken neck. His dad has had similar moments: Once another horse got his head caught between Steve's horse's body and his martingale (a piece of tack that runs from the noseband of the bridle down to the girth, used to keep the horse from carrying its head too high). Ginny Orthwein didn't breathe until he worked himself free, but she's never once said, "Stop playing." She knows her husband too well -- and, as the mother of three boys, she read up and realized that after plenty of tenderness, tears and cuddling, they'd need to break away from her, earn the respect of older males, complete the rites of passage. "Polo," she remarks, "is the epitome of that kind of mentoring."

Winston Churchill once pronounced a polo handicap "the best letter of introduction in the world," and players whose social standing ought to make them blasé talk excitedly about being able to walk into a club in Calgary or Kenya and find an instant welcome. Stevie can run into the former chairman of Coca-Cola Enterprises in the airport (Summerfield Johnston Jr., an avid player) and say hello, and even his dad, hardly the effusive type, will approach anybody traveling with a mallet. "I don't do that with golf clubs," Steve admits. "But people who play polo are really committed to it. You know it's not a small part of their life."

A polo pony catches some R&R at the Orthwein stable.
Jennifer Silverberg
A polo pony catches some R&R at the Orthwein stable.
Lulu Smith goes for one of the goals that will win the game for her team.
Jennifer Silverberg
Lulu Smith goes for one of the goals that will win the game for her team.

At practices, Steve Sr. is preoccupied, and when he gets to his stable after work, all he wants to do is change into his jeans. But at the North Lindbergh office of his firm, Commercial Document Solutions -- a smallish white-walled box of a room with a plastic letter tray, a computer monitor and a mess of files -- he's voluble. Here, talk is as close as he can get to a horse. He pushes aside memos to make room for old programs and copies of Polo magazine (the players' edition, not the glossy "lifestyle" version). He pulls out Thoroughbred registration certificates from the Jockey Club, official rules from Hurlingham. He draws in the air to demonstrate the Texas knot: "You braid the horse's tail down, then roll it up and bring the ends around and knot them so they don't get caught in the mallet. That's how we do it. The lazy way is to braid it, then fold it up and tape it."

Never one to take the lazy way, he breeds his own polo ponies, then spends years training them. "When I was a kid, we used to buy ranch horses," he remembers. "The cowboys rode them all day and trained them. Now they ride pickup trucks, and cowboys cost a whole lot more per hour." He bursts out laughing. "Cowboys hate Thoroughbreds, because they don't have common sense. A smart quarter horse gets his leg caught in a fence, he'll just stand there and wait to be freed. A Thoroughbred will panic."

His secret for training divas is deceptively simple: "You start out with a well-bred, athletic horse, and you just don't make any mistakes." And that means what? "You don't push him too fast. If he falters or bolts, you have to figure out whether he's afraid or just obstinate, and if he's afraid, you can't rush him -- you have to build his confidence first." He reaches for a breeding certificate, then looks up, a glint in his eye. "If he's just trying to pull one over on you, though, you have to show him who's boss. There's nothing worse than a spoiled horse." Steve shuns the methods of some Argentinian trainers, who blindfold the horse, throw a saddle on him and essentially break his spirit. He wants that spirit intact and interested -- which is why he gave up so fast on a former racehorse who'd just up and stop, whenever he felt like it, oblivious to the game around him.

Then came Vengeance Is Mine. Steve bought her over at the old Cahokia Downs in the '70s, taken by the plain bay mare with the sensitive eyes. "I trotted her down the aisle and just barely touched the halter, and she slid to a stop," he recalls, his face softening. "She learned very quickly, and I played her in high-goal polo when she was only 4." Twice he was offered a blank check for her; twice he refused. She played well into her teens. Then she started having babies: Revenge, Avenge and, finally, Vendetta, who bucked everybody off. Steve named the fourth foal Truce.

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