By Jess Clawson
Comeback stories are popular for a reason: they’re compelling, inspiring, and hopeful. We love to see someone beat the odds in a display of resilience. The revival of Farmington, Connecticut’s Farmington Polo Club is our favorite kind of comeback story. Its optimistic beginning, storied history, fall from grace, and return to glory under loving care is only made better by involving horses.
From Polo Ponies to Hunter Ponies
Hugh Kerrigan established Farmington Polo Club in 1929. The club started hosting polo in 1938 and won the 12-Goal Championship before the polo team went dormant in 1954. It stopped hosting polo altogether in the mid-1970s, and would not resume matches until 2016.
The next three decades were action-packed—just with over fences trips instead of chukkers. Kerrigan hosted the prestigious Children’s Services Horse Show at the club until the early 1990s. “It was the place to show,” Farmington’s new hunter/jumper trainer, Johanna Hyyppa, said.
Kerrigan and the Polo Club were the backbone of the hunter/jumper scene in Connecticut. “Everyone took lessons from him. He was the heart and soul of this place,” polo manager Heather Souto said. “The Farmington Polo Club was really connected to the community.”
After Kerrigan’s death, the venue changed hands a few times and took a turn for the worse. Seeing the possibilities for redemption, the current owner bought it three years ago and is breathing life back into it. “The club is having its Cinderella moment,” Heather laughed.
Among the many upgrades are footing, fencing, detailed attention to the land, and “top quality everything,” according to Heather. Bringing such an experienced player such as Heather on board to revamp the polo program is key to its path back to greatness.
The Right Team
Heather grew up riding competitively through high school and into college. When it became impossible to continue to fund both showing and her education, she picked up polo after some experience dabbling with it in high school. After graduating college, she got a job with some polo players and was hooked. “For 12 years after that, I played polo in Newport while becoming an adult and running a business and having a family life,” she explained. “I was offered the managing job at Farmington Polo Club last year. Going to school in this area, having grown up here in the pony ring, I’ve always had a connection to this property. It’s just a wicked cool place.”
She jumped at the opportunity to be part of this historic venue, and has spent the year focusing on raising community awareness that polo is a fun, family-friendly event to spectate. “The ownership has restored this property to pristine conditions, and it’s now it’s time for it to flourish again,” she emphasized.
Johanna Hyyppa also came on board to grow the equestrian program. She founded Metro Stables in Vermont, and brings her professional talents to Farmington Polo Club. She grew up in a horse family with a veterinarian father, and a USEF judge mother. Johanna’s stellar resume includes riding with Missy Clark, Andre Dignelli, and Linda Langmeier, and wins as a junior up and down the east coast. Working with those incredible trainers left her with a great deal of knowledge that she is now passing onto her own students to ensure they have a solid foundation in horsemanship, regardless of their level of riding.
After college, she worked for some trainers and then opened her own business where she enjoyed taking clients to show on the A circuit. She coached junior Lila Ouellette to prestigious placings in the northeast finals and the National Horse Show. “We found her an ex-dressage horse and turned him into her hunter and equitation horse. I’m proud of that success, because I was able to produce a horse and rider together,” Johanna said.
Heather describes Johanna’s role at Farmington as “the last piece of the puzzle.” Bringing hunter/jumper horses and riders back to Farmington alongside the polo program is truly restoring the property to its full potential. Johanna offers lessons from beginners to those competing on the national level in an upscale, family-friendly environment.
“It’s important to us that people learn skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives,” Johanna said. “And we have a great environment for learning. This is such a comfortable, family-oriented, supportive place. It’s perfect for establishing excellent horsemanship because everyone is rooting for everyone else.”
In addition to growing their quality lesson program, Johanna also hopes to one day bring recognized hunter/jumper competition back to Farmington. “It would be amazing to restore the property’s place in the competition world,” she emphasized.
A Place for Everyone
The Farmington Polo Club is more than just a place to ride. The facility is designed for the total appreciation of horses and sport. “It’s great to have amenities like the Chukker Cafe for people who are here for lessons or to watch polo, and there are plenty of places the siblings of our young riders can go play without disrupting the lessons,” Johanna explained. “It serves all kinds of food, and is a great place to bring friends.”
Students without horses have access to wonderful lesson horses. Boarders appreciate the high end facility, with large matted stalls, private tack rooms, an indoor with GGT footing, and an in-progress outdoor jumping arena. They can choose between full and training board options. Polo Club boarders range from people who just want to enjoy hacking (for which there is ample opportunity on the 60-acre property) to those who want to travel with Johanna to the biggest shows in the country.
Riders interested in learning polo have that opportunity as well, and can switch between polo lessons and hunter/jumper lessons at will. “It’s a good outlet. I know in Wellington a lot of dressage and hunter/jumper people go take polo lessons,” Heather said. “Polo is a team sport so it’s a different approach to horses, and you’re still riding, still accomplishing things. Plus, the best riders make the best polo players.”
More Than Just Horses
Though early in its rejuvenation, the Farmington Polo Club already gives back to the community. The property is associated through ownership with the Hometown Foundation, the charity arm of a corporation that has multiple beneficiaries, including the Special Olympics of Connecticut. The keystone event of the year is the Dream Ride, a police-escorted charity motorcycle ride, now going into its 20th year. “It’s a big day to celebrate Special Olympics athletes from all over the world,” Heather explained. The Dream Riders program brings in Special Olympics athletes in Connecticut for weekly sessions with the horses throughout the year so they can connect with the animals and learn skills like grooming and tacking up. This growing program is a favorite of the staff, who look forward to it every week.
The team itself is a point of pride for Heather and Johanna, who note that every member works very hard and believes in the mission of bringing Farmington Polo Club back to a central place in the community. “They’re trying to better themselves and the environment in the barn,” Heather said with pride.
“With our professional status in each discipline on this facility, we have a mini Wellington here in Connecticut,” Johanna said. “You can ride in a lesson and then go cheer for your friend in a polo match. There’s nothing else like it.”
Farmington Polo Club is certainly in a comeback story. It leads the way as an example for others on how to be a community-oriented equestrian center. Everyone involved has the same vision: to restore this historic property to its rightful place as the backbone of the equestrian world in Hartford.
To learn more about this historic facility or plan your visit, go to www.farmingtonpologrounds.com.
Photos @ Andrew Ryback Photography, Anne Gittins Photography, Rod Harris Photography, & Natalie Meyer.
About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
Read More from This Author »