By Jane Dunbar
The first half of the 20th century was a different era, an era in which horsemanship was an essential military skill, and one in which, by 1914, Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets was organized as a cavalry unit in the Vermont National Guard. Horses—provided at the courtesy and expense of the U.S. Army—were there to serve official duty as training animals; but they also proffered something else: the spark that ignited the flame of polo on the Hill.
Commandant Frank Tompkins officially launched the sport in 1911, though photographs suggest that students were playing two years earlier, when the first horses arrived in Northfield. Open to any cadet participating in equitation, that first season comprised a series of interclass competitions culminating in a Commencement Week tournament. Hotly contested between the sophomore and senior squads (captained by F. L. Loviet and H. J. M. Smith respectively), the seniors ultimately prevailed. “This was an innovation for NU, and the presence and applause of the spectators easily showed [their] enthusiasm,” reported the Norwich Record.
Soon, the “Horsemen” were practicing daily on Howard Field. The following season, captained by senior John W. Slattery ’12, they galloped onto the scene of intercollegiate competition—and straight into the record books. On May 15, 1912, NU’s 3-0 victory at West Point over a team famed for its exceptional equestrian skills was the million-to-one shot that propelled polo to the forefront of weekly sports talk on the Hill.
Throughout the 1920s, with state-of-the art stables and a brand-new riding arena in which to hone their expertise, Norwich dominated the competition. A trick play, whereby one rider bearing down on the goal would fake the shot while yielding the ball to a trailing teammate who called for the maneuver by yelling “Hit it, Ben!”, allowed Norwich to earn victories over formidable Ivy League and other opponents. A handwritten report of the 1921–1922 season reflects an 8-1 record and a modest boast: “Norwich won 3 out of 5 with Yale.”
This 1922 squad, who edged out Chicago’s famed Black Horse Troop—“one of the most exclusive military and social organizations in the country”—7-6, ranks among the greatest in Norwich sports history. Among a quartet comprising captain Ken G. Allen ’22, Allen Plumley ’23, Reginald Switzer ’23 and Professor of Military Science Col. Frank B. Edwards, two—Plumley and Switzer—earned spots on the National Collegiate Team: an honor “which is to polo what the All-American team is to football,” argued a fan. After NU defeated a team led by the renowned Will Rogers, the actor recognized his opponents as “the best polo players [he’d] ever faced.”
The greatness persisted. In 1926, the Harvard Crimson dubbed team captain Roger W. Fisher ’26 a “brilliant leader” after the Horsemen trampled the defending national champions 14 to 6. Fisher is the first, and only, polo player to be inducted into NU’s Hall of Fame.
Throughout its nearly four halcyon decades on the Hill, players, coaches and devotees of polo clamored for its recognition as a varsity sport—and they just might have succeeded, had the Army’s transition to Armored Cavalry not obliged the retirement of Norwich’s beloved horses, and the program, in 1948.
Polo enjoyed a brief revival at Norwich from 1974 to 1977, after enthusiastic students organized a team and launched a campaign to “bring ‘em back!” Riding borrowed ponies, the squad performed respectably for several seasons before the program faded away for good.
An excerpt of this piece appears in Citizens & Soldiers: The First 200 Years of Norwich University.