The Family That Plays Together

Date: Friday, February 25, 2022

Polo runs strong in families.  As a summer pastime, after work when daylight lasts until 9 o'clock, playing 4+ days a week for the diehards, polo draws the entire family in on the fun, the wholesome lifestyle, and social engagement within a likeminded community. 

One Newport player describes it like family camp, every summer.  That notion has an undeniable appeal for those involved, and the bonus of including their kids playing with fascination on the sidelines from toddler age until that universe extends beyond their fingertips and into their parent’s lap in the saddle, sparking the desire to be part of the action. The rare sport to mix players of different ages, genders, and skill levels creates the unique opportunity for the entire family to compete on the same field.

A great multigenerational example is the story of our polo club manager.  Dave Markell and his wife Kathy who have been settled on Aquidneck Island for the past three decades and found their family pulled in during the earliest years of Newport Polo's revival. Today, he is still on the sidelines at practices, organizing chukkers, and on Saturdays holding court from one of the chalets, with friends and his grown kids every week.

When his oldest of three daughters, Elise turned 5, Dave gave in to her aspirations to ride horses, and began taking her to a weekly riding lesson.  Eventually he became curious and at age 39, asked for a lesson for himself, but they only taught kids.

Dave and his family lived nearby the newly established polo grounds at Glen Farm, so he beelined over to Dan Keating’s emerging operation in its second summer, where a Moroccan trainer immediately invited Dave and Elise to mount up for a trail ride! It was so magical, as Dave recalls, that the family came to the barns on a daily basis for the next decade, until the kids were college bound.

Dave’s lessons progressed enthusiastically.  Jamal, the trainer encouraged him to explore jumping lessons and other riding experiences like team penning and “cowboy stuff”, and at some point, Dave picked up a polo mallet, since polo had become all the buzz in the barns.

At 40 he bought his first horse, and naturally his daughters were smitten.  “They essentially grew up at the barn, and loved spending every day after school with the horses and the other kids there and at polo.”  Elise became Minnie Keating’s first babysitter!  The girls learned to ride, groom, and eventually they learned to play polo.  

Elise was the first to play polo, then Perry was next, adopting her prowess as a standout athlete at the Portsmouth Abbey and later in college, followed by Georgia, the youngest.  Dave was always on the sidelines, managing the team.  As young teens, they comprised Newport Polo’s first interscholastic girls polo team, and inspired a number of younger girls to begin learning, among them Minnie Keating.

“Their experience, since it involved constant interaction with adults and animal care, taught Elise, Perry Georgia, and the others to be comfortable and confident interacting and conversing with adults, and a high degree of responsibility and sense of accomplishment at an otherwise early age.  Polo kids all seem to develop those skills,” commented Dave, who has witnessed and helped guide successive generations of young players come up through Newport Polo's program.

Dave's polo prowess developed along with his daughters'. In addition to playing competitively (victory celebration photo above), Dave became the polo club’s head umpire and polo club manager. His own entrepreneurial experience as a local business owner helped manage the club's growth, and organize weekly practices and tournaments, contributing to the policies for the best, fairest practice for the benefit of the players.  Even after his daughters graduated and pursued their careers, he assisted in managing interscholastic polo for many years, and though he has retired from playing, remains the club manager today.

Although Dave’s daughters did not play intercollegiate polo, all 3 have picked up the game again, post college, and now share 9 horses, drive trucks and trailers and enjoy competing together, recently winning their first tournament as a team, in California, the western concentration of polo, during our off season.  Last summer, Elise brought the Los Angeles team to play in her first Saturday game in Newport.

The new era of remote work and flexible schedules will bring all three Markell daughters back to Newport for polo in the summer, keeping the family close, sharing the same passion and interests.  As the old adage goes, this family discovered the way to stay together.