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Jenn Thornton | Photo: Ben Garrett | September 26, 2013
Celebrated horseman Tom Goodspeed has nationals in line for SMU polo.
When Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” he might as well have been talking about noted equestrian Tom Goodspeed, now coaching polo at Southern Methodist University. After helping to establish the program in 2009, Goodspeed watched last year’s women’s team compete in the regional finals and the men’s team battle at nationals.These would be astonishing results for anyone else, except, perhaps, Goodspeed, who admits, “I’m more comfortable on a horse then I am on my own legs.” Having mounted his first horse at 11, a steed named Sam stabled at a farm in his hometown Milwaukee, Goodspeed is still unable to describe the magic of his first canter some 50 years later. However, recalling that boy, that time and that place produces in him thoughtful pause that gives way to steady pursuit while he regales with quiet, unsentimental affection the long-ago scene.
Delivering newspapers to pay for riding and polo lessons, Goodspeed fell in love with both and showed a natural aptitude for the sport that would come to define his professional life. He lived it, breathed it, and with mallet in hand, morphed into something of a field general, eventually winning two National Collegiate Championships in arena polo at the University of Connecticut, Arena Player of the Year honors and the distinction of being named one of polo’s highest handicapped players at nine goals.
He would go on to play polo professionally, win six Arena Opens and manage top equestrian facilities from New York to Hollywood (one being the star-studded Los Angeles Equestrian Center), all while producing a wildly successful series of DVDs called Polo Basics. Then came the four-year stint as Indiana’s Culver Academy men’s varsity polo coach that eventually led Goodspeed to SMU, and the startlingly quick ascension of its own program—one with unorthodox beginnings.
While still at Culver, Goodspeed met Pamela Flanagan, a talented player in her own right, who would eventually champion SMU’s polo program in its infancy and captain its women’s team. “It all started with Tom,” she says. “Of all the teachers and coaches, he’s so superior in breaking things down, making the sport clear and simple. He’s incredibly humble, but anyone in the polo world will tell you the same thing.”
That goes for her fellow Culver alum and captain of the current men’s team, Enrique Ituarte, another instrumental advocate. In fact, it was at his family’s behest that Goodspeed founded the SMU polo program and, with their generous financial backing, it is now flourishing and even boasts a recreational counterpart, the Irving Polo Club at the Los Colinas Equestrian Center (irvingpoloclub.com), where new talent is developed and SMU polo teams practice and stable their horses.
Goodspeed’s stature in the sport may boost the program’s visibility, but it’s his leadership that is attracting top talent and getting results. This year he has title hopes for the men’s team. With several returning stars, including Ituarte and August Scherer, and a lauded freshman prospect from the East Coast on the roster, Goodspeed says, “We have a very, very good chance at winning the nationals.”
It’s a big admission from a notably humble man. In today’s sporting world, where showmanship and showboating often compensate for a lack of skill, Goodspeed is the genuine article. He speaks deliberately (except during game time, when he reveals what Flanagan describes as a “powerful aura”—a “combination of tough and effective juxtaposed with kindhearted and caring”). But there are no highfalutin turns of phrase, not a whiff of self-promotion. There is, however, an abundance of knowledge and passion, nurtured by the deep polo tradition in Texas, a state which was once a top producer of prime polo ponies, with many of the greats having been trained and broken on statewide ranches.
Racing at up to speeds of 30 miles per hour, polo ponies are, according to Goodspeed, “courageous and bold, with the best exhibiting tolerance, and a sassy, aggressive attitude with a little moxie,” which they use to get to the ball, bump the other horse, stop quickly and accelerate the same way. “But being a great competitive polo player requires not just being on top of a horse,” Goodspeed says, “but being part of it.”
Therefore, to instill confidence and skill, Goodspeed works with the spirit of both horse and rider, careful not to break either. “I grew up in a pretty tough Midwest coaching environment that could sometimes be militaristic,” he explains. “I’m not saying it’s not good to have that component in the mix, but it can damage the self-esteem and confidence you need to move forward and tackle things in life. It’s one thing to be competitive, but you also want to be a person.”
As for what horses and the game of polo have taught him, Goodspeed says, “They’re still teaching me. Horses have literally and figuratively carried me through my life.” Now, he’s using horsemanship to help others in much the same way, launching the new therapeutic riding program, Helping on Horseback, Inc., this fall that will present SMU polo players with the opportunity to support their community in a leadership capacity, while also rebuilding Dallas-Fort Worth polo at the aforementioned Irving Polo Club.
After all, says the man enjoying one hell of a ride, “Horses have given me everything I have. I want to give back.”