Dale Johnson’s mantra for success
Athletic, competitive and a determined player will always be a winner, says the ace player.
POLO isn’t always the natural choice for most people, but it takes a distinctive spark to be one in a million! Dale Johnson, at the age of 32, discovered his love for the sport. He set himself into a challenge of “100 hours on the field” and since then, there has been no looking back. He has exceeded his own challenge, and is flying high with spirited colours, making his way as the king on glorious ponies.
“I love horses. I’m athletic and I can be competitive. Therefore, Polo was the natural choice for me,” he says. Continuing, he adds: “I was able to start Polo using a modest bonus I received to pay for an introductory Polo clinic.”
What actually brought the Polo bug in him was rather surprising. He told LA POLO: “I saw a pair of Polo boots in a leather goods shop while on a work trip to Argentina. And I was hooked.”
Polo isn’t easy. Talking about his first day on the Polo field, he says: “I’d say my first day on the field was beyond comical. To start with, I put my half chaps on wrong and then Francesca Finato, the polo club manager, put me on a very large and powerful horse, fittingly named ‘Tank’. When I’d asked Tank to go forward, he took me for a ride. All I can remember is Francesa yelling out to me: ‘Keep your heels down, pull back, pull back.’ Although a little frazzled, I was hooked. I was faced with a challenge, and usually when that happens, I rarely back down.”
Johnson set for himself 100 hours on the polo field. How was that journey? “Setting the tangible goal of 100 hours was completely worth it. It dictated how I practiced, budgeted, and learned the basics of the sport. I tracked everything I did in a spreadsheet to ensure that I was able to hit the milestones. Much of my focus in those 100 hours was towards becoming a stronger rider.” After Johnson hit his initial goal, he was happy to have persevered. Staying in Polo while working full time is not easy, but sticking to his plan allowed him to do this.
We asked him the mantra to succeed in Polo. He said: “Don’t rush.” He added further: “Set clear goals and expectations with yourself about what you want to achieve in the sport within a certain timeframe, and do not deviate.”
Listening to him, we wondered if Polo, like it does to everyone, has changed his perspective towards things. “Polo has taught me that how I play is a reflection of how I live life, and, in many ways, has challenged me to make changes in my life off the field,” he said.
Talking about how Polo has affected his personal life, he shared: “I have a tendency to hold back. I can be calculating, risk averse, and accommodating, even when I don’t want to be. Polo helped me break away from some of those habits.” Comparing his life before and after Polo, Johnson says: “I learned that sometimes in order to score or defend, I have to unapologetically take the line or execute that aggressive hook and take what’s mine. It’s no surprise to me that shortly after playing Polo I felt more comfortable taking opportunities in my career I would have normally shied away from.”
As a word of caution, he says: “I cannot stress enough for beginners to come up with a budget and stick to it. My advice on how to do this is to focus on becoming a good rider and buying the basic gear.”
Sharing his experiences from his early days, Johnson says: “I met people in their 7os playing the sport very well. This immediately signalled to me, in my early thirties, that I have time to learn, build, and grow in the sport, I don’t have to do everything today or tomorrow, although I really want to. Make sure you have a strong seat, learn the rules, take lessons, learn to groom, there is no shortage of things to learn, nothing is a waste of time.”
Talking of grooming, a lot of players tend to spend time in the stables with the horses, while some leave it on the groomers. Johnson says: “I stable my horse near me in San Francisco, CA so I have to do all of my own grooming. Before I owned a horse, I had the opportunity to help groom and exercise horses at the El Dorado Polo Club in Indio, CA a couple of times. Beyond that simply watching and learning from our club grooms was a worthwhile experience. I think it’s important to have a close relationship with the horses and learning to groom allows this.”
Polo requires the player to ride different horses. How does Johnson tackle this? “For a beginner I’d ride a lot of horses in my first year. I cross trained between polo, jumping, dressage, trailing riding, you name it. This gave me exposure to a variety of sizes, styles and temperaments. At this point, I simply tackle riding a new horse by mounting, holding on tight, and asking for a trot and then canter. It’s important to trust yourself and be fearless.”
Johnson participates in both Arena and the traditional form of Polo. When asked his favourite, he said: “Obviously, there’s nothing that can be compared to the thrill of traditional polo. However, in winter, when the weather prevents our fields from being used, one can keep the skills sharp playing in the arena. Although the playing surface is smaller and there are fewer players in the arena, the game is almost identical to traditional.”
As a polo player, one needs to be fit and flexible. Maintaining a good workout regime is a must. Sharing a quick regime with LA POLO, Johnson said: “Having extensive experience in functional and weight training, I highly recommend exercises that provide a full body workout that builds mobility, strength and stamina; therefore, the best in my experience are deadlifts, back squats, front squats, and hyperextensions.”
Knowing Dale Johnson Better
How often do you play polo?
Three times a week (Thursday’s after work, Saturdays, and Sundays).
Your favourite pony?
My favourite pony is my mare Sunny. She’s nimble, knows the game, and has a lot of courage
Any other sport you play?
I split my time between polo and functional weightlifting, but in the past, track and field, rugby, and Olympic weightlifting.
What has been your highest point in Polo?
The most I’ve ever scored in a chukker is 4 goals.
Your favourite polo player?
Your inspiration in choosing the sport?
My grandfather and many members of my family were African American cowboys from Texas. I simply hope to keep some of my family’s equestrian traditions alive, this is what inspires me.
Your favourite place to play polo?
South Bay Polo (Gilroy, CA).
What does a day in your life look like?
Shortly after I wake up, usually around 5 am, I weight train along with cardio work. I then work my job as a Global Manager for Visa, taking calls, answering emails, overseeing the operations of a small business loyalty platform, and managing operational data. After work, I train with my horse, making sure she has her supplements, and is happy.
What challenges have you faced in the sport?
The greatest challenge I’ve faced is getting started. I literally do everything myself (training my horse, overseeing her care, transporting and grooming). I have to do this in order to be able to train close to where I live and keep my costs stable. I’ve overcome these challenges thanks to the support of my global and local polo community. There has been no shortage of people providing advice and resources to help me get started and stay in the sport.
If you had to change one thing about Polo, what would it be?
Reducing the barriers to entry for grassroots players.
Polo is a team sport and the flexibility within the team is necessary. What is your mantra to smooth working?
Like most things in life, communication is the key. Being able to give and take direction is important. The field is big, so it’s important to open your mouth and let your teammates, no matter who they are, know what you’re doing.