Polo is thought of as the “sport of kings,” so being a singularly successful female in what is an arena of super athletes, historically man and horse, makes Trudy Erceg stand out.
As a world-class, high-goal groom for two decades, it’s all about the horses, keeping them in top form and providing essential support to the success of the team.
“It’s hard to explain passion, because those who don’t have it cannot understand,” Erceg explained. “I live and breathe these animals as I have my entire life. It’s not just a job that supplies me with money, though it does, it’s really a way of life. I have always had a passion for them. They are everything. They are a part of my life.”
Year round, as a polo groom, Erceg does hard manual labor that might seem surprising given her five-foot, three-inch frame. She mucks out stalls, feeds and prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner for the horses, cleans and refills water buckets, grooms and bathes each horse, cleans and puts up tack, bandages legs, and administers basic first aid for cuts, scrapes and injuries. She also helps keep her horses fit by riding one, while leading two or three other horses, most days of the week.
“We are the most important person there to the professional polo player,” Erceg said. “Being a groom entails everything, from picking out small veterinary aspects, good care through feeding and knowledge of when to give more food and when to give less. We are basically the lifeline to those horses, for our patron.”
Erceg, who is from Tokoroa, in the middle of the North Island of New Zealand, knew she loved horses from a very young age.
“We had an Olympic rider for New Zealand, down the road. When I was little, my sister and I used to sit on the fence and cheer her on,” Erceg recalled. “She started us in riding. I was just three years old when I got on my first horse; I just have never gotten off.”
Competing through Pony Club, Erceg began riding, working and grooming for New Zealand Equestrian Bloodstock, John Gray and Anne Symes. “We would take 17 head of jumpers to shows,” she said. “I worked for them from a young age, and when I hit 16, I said to my mum, ‘I want to go travel and work with horses.’”
Erceg started traveling with the jumpers. When she was 17, they sent her to Japan with nine horses. “I was there for three months. I groomed and helped with the clients,” she said. “Then, I was sent to West Virginia, where I also helped out at a Steeplechase barn, while I was also working for the jumpers.”
It was there that she read a novel about polo.
“I said to myself, ‘I want to do that.’ And that was it,” she said.
Erceg started out in England.
“After I groomed my first season of polo, the Argentine pro I worked for said, ‘Let’s go to Argentina.’ And that’s where we went,” she said. “And that is where you need to be. Argentina is interesting. It’s tough. The first year that I worked in Argentina was 2000, and while there, I was literally the only female who had anything to do with horses. It was all men. There were no other women there at all. I really had to struggle to show them that I was just as good as they were.”
Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile experience. “For me, if you want to be good at something, you go where the best in the world play, and in polo, the Argentines are the best. They are amazing,” she said.
Traveling year-round since 2000, Erceg works for 9-goal pro Augustin Merlos of Argentina and Damian Duncan from Ghana of Delaney Polo.
“My year’s schedule includes the winter season in Florida from mid-November through the beginning of April, then England and then Spain for less than two months, then Argentina and then back up to Florida,” Erceg said.
Polo players change their mounts during the four-minute interval between chukkers, or periods, and at the ten-minute halftime. Matches consist of four to eight, 7-minute chukkers and the play within each chukker is continuous, with that play only stopped for penalties, broken tack or injury to a horse or player.
When working at a polo match, Erceg is responsible for having those horses ready for the changes.
“Basically, I focus my whole being on my boss, and I’m watching the horses,” she said. “You take note of how he is playing by focusing on the horse he is riding. I notice everything that my horses are doing with him on the field. And if he needs a second opinion on how a horse is playing, he can ask me, ‘What did you see her do in such and such a chukker?’ Not only do I need to get the horses ready, I must also keep focus on the horse he is playing. You really pay attention to what your boss is doing.”
Although women have been breaking into the sport more and more in recent years, there still aren’t many women working on the different polo teams.
“It’s not sexist or anything derogatory, it’s just tough,” Erceg said. “Guys are a lot stronger. Some guys don’t necessarily like to be pushed around or bossed around or take orders from a woman, so when you are in a position of authority, you really have to put in that extra little bit of effort to show that you are equal, if not better. You need to show that you will do the same job as them.”
Erceg is in England from April through June of each year before heading to Spain.
“When the English season ends, we take the same horses we played in England, and we put them on a truck for three days, and we drive to the south of Spain,” she said. “It’s a long way. The horses tend to do well during the trip. I’ve never had any issues, touch wood. In Europe, we tend to hire a trucking service. While here in the U.S., I drive a rig with 10 to 15 horses.”
For the person who doesn’t know polo, Erceg encourages them to go watch a game.
“It’s one of the most interesting things to watch. These guys go fast. These horses are extremely agile; they stop and turn on a dime,” she said. “The players hit a ball that is tiny, as they commit to sitting on top of a horse, with a piece of wood that is even smaller, and they do it extremely well. It is an amazing sport. If you have the opportunity to go to a polo match, I would do it. It’s great fun.”