Written by Victoria Peace
Photos by Callie Broaddus
When Middleburg residents Marlon and Jackie Muller founded Recreational Habits in the fall of 2020, they set out with the goal of bringing the exclusive world of recreational field sports and country living to traditionally underrepresented communities. “Recreational Habits is as much of a clothing brand as a mission-led experiential company where we try to recreate images and expose our audience to the things that we have experienced first hand,” Marlon explains.
The Muller’s most recent initiative expanding on that goal is a series of polo clinics designed to provide a welcoming and accessible introduction to the sport. “We wanted to give the opportunity to adults who had given [polo] some thought but figured it was way beyond them,” Marlon explains. “If we opened that door, maybe people would show up.” And show up they did – each of the four clinics hosted on Sundays during the month of May at Twilight Polo Club attracted numerous eager participants. “We were super happy with the turnout,” Marlon emphasizes.
Most of the clinic participants did not have prior riding experience so, at first, many were nervous around the horses. However, after a short period of adjustment, the majority took to it quickly. Marlon reports that after the initial clinics, some participants even started playing regularly. “These were people that did not know how to ride a horse and now they are cantering, swinging a mallet, and scoring goals,” he says. “This is amazing, seeing these people go from being timid to actually commanding these amazing animals, doing it with grace, and being able to play the sport. That was super fulfilling.”
Marlon relates to this journey personally because in the fall of 2020, he was also a total newcomer to polo – and riding. “When we moved down from New York to Virginia, because we were in horse country, we wanted to tackle the recreational activities of equitation,” Marlon recalls. “Jackie and our daughter started riding hunter jumpers, but polo was the only thing I could see myself doing.” He googled where to take polo lessons in the area and was eventually put in touch with John Gobin, the owner of Twilight Polo Club. Gobin told him to just “come on down to his farm” since he lived nearby. When he showed up that first day, Marlon was not expecting to get a polo lesson. However, Gobin brought over a horse and told him to hop on. After giving him a crash course on steering and posting, he put a mallet in his hand. Within 20 minutes, Marlon found himself hitting a ball and going around the ring.
For Marlon, polo was a helpful way to learn to ride because it gave him something to focus on besides being on the horse. “I was worried initially just about riding,” he remembers. “When I had a mallet in my hand and a ball to go after then I could get the horse to do what I wanted to do. It was almost like he knew what I wanted.” This comfort level that polo has the potential to create for beginners is one of the reasons that the Mullers thought a clinic series would be a great way to open the door to equestrian pursuits for their audience.
While the four Sunday polo clinics this summer were geared more toward adults, on Saturday, June 4, the Mullers hosted a Youth Day in conjunction with the D.C.-based nonprofit City Kids Wilderness Project to cap off the clinic series. Twelve students from D.C. came out to experience a trail ride, a polo lesson, and to watch a live match at Great Meadow.
The partnership between the two organizations was natural: “City Kids works to create representation in the outdoors, a place where communities of color have been historically absent and have faced barriers to entry. Similarly, Recreational Habits is working to expose a more diverse audience to sports like polo that have been and continue to be exclusive to a small segment of people,” City Kids Wilderness Project’s executive director, Sarah Cryder, explains.
The overarching mission of City Kids Wilderness Project is to build resiliency, broaden horizons, cultivate community, and develop skills for success in D.C. youth through a long-term, cohort-based model that utilizes both the wilderness and urban environment to encourage growth and leadership. City Kids Wilderness Project strives to meet their mission by providing a seven-year continuum program for 6th to 12th grade students predominantly from Wards 5, 7, and 8 – the most under-resourced in the city.
“At City Kids, a key part of our program is to encourage youth to try new things. While horseback riding was familiar to the participants, they really enjoyed learning more about polo,” Cryder says. “Throughout the day, they took part in a trail ride, practiced hitting balls with mallets while riding, then got into a lively game of foot polo where their competitive spirits really came out.”
Cryder notes that “A highlight of the trip was seeing Marlon and the Recreational Habits team play…at Twilight Polo. The kids were overtaken with excitement as they watched the match. With the basics they learned earlier that day fresh in their minds…they cheered and jeered as they followed the action back and forth!”
Jackie also emphasizes that “It was a really fun opportunity for the kids to see people that they knew actually play polo in a high intensity match. [And,] they also saw the kind of community that you have when you go to something like that. Setting up your own blankets, picnics, and tailgates…just driving out an hour and having this whole equestrian experience is eye-opening and really part of the exposure that we wanted to share.”
One great thing about the Recreational Habits model is that it’s self-sustaining – the proceeds from the first four polo clinics went toward helping host the Youth Day. “Integrating people who were paying for the clinics was great because they actually became the sponsors of the Youth Day. [Through their] experiences, [they] gave back,” Jackie says.
Jackie and Marlon are excited to host more clinics like this in the future. This fall, they have an event in the works which will potentially be foxhunting themed, and they are already planning on hosting another polo clinic series next spring. To learn more about Recreational Habits and keep up with their upcoming events, please visit recreationalhabits.com. For more information about the City Kids Wilderness Project, including how you can get involved, please visit citykidsdc.org. ML
This article first appeared in the July 2022 Issue.