Writing this may be the hardest and most gratifying thing I ever do. While my heart aches with loss, I am overwhelmed with the compulsion to tell the story of a woman who played a million chukkers of polo in her lifetime, without ever swinging a mallet.
Audrey Klein was my great-grandmother, and perhaps the most amazing cheerleader you ever could have asked for. In a family of polo players and self proclaimed horse crazy kids and grandkids, she was completely out of her element. She thought the horses were beautiful, but they made her unbelievably nervous. Although she’d occasionally ridden in her younger years, as time progressed and the obsession grew within her family, she found her niche not in the saddle, but rather on the fence of the arena, cheering as loud as she could at every gymkhana, polo tournament, horse show and rodeo that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren entered. Her daughter Carolyn met her future husband Russ Sheldon in Michigan, while he delivered newspapers from his Shetland pony on the cobblestone streets of Port Huron.
A Horse Crazy Family
Audrey always said that should have been the first red flag of what her life had in store. That seemingly innocent beginning would prove to be the catalyst of a horse crazy family that would root itself in sunny southern California and forge three generations of polo players. The Sheldon clan has had much success and publicity over the years for polo as a “family affair,” which was graciously embraced by Audrey as the blessing that kept her family so close together.
Although Russ had found polo in Michigan through polo Hall of Famer and friend Merle Jenkins, it was when the family, including Audrey and her late husband Bill, moved to California that things really got moving in an irreversible avalanche of horses and polo that would cascade from her son-in-law to her youngest great-grandson. To anyone who knew her, she was a constant balance of support, from making food for players and spectators during tournaments at the Poway Valley Riders Association, to also acting as a yearly sponsor for the club’s activities without ever riding a horse herself on the property.
Always a Cheerleader
She cheered as loud as her family would allow at any and all games she attended, and with an avid diligence that began when my mother was in high school, she pulled out her “lucky green man” for each game played. Now, to anyone who knew her, the “lucky green man” was a token that was not to be taken lightly. The pocket sized troll held her streak of luck, and rubbing his head allowed her to share it with everyone important to her, even when she couldn’t physically be there herself. From USPA Governor-at-Large elections for Russ, to 20 goal tournaments in Florida and California for great-grandsons Shane and Jared, the “little green man” sat faithfully on her nightstand, head rubbed until a phone report later in the day told her how the games had turned out. She listened with patience as whoever called gave a chukker by chukker highlight reel of all the important events of a game. Whichever horse played the best for you that day, well that one was her favorite. When her family won tournaments playing together, that was the best. When family played against each other, she rooted for both teams. She was a constant source of support, diplomacy and love in a sport that had no interest to her beyond the fact that it was important to the people most important to her.
A Final Journey
This past winter at 87 years of age, Audrey made the trip to Wellington, Florida to see what all the excitement was about concerning high-goal polo that she had heard so much about. The weekend she came out, I was playing in the WCT Arena Women’s Tournament at El Sur Polo Club. She and “the little green man” sat alongside the arena in her wheelchair, cheering and coaching between chukkers as she embraced every moment of me playing the sport that seemed to anchor our family. It was windy, so she put earmuffs on.
It was late, so she drank some coke to not feel so tired. There was nothing to dissuade her from supporting my passion. She told my teammates how proud she was of them; she told my horse Strawberry what a great horse she was for trying so hard for me. I told her then that I wished she knew what it felt like to me to play this game, and that was when she told me “there’s not a chukker I haven’t played with you. I listen to everything you tell me, and I imagine it’s me. I always play with my family”
This past September, we unexpectedly lost my great-grandmother at a hospital in Michigan. It is difficult to explain the void of not calling to tell her about my games or that Jared will soon be playing in Texas alongside Shane. I write this not about a great polo player, but rather about the most important of polo supporters. She is a shining example of the reason why so many of us continue to have our horses, to play again and again in spite of challenges. She is among the many who selflessly sit on the sidelines as a coach, mentor and friend to our crazy passions. So to the horse show moms, polo coaches, cheerleaders and selfless sacrificers….THANK YOU will never be enough.