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In the first of its kind in Wine Country, more than 500 people attended a polo match Sunday in Santa Rosa to raise money for programs that help wounded veterans.

Retired financier Henry Trione, a polo aficionado who has nurtured the sport in Sonoma County and whose name is attached to the polo field next to Oakmont, summed up the reason for Sunday's event.

"It's so very vital. People don't realize the number of veterans who are seriously incapacitated," he said.

He said fund-raisers for programs are critical because "of the thousands of veterans that are incapacitated. The Veterans Administration provides a minimum amount of facilities."

Trione, 90, is a veteran of World War II who served as a lieutenant senior grade in the U.S. Navy. But he appreciates a game that has ties to mounted soldiers. Polo has ancient origins, but in the 1800s it was revived and sustained by British and American cavalry officers who used it to improve horsemanship and leadership skills.

So it seemed fitting that a polo match would be used to help wounded veterans.

"There are deep ties between the cavalry and polo. There is a deep military connection," said Kermit Claytor, a commander in the Order of St. John, an historic Christian order of chivalry, a group that traces its roots back to the Crusades in the late 11th century.

A publicist said Sunday's event raised more than $40,000 in ticket and table sales, not including proceeds from a silent auction and other donations expected to boost the total.

"The community has been very responsive to this cause. We think it will really grow," said Shirley Schaufel, event coordinator for the Wine Country Polo Club, which hopes to make the "Wounded Warriors Polo Benefit" an annual event.

Under blue, cloud-brushed skies with red-tinged Hood Mountain as a backdrop, spectators watched the hard-charging polo ponies and their mallet-swinging riders gallop the green field.

The casually chic, summer-attired attendees sipped wine and lunched on crusted salmon and grilled top sirloin.

Sunday's event benefitted two programs in particular:

-- Pathway Home, a Yountville program for severely injured American soldiers returning from combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.

-- The Veterans' Program at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, which provides equestrian therapy for disabled people, including those who can't walk.

"When you sit astride a horse, the movement of a horse mimics the movement of walking," said Bonnie MacCurdy, director of equine services for the agency. "It can help them regain the ability to walk."

She said there is also a new program of therapeutic carriage-driving for veterans who are unable to walk or sit astride a horse.

"It's very empowering. It gives them a lot of self-esteem and confidence," she said of the ability to drive the carriage.

The Yountville based Pathway Home has helped more than 500 veterans in the past several years.

"This program has been able to succeed with veterans who have transition and socialization problems when others haven't," said Baron Buechner, department administrator of the Veterans Home in Yountville.

He said it's helped to preserve family relationships among veterans who may be fighting suicidal impulses or having relationship and employment problems.

With the assistance of other veterans, they come together in a tranquil environment for a three- to four-month stay in an in-patient program.

The returning veterans have traumatic brain injuries and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Fred Gusman, founder of the Pathway Home, said it employes yoga, meditation, acupuncture and chiropractors along with more other treatments. He said the needs of wounded veterans will be greater than ever over the next five years with 30,000 veterans returning annually from Afghanistan and Iraq.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

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