Dale leans against his polo mallet while standing next to his horse, Sunny.
Credit: Andria Lo
The Way We Eat

How Dale Johnson — Tech Worker by Day, Polo Player by Night — Eats for the Week

updated Feb 4, 2021
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NameDale Johnson
Location: Oakland, CA
How many people eat together in your home? 3; myself and my parents.
Avoidances: “I wish I ate everything, but my diet basically fuels my athletic pursuits.”

Here’s proof that one vacation can change your life: On a trip to Buenos Aires just over three years ago, 32-year-old Dale Johnson casually spotted a pair of polo boots on display in a store. “Those shoes are badass, I gotta get into that,” he thought, and months later he joined a clinic. Now, at age 35, Dale is a nationally competitive polo player who, along with his horse, Sunny, is taking the sport by storm.

If you’re wondering the kind of person who can become a powerhouse polo player seemingly on a whim (on top of his day job), that person is Dale. “I’m not trying to be virtuous, maybe I’m just a nerd,” he says of his highly disciplined habits — habits that include waking up at dawn, drinking tons of black coffee, working out, doing daily affirmations, reading books by Roman stoics, and going to bed by 10 p.m.

I caught up with Dale to talk about the diet that fuels his grueling schedule, his horse’s favorite snack, and what he eats after a tough match.

Credit: Andria Lo

You say your diet fuels your athletic pursuits — how so?
I need a diet that allows me to maintain a lot of energy. Everything is centered around that. My days start pretty early. I do a workout in my home gym that starts around 5 or 6 a.m. I also have a day job — I’m a global manager at Visa. So I do that from 9 to 5 p.m. and then at the end of the day I train my horse, Sunny. So I need to have enough energy to start at 6 a.m. and end my day at 10 p.m.

I make sure that the diet I have keeps me relatively lean and light. When you play polo, and you’re on a horse, you need to be 20 percent of the horse’s weight on its back. So I need to maintain that weight while also remaining robust. Polo is a contact sport. We do ride-offs, which means we push our horses into one another. There’s an advantage to being larger than your typical polo player. I need to stay light enough for the horse, but big enough to be intimidating.

What does that mean food-wise?
I have black coffee all day long. It’s a staple of mine. I love Blue Bottle (it’s an Oakland company, so being born and raised here I’m happy to support it). I don’t drink too much alcohol. I’ll enjoy a beer with a friend, but usually it’s water. I’m also a huge juice fiend (pineapple, guava), but I try to stay away from that stuff because of the sugar.

I make sure I get a lot of protein. A typical breakfast for me is a sunny-side-up egg, turkey bacon, an avocado, and toast. I think of my diet in terms of balance. Lunches are typically chicken. For dinner I shoot for fish, like salmon, or more poultry. I love a good quail. I’m not a huge red meat eater; I tend to eat it sparingly. Although in polo, red meat is the thing to do. It’s an Argentine sport.

Credit: Andria Lo

Do you enjoy cooking?
I love to cook — typically. Since I moved back in with my parents in San Francisco during the pandemic, it changed a bit. I used to cook almost every night of the week (if I didn’t go to the Whole Foods hot bar). There’s not a lot of counter space at my parents’ place. I was like, “Mom, why do you have all these porcelain chickens?” No, but really, they have everything we need. My mom will cook dinners every now and then, but I grew up learning to cook for myself. My mom is quite liberated; she was always like, “Good luck, you’re on your own.”

What’s the best recovery meal?
I love a hard-boiled egg and cured meats, maybe some cheese. Everything I eat is protein-heavy. I also love fruit, tree nuts — something like that to keep me going after games. Polo is pretty taxing.

Credit: Andria Lo

Polo isn’t the most common sport — how did you get into it?
My grandfather raised Quarter Horses on a family cattle ranch north of Houston. He moved to the Bay Area like a lot of families did in the 1940s. And my mother is a huge animal-lover, too. I’ve always loved horses and rode them on and off as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was an adult, and took a trip to Buenos Aires in 2017, that it became something I was passionate about. I was in a shop purchasing something for my mother and I saw that pair of polo boots. A few months later I reached out to the Bay Area Polo Club, went to the clinic, and the rest is history.

Credit: Andria Lo

Tell me about Sunny!
Sunny and I go back about two years — I started playing close to three years ago. Sunny is a mare with a lot of attitude. She was previously owned by a player at a club I play at, but she wasn’t the favorite. She was pushed into a stable across the street and she wasn’t being played. At the time, I was desperate to ride every day, but it’s expensive. A fellow member said “I know this polo pony if you want to help get her back up to snuff, you can get a discount.” I got on Sunny for the first time and she was a bronco, bucking, running me against walls — just not in the mood. We stuck with it and she ended up being a beautiful horse that performs on the field, turns at the drop of a hat, is responsible, very sweet. Ultimately, she needed a lot of attention and someone who wanted her to develop and grow. Training my own horse is something I was new to, but I did it. She’s impacted my life.

What are some of her favorite foods?
She eats grass hay and oat hay. She’s constantly grazing. Her food is all sourced from the ranch where she stays. They grow the hay literally behind her. She also loves alfalfa. I also supplement her diet with nutrients and vitamins to make sure she’s in top playing shape. She’s an athlete and my teammate! I want her to be comfortable and have a good life — I take that really seriously.

Credit: Andria Lo

How has the pandemic affected your life and polo career?
Like everyone else, I needed to slow down in life. The pace in the Bay Area was really hectic and competitive. I work in tech. And with the traffic, costs, I really didn’t know what was good for me until things came to a screeching halt. It helped me reflect on who I was, what I valued, what kind of person I wanted to be, and the type of people I wanted to surround myself with. When things slowed down, all I had was work, my horse, a close tight group of friends, the polo community, and my ability to work out.

Sunny has been fantastic. I keep her on a ranch that’s not far from here; it’s 600 private acres. We can ride to the top of coastal ranges, see ocean views, tree canopies. I have time to ride my horse and just think about my life and where I want to go. I just turned 35 and made a lot of personal changes. It was like, Okay, what’s the next step? I want to own a home with land, be a little out from the city, maybe move to the East Coast, grow in the sport, and grow my career.

You (both!) do so much — how do you relax?
Right now I’m reading The Warmth of Other Suns. It looks into the Black emigration from the South to Northern cities to escape Jim Crowism. My grandparents were caught up in that wave from Texas. That wave changed and shaped the face of America.

Another book I’m reading is On the Shortness of Life, by Seneca, the Roman stoic. Life is long if you know how to use it. He talks about how we waste time doing things we don’t enjoy doing. We should try to pursue people and things that we love. That was a huge goal of mine when the pandemic started: How much am I going to learn? How much am I going to do?

I’m also reading After the Rain by Alex Elle. I like to do affirmations in the morning. Life is hard enough so I try to start off the morning on a positive note, in addition to working out. It helps keep me grounded and peaceful.

Credit: Andria Lo

Thanks for sharing, Dale! Follow Dale (and Sunny!) on Instagram.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.