Old West meets Old World in Big Horn

  • The high-speed action of a match

    JORDAN EDGCOMB
  • The crowd watching from the sidelines

    JORDAN EDGCOMB
  • The 300-yard arena, flanked by ranchland and trophy homes, in the shadow of the Big Horn

    JORDAN EDGCOMB
  • a polo ball, just slightly larger than a baseball

    JORDAN EDGCOMB
 

Shane Winkler pops open a can of Bud Light and stuffs a wad of Copenhagen into his mouth before turning on the sound system at the Big Horn Equestrian Center just outside Sheridan in northern Wyoming. It's a hot July afternoon. The only shade is in the top rows of the small set of bleachers and under the opened hatchbacks of Subarus and the toppers of pickup trucks along the 300-yard sideline of the manicured field. The match is about to begin, and several white-haired men seated in the bleachers bemoan the fact that the "beer lady" has not yet arrived.

Horses are as common as drive-thru liquor stores in this part of Wyoming. The green hills are dotted with thoroughbreds, and this time of year you're likely to see foals standing unsteadily next to their mothers. Even folks living in cramped apartments in town are likely to own at least one horse, even though it means paying to board the animal elsewhere. Ranching runs deep here, and with it another unlikely tradition - the sport of polo. It might seem surprising that a sport more commonly associated with the likes of Prince Charles has roots here, but when you consider the basic requirements of polo - a good horse and a good rider - those roots make perfect sense.

The Big Horn equestrian fields are framed by trophy homes on one side, the state bird farm on another and wide-open ranch land on yet another. Directly next door to the Big Horn fields is the Flying H Polo Club, where some of the greatest players in the world come each summer for what's called high-goal polo. Looming over it all are the Big Horn Mountains, or as the locals call them, "The Mountain."

"This is called the lineup," says Perk Connell, a local polo horse breeder and trainer who literally grew up on a polo field - her childhood home was located on the field in Illinois where her father worked. If you didn't know otherwise, you might mistake her for a 12-year-old boy instead of the 54-year-old she is. Her close-cropped blonde hair is covered with a tattered hat that says "Perk's Horspital," a sort of transitional care center for horses that she runs to supplement her breeding income.

Eight players and horses line up as best they can, and the umpire tosses in the ball. Connell knows each player's name and handicap and can even add a personal detail or two. She points out her niece, a father and son and a husband and wife. The polo community in the tiny town of Big Horn is a close-knit group, but the 45 members of the Big Horn Polo Club make it one of the biggest polo clubs in the United States.

In addition to being the oldest club west of the Mississippi, it's also the cheapest. At least that's what Sam Morton says. Morton is the author of a historical novel about horses and polo in southern Montana and northern Wyoming. When he's not writing, Morton is a horse dentist. He divides his year between Big Horn and Wellington, Fla., another polo hub.

"I'm kind of like the Forrest Gump of polo," Morton says, meaning that polo is one of those things he just stumbled into that changed the direction of his life. Tall and lanky, with a hint of his North Carolina upbringing in his voice, Morton is also one of the reasons that polo in this area continues from one generation to the next. He teaches a free polo clinic to anyone with a horse every Saturday evening in the summer.

Horses and riders rumble up and down the field, and the score is kept on a wooden board perched on top of an old horse-drawn wagon. Connell curses and cheers under her breath every time a mallet hits the ball. She still hasn't decided which team to pull for. Finally, after the first seven-minute period - called a chukker - the beer lady shows up with a cooler full of cans and bottles of both American and imported beer. Bud is by far the preferred drink of this crowd.

Barefoot kids and dogs run up and down the fields during the brief breaks between chukkers, and tailgate classics like Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" and Alan Jackson's "Pop a Top" ring out from the sound system. At halftime, the entire crowd heads onto the field to stomp divots back into place.

The crowd, usually about 300 people, is a collection of fans of the sport, people in the polo business, tourists, ranchers and folks who just like horses or have nothing better to do on a Sunday afternoon. Tommy Wayman, a former 10-goal player and polo Hall-of-Famer, sits on the tailgate of a white Ford pickup sipping a can of beer. He played for 52 years before quitting four years ago. "I used to think they couldn't have a game if I wasn't here," Wayman says, "but they can."

Wayman moved to this area about 11 years ago for several reasons, and polo was definitely one of them. "It's got such a long history here," he says. "The cavalry brought it here, and you have to remember the ranchers who started playing polo on weekends for recreation."

The earliest known game of polo played in the Big Horn area was in 1893. Families with names that are still famous in the polo community - Moncrieffe, Gallatin, Forbes - moved in not long after and began polo pony-breeding operations. During the 1920s, at the height of the game's popularity, these families would hold huge horse events and invite Indian chiefs and cowboys, Morton says.

The polo players in this Wyoming community today are a mix of descendants from those families. They are also brokers, psychologists, small-business owners, high school students and cowboys.

This Sunday's polo match is a good one. The score remains close for the entire game. In the last few seconds, one of the younger players - a teenager - knocks in the winning goal. Banner Log Homes wins the game 9-8 over D.A. Davidson.

Connell whoops, not for a particular team, but just because it was a beautiful play made by a promising young player. Another generation is ready to continue the history of polo at the foot of the Big Horns.

"This is a fortunate combination of place, people and talent," she says.


The author is a freelance writer who lives in Sheridan, Wyoming.

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