Polo alive and well in Alberta

A long history started 135 years ago

Will Verboven Ahead of the Heard

Recently your columnist attended a polo match at the renowned Calgary Polo Club (CPC) grounds near Okotoks. The property encompasses about three hundred acres and features nine polo fields along with stables, training facilities and a clubhouse. This is no amateur operation – the club employs a professional player who also manages the facilities and carries out training sessions. The grounds are reputed to be one of the best in North America – who knew.

The CPC has a long, glorious history going back to the 1880’s. Along with horse racing and rodeo, polo emerged as an equine sport in southern Alberta, initially supported by the early British ranching families that established the cattle industry. Since much of the work on the big ranches was done by local cowboys, I expect many of owners/managers had time on their hands to pursue horse sports. Early polo clubs were established in Pincher Creek, Fort MacLeod, High River, Calgary and other locales. Some of those clubs gained fame winning championships in Canada and the USA. Interest in polo faded after the glory years and coalesced into a few clubs with the Calgary Polo Club being a major survivor, in large part due to support from prominent Alberta establishment families like Mannix and Cross. That participation from well-heeled and patrician families saved and supported polo not just in Calgary but in much of the world.

Polo is seen by many as the sport of royalty, or at least the rich and pretentious, and that is true to a certain extent. The reality is that it takes a lot of space and many specially-trained polo horses to participate in the sport – an expensive proposition. It was easier back in the old days when British ranchers could maintain polo horses on their properties. Nowadays, the CPC and other clubs have been able to mitigate the prohibitive cost through horse leasing and rentals. In the US, where the sport is more extensive, big money plays a major part in the stability of the sport. Flamboyant spectators at polo match events tailgating with champagne and caviar are part of the image. Its that image that may inhibit participation in the sport by regular folks. The CPC tries to mitigate that perception with open membership, a rental program and training for participants.

The sport has been described as hockey on horses and it has its own unique rules and protocol. There are 4 chukkers (periods) that last only 7 minutes and horses are changed at halftime. That would seem understandable as horses are going flat out much of the time, but it does make for a shorter game compared to other team sports. But that leaves more time to sip beer and enjoy gourmet potato chips – that’s my level of tailgating. The leisurely pace of the game does remind one of watching baseball, but the action is intense when play is underway; watching ten horses racing down a field with riders swinging six-foot mallets is quite impressive. Close skirmishes are common between teams and mallets are often broken. People injuries must occur, noting the presence of a standby ambulance.

Argentina is the major polo powerhouse in international competition with some of their professional players participating in polo tournaments in Canada. In Argentina polo matches fill grandstands with thousands of spectators. One notes that at the recent CPC polo event there were horse trailers from California and Texas with Spanish being heard amongst handlers and some participants. There is a polo tournament circuit in the US that extends from New York to California. There are also polo world championships (polo was an Olympic event until 1936) with polo horses travelling by air to those events. It takes big money to play in that league and teams from Dubai and Thailand are supported by local billionaires. No such luck in Canada – although Canada was a world polo power 100 years ago we now barely rank at the international level. I guess we need a Canadian billionaire to get our polo teams to that level.

There appear to be Canadian professional polo players who travel to events around the continent, but they seem to be sponsored by corporate or private entities.

It is interesting to note that the three horse sports – polo, rodeo and racing – all started about the same time in Alberta with polo originally being the more popular of the three. Polo is a fascinating game, a lot cheaper to attend, and a lesser-known part of Alberta’s ranching heritage.

willverboven@hotmail.com

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