Posted February 26, 2013 in Adventure Journals by Jim Markel
Our former Public Relations Intern, Kathleen "Kat" Healy, knows her horses. She’s been riding since before she could spell pony. As soon as she heard one of our Red Oxx customers was picking up a prize for a polo tournament near Billings, she packed a Market Tote and headed to Wyoming.
Who knew that stellar polo exists in a town known for its western atmosphere and cattle ranches? Tucked away in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains is the Flying H Polo Club, a professional, nationally known club based outside Sheridan, Wyoming. In fact, polo ponies have grazed on the prairies surrounding Sheridan for more than a century. Nowadays the tiny community of Big Horn sees some of the greatest polo players in the world.
When I heard that the best polo outside of Santa Barbara was only two hours from Billings, I packed my Market Tote with strawberries, watermelon, grapes, and a bottle of Prosecco. Then I grabbed two girlfriends and one enormous hat.
The polo match coincided with Crow Fair, a powwow and All-Indian Rodeo the third weekend in August at Crow Agency, a spot that’s earned its title as the "Tipi Capital of the World."
Neither of my friends had seen the spectacle of more than 1,000 tipis surrounding the powwow grounds or seen the competition dancing in full Plains Indian regalia, so it was a perfect addition to our Montana – Wyoming day trip.
After a quick photo shoot by the side of the highway, we pull into the lush manicured grounds at the Big Horn Equestrian Center. The dark green fields stand out in startling contrast to the backdrop of the dry Wyoming landscape.
We are just in time… on Saturdays throughout the season they hand out champagne during the divot stomp, helping to fill in the divots on the field between games. The best part? The professional polo games at Flying H Polo Club are FREE.
It’s nickname "The Sport of Kings" is fitting–each player has more than one horse, and in high goal matches, they have four or more mounts (since it is the highest level of competition). Plus you get to throw around phrases using words like "chukker" (a period of play) and "bowl in", "hook", and my newest polo-term-turned insult "mallet head."
My favorite description of polo is a quote from U.S polo team member Michael R. Hoffman. He describes the game to the Washington Post:
"You are five feet off the ground, on a horse galloping at full speed around a field, holding a 52-inch-long stick and trying to hit a ball three inches in diameter. And there are four other guys that are all trying to prevent you from doing it."
Polo is an intensely athletic sport, for both horse and rider. Owen Rinehart, a former 10-goal player Hall of Famer has won every major tournament in the USA and England, plays in Sheridan. FYI: there are only five 10-goal players in the US. He currently breeds, raises and trains polo horses.
Red Oxx has made bags for the Big Horn Polo Club prizes for the Montaylor Cup—which is how I heard about the polo tournaments. After watching a rousing game, I am ready to start a Billings Polo Club Chapter myself. I’ve heard a few people play snow polo (although I do know of other polo around Billings– bike polo, canoe polo, even golf cart polo) but cowboy polo is the most popular around here.
It’s almost exclusively played in Montana (although its popularity is waning, where we used to have 30 clubs around the state, now we only have five). Keep your eyes open for Team Red Oxx (anyone know where I can find six quality polo ponies on the cheap?)
On our way back to Billings after the match, we pull into Crow Agency to eat fry bread and watch the sun go down behind rows and rows of tipis.
More than 45,000 spectators are drawn to the fair each year. Tiered wooden bleachers circle the powwow grounds. Each evening, the dancers gather near the announcer’s booth for the Grand Entry, led by veterans carrying flags. The dancing parade moves to the rhythmic pounding of drum groups from various tribes. Toddlers in their first powwow outfits dance beside grannies wearing exquisite shawls over buckskin dresses and leggings.
The wailing cries of the drum groups fill the night air along with the delicate bell-like sound of young girls moving in "jingle dresses," outfits created by attaching rows of the shiny rolled lids off tins of Copenhagen chewing tobacco. Beyond the circle of bleachers, the smell of fry bread sizzling in oil drifts from makeshift food stands, where Indian Tacos are a not-to-be-missed treat. Little ones, covered in Pendleton blankets or star quilts, fall asleep in the bleachers or on lawn chairs as the dancing and drumming continues far into the night.
Who would have thought the Sport of Kings would be so close to Billings? Wonder if they allow polo competitors to ride a bull… we could have a team of real Red Oxxen. Looking forward to checking out a polo game soon. Cheers, Jim