As you will read in an upcoming Western Producer feature, a rancher by the name of E.W. Wilmot, originally from Britain, was a polo enthusiast who brought polo equipment to his ranch. According to historical reports, the game was an instant hit. Wilmot established the first official club in 1889, and other clubs sprung up shortly thereafter.
Some of them still exist today, although the original Pincher Creek club and the nearby and renowned North Fork club no longer operate.
Farley Wuth is curator of the Pincher Creek and District Historical Society, based in the heart of that town at the Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village. He has done some research on polo clubs in the area and notes many of the names on polo rosters are still around today. Ranching families tend to last, apparently.
Wealthy British families founded many of the area’s ranches, and “remittance men,” the sons of wealthy families who received quarterly stipends from home, were common members of polo teams.
But Wuth says working ranchers also favoured the game, so it wasn’t just for the elite. Matches could take place over several days, and were social events for all involved.
Players and spectators had to be dedicated, because before the railway came through southern Alberta in 1898, horseback and wagon were the only means of getting to the matches.
Though locals of the Pincher Creek region doubtless knew of its illustrious polo past, I only came across it after mentioning that I watched a polo match while on vacation earlier this year in Palm Springs, California. Hey, it was free and the weather was grand, so why not?
It was apparent that polo is indeed a rich man’s sport, requiring numerous horses and the means to transport them in style and comfort. There were no rake handles being used for polo sticks, as occurred in southern Alberta’s early polo history. And the horse trailers are palatial. I’ve lived in apartments that weren’t as nice as some of those trailers.
The polo game itself is exciting, and makes a lot more sense once you realize the teams change ends after every goal. That particular rule impeded my understanding in the early going.
The most impressive part was the stamina of the horses. Quick turns, rapid acceleration and keeping calm in a melee of other horses and riders must require good breeding and training.
The horses are no longer called polo ponies, I learned. The term relates to a previous rules requirement that the horses be no more than 14.2 hands. Polo ponies were often drawn from western cutting horse breeds. Now they are primarily thoroughbreds.
In the early days of Canadian polo, when the sport was played in open prairie pastures, I doubt that turf management was given much thought. In modern polo matches, played on carefully managed fields, there is indeed a divot stomp at the halfway point of the chukkers. So, if you’ve ever seen the movie Pretty Woman, rest assured that delightful part of the movie was authentic.