Jun 06, 2017 8:28 PM

Big Horn Polo Club

There is arguably no other club in the United States that is as dedicated and devoted to developing horses for polo than Big Horn Polo Club. Nestled at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, near Sheridan, Wyoming, the club has evolved from a culture deeply and passionately intertwined with the horse. The mountainous backdrop surrounded by vast expanses of land cultivates an urgent sense of adventure that is hard to ignore.

Big Horn Polo Club ©Cate Sheehan
Richard Dudman on a breakaway during the C&K Equipment Cup. ©Cate Sheehan

Polo was established in the area in the late nineteenth century by English nobleman Oliver Henry Wallop and Scotsman Malcolm Moncreiffe who brought with them thoroughbred horses. According to the Big Horn Polo Club website, “The Polo Ranch, which Oliver Wallop inherited from Malcolm Moncreiffe and in turn handed it down to Senator Malcolm Wallop, was the center of polo in the Northern Rockies until the early 1980's when the ranch was sold. The sale of the Polo Ranch forced the Big Horn Polo Club to find another field.” The search for a new location led to Big Horn Polo Club’s present day establishment at the Big Horn Equestrian Center with a remarkable seven fields.

Photo Courtesy of the Polo Museum and Hall of Fame
Members of the Wallop family in the early years of Big Horn Polo Club. Photo Courtesy of the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame.

On the cusp of their thirtieth season, the club is currently home to 30 local players as well as many out-of-town players who visit for a portion or all of the summer season. The club is widely-recognized as the premier location to find promising young horses, credit to the number of breeders and trainers who make Big Horn their home. Along with the adjacent Flying H Polo Club, some of the top-rated players in the world travel to the western United States, putting Wyoming on the map as a primary summer polo destination for many in the sport.

“You wouldn’t think the middle of Wyoming would have the incredibly good quality polo that we have and that’s at every level.”  – Club President Perk Connell

Big Horn Polo Club
Shane Rice reaches for the hook on Gillian Johnston during Don King Days tournament play. ©Alexis Von Gontard

“For a small club like this, there is something for your green horse to do almost every single day in the summer,” said Club President Perk Connell. “We have what we call ‘keep away’ on Tuesday and Thursdays and that’s for the green horses to learn to play; there is no game, they’re out there with one ball—like a hive of bees! You can hit three times, no back shots and no hooking. Then Wednesday and Friday we have full practices with at least 10 chukkers and two match games on Sunday."

Big Horn Polo Club
Club President Perk Connell gives direction to horse trainer Amanda Burns on a young polo prospect. ©Alexis Von Gontard

The Big Horn Polo Club acknowledges that the horse is the center of much of the Big Horn history and culture and homage to their western roots is evident in their approach to the sport. “We have a reputation for fair, fun polo,” said Dalton. “Competitive but not overly competitive. It’s a style that doesn’t suit everyone, so we seem to attract like-minded individuals. People like to bring young horses and enjoy the keep away and practices and the comradery. If someone is on a green horse, they give them space, they let them make their plays. On the other hand, if a high-goal trainer is on a six-year-old and wants to run, they can do that. Everyone tries to understand the other player’s goal.”

Unlike many clubs who welcome teams to compete in month-long tournaments, Big Horn Polo Club members sign up for the weekly featured matches individually and the club manager creates teams. “The secret of our club is that you may play against someone one week and the next week they are on your team,” said Connell. “It keeps everything friendly and competitive. Plus, you always have a chance at winning.”

“I call it the green horse capital of the United States, there are more green horses up here being made at any level. When they leave here they go to the Flying H next door and then they are in the higher-goal.”

Team USPA Members
Team USPA members during summer training in Wyoming.

“We really work well with the Flying H,” said Club Manager Kristine Dalton, “and we understand that our club benefits a lot from having them beside us. Julio Arellano’s entire family comes over and plays with us. Last year we had Miguel Novillo Astrada’s kids come over, and then we had Miguel come over. Pretty much everyone plays their spares on our side of the fence and their family members play. So during our practices it’s really special for people who come here, who otherwise would never have the opportunity to play with someone at that level. It’s not uncommon for us to have a 10-14 goal practice during the week.”

It’s no wonder Team USPA decided to base their summer training program at this club. “There were two main reasons why they came out here,” said Connell. “One was to have access to a lot of the pros that were here in the summer. When they started coming six years ago, players such as Owen Rinehart, Adam Snow, Julio Arellano, would be able to give lessons, and the kids would get advice and schooling. Over at our club they could play in exchange for umpiring and flagging. It’s been a good situation for them and for us.”

Big Horn Polo Club Polo School
Big Horn Polo School students enjoy a lesson.

This focus on education whether it be in the development of horses or players has given rise to a concerted effort at a successful polo school. All new this year, the club has hired Certified Polo Instructor Megan Flynn to head the summer polo school with the express purpose to engage the youth in the community. “We have a lot of young people around here that ride and have a horsey background,” said Dalton, “and we think it’s a bit of an untapped market. If you can barrel race and rope, it shouldn’t be a tremendous step to play polo. If you have a 15-hand quarter horse, you can probably teach that horse to play polo.”

Spectators enjoy a Sunday tailgate.
Spectators enjoy a Sunday tailgate under vivid blue skies. ©Alexis Von Gontard

Involvement with the local community is paramount to the Big Horn Polo Club, with almost every featured Sunday match benefitting a Sheridan charity organization. Spectators are encouraged to come out and watch Sunday games in a friendly and welcoming atmosphere with stands, tailgating spots, food and drink concessions, and knowledgeable and entertaining announcers. The largest draw of the season takes place over Labor Day weekend—Don King Days. Named in honor of famous local saddle and rope maker and staple community member Don King, this year-end celebration is guaranteed a packed perimeter. A three-day celebration, the contests include a variety of events including polo, bronc riding, roping and a world-championship blacksmith competition. Held directly on the polo fields with no fencing or barriers, these events get you up close and personal with the action. “The saddle broncs buck right through the crowd quite often,” laughed Connell.

Big Horn Polo Club Don King Days
Bronc riding competition during Don King Days held on the Big Horn Polo Club fields.

Just a short stay at the Big Horn Polo Club will convince you that The Wild West is not just a myth, but a genuine way of life and when you’re not playing, you can always find something to do. If you’re interested in western history there are many museums and Indian battlefield sites and in mid-July there is the celebrated Sheridan WYO Rodeo. A major stop on the rodeo circuit, this vibrant Sheridan event, in its eighty-seventh year, is highlighted by the notorious World Championship Indian Relay Races. Many members inspired by the amazing scenery and abundant wildlife, have found excellent fishing in the area, while the nearby Big Horn National Forest offers trails for ATVs, mountain bikes or hiking.

WYO Indian Relay Races
A rider in the World Championship Indian Relay Races at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo takes off after a horse exchange. ©Alexis Von Gontard

If you have a love of polo, passion for horses and a thirst for adventure look no further than Big Horn Polo Club. A summertime haven for some of polo’s greats, Big Horn Polo Club offers the opportunity to rub elbows with many of the best in the industry, in a casual and family-oriented atmosphere, surrounded by a rich history of polo spanning 120 years, united by a common love of the horse.

Steer wrestling during the Sheridan WYO Rodeo. ©Alexis Von Gontard
Steer wrestling during the Sheridan WYO Rodeo. ©Alexis Von Gontard

“The quality of people who come here, that are truly interested in making and developing horses, that’s really a key aspect. People come here because they really like the horses, they don’t just like polo, they love horses.”  – Kristine Dalton, Big Horn Polo Club Manager

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