Cayuses and Chukkers
Polo a millionaire’s sport? Cut! In the West it is less expensive than golf
E. L. CHICANOT
IT HAPPENED that when walking in the environs of Montreal one afternoon I passed a field in which a polo match was in progress between a representative Canadian team and one from the United States. Casually I moved across and looked over the railing. I don’t suppose I should have remained for more than a minute but that the players were coming off the field after a chukker and the foremost combination of horse and rider arrested my attention. There was something intriguingly familiar about the two, and yet it didn’t seem possible I could have seen them before.
Then, as I continued to stare, my subconscious mind got busy and gradually it came to me. Slowly the picture before me faded and I was back on the sun-browned prairie of Southern Alberta. There was the same lithe, agile sorrel pony, only minus his careful grooming and with his mane and tail long and unkempt, his nose unwaveringly at the rump of a steer he was following through a herd. The white breeches and long polished boots of his rider changed as I looked into a pair of rather moth-eaten salmon chaps. There wasn’t a shadow of doubt about its being the same outfit.
“Hullo!” I called, as the player approached within hearing distance. “When did you leave High River?”
He looked up at me and then grinned in recognition. “You’re far from home,” I followed up.
“Yep. There’s two of us from the High River bunch here.”
“Not counting the sorrel,” I said, as he dismounted from his sweating animal.
“No. He don’t belong to High River any longer. Sold him in the last interval to one of the visitors.”
He leapt to his new mount, obviously also a rangebred pony, and with the same friendly grin cantered back to the field. After I had seen the sorrel led off I turned away mentally pigeon-holing the episode as one to be looked into next time I was out West.
I did not get there until the present year and then, when in Calgary, chance for a second time took me past a field where a game of polo was in progress.
There was some difference this time, however. Players appeared to be youthful, slight and lithe of figure, though they sat their wiry little mounts like veterans. The game was a fast and hotly contested one, with plenty of rough riding and some hard bumping. One could not but admire the expert mallet work. As I looked, one player riding a strawberry roan on the opposite side of the field got away with the ball and proceeded to carry it with decisive, vigorous strokes into the enemy’s territory. The back was cleverly beaten, the rider raced past him, and standing up and leaning forward in the stirrups delivered one unerring stroke which sent the ball directly between the goal posts.
As I watched, the player wheeled sharply and short, fair, decidedly feminine hair stood out behind. I gasped and observed the others more closely as they came up. I was being treated to something unique—girls playing polo. Nor were they the bronzed, keen-eyed women of the range, equally at home in the saddle as their men folk, with more use for a lariat than a
rope of pearls, but the younger set of the western city, the flappers of a year or so ago, whose first concern, popular conception would have it, was the maintenance of a proper degree of complexion and whose favorite form of exercise was thé dansant. It is the thing to speculate nowadays as to what is to become of the modern girl, but, as I regarded those two teams lining up after the goal, I thought there wasn’t much need to worry about those of Western Canada.
I went several times to the playing field that week and saw business and professional men come from their offices to indulge in a game of polo as others went off to their nine holes at the links or for a bout of tennis. I watched the Robins, Canaries and Bluebirds, as the teams are known, from the color of their jerseys, play against one another, as well as other stirring games between the Chicadees and Bobolinks, as their striped playing attire have caused the girls’ teams to be known. On Saturday afternoon I witnessed a vigorous hard-
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Cayuses and Chukkers
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fought match played between a picked team of the Canadian club and one representing the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, with spectators looking on as if they really enjoyed it, and probably did for it was good polo. And this I thought is thejwild and woolly, democratic west.
I’managed to get a word with the secretary of the club during the interval after a chukker, and in what I considered was a really diplomatic way sought information on the point that was bothering me. Comprehending, he smiled at me in the frank western way.
Polo For the Masses
T find it cheaper than golf,” he confided.
“After the war we found this ground idle and decided to make use of it. We are able to keep club fees ridiculously low. Of course, we don’t use top-notch ponies, but they’re really first rate half bred stock. We’re right at the source of supply, you see, and by keeping one’s eye open it is possible to pick up good ponies on the range for less than a hundred dollars a head. They possess all the qualities capable of development into splendid playing animals and it’s for the purchaser to bring them out, an interesting little business in itself. Then they cost little to keep here. Most of them have never seen the inside of a stable and can be turned out on the range for the winter with the assurance that they will return in the spring in sleek condition. In the summer time it is not difficult to keep them on the outskirts of the city. The outside cost of the upkeep of a pony in this manner is six dollars per month, and if a player wants his mount stabled and groomed and generally cared for, twenty dollars a month will cover it. Most of our players keep only two or three ponies for as a rule we play only four or six chukker matches instead of the regular eight chukkers.”
Discovery of the fact that polo can be played more economically in Western Canada than probably anywhere else is popularizing the game in that territory and developing it along lines that are quite unique. To-day the game is being played in an organized manner in seven places: Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary, Cochrane, Kamloops, High River, and Douglas Lake. This year the Western Canada Polo Association consisting of Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary was formed and the first tournaments held in the fall with Vancouver and Calgary, and Calgary and Winnipeg, exchanging games. Very shortly it is expected that all western Canadian teams will be in the association and the annual tournament develop into an elaborate and important affair; an outstanding feature of Western Canadian life.
Already Western Canadian players are sufficiently well known for games to be sought with them by teams across the line. Winnipeg and Vancouver are more favorably situated in this respect and exchange of play is frequent with United States army and civilian teams. The quartette representing the Manitoba city has been particularly fortunate, coming off victors in most of these international contests. Calgary is recompensed for some disadvantage in this regard by the fact that the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and the Lord Strathcona Horse go into summer camp at Sarcee, just outside the city, and both units have polo teams for exchange of play.
There’s a Reason
T HAD the opportunity of talking polo
over that week-end with my old rancher friend down at the stockyards.
“I can’t help it,” I said; “there’s something positively incongruous, almost comic, about the rugged, democratic
West playing polo; something like lumberjacks taking up ping-pong.” v*
“That’s because you have no regard to the essentials of the game or the history of its development,” he replied. “It’s really the most natural thing in the world. You think of polo as the sport of the wealthy, a modern device for the parade of luxury and opulence, involving a few players and innumerable horses and grooms, with a handful of fashionably dressed, rather bored spectators. As far as I can judge that’s probably true of the rest of the world, but it isn’t of Western Canada and I hope it never will be. Here the sport is the logical development of a country with an unfailing supply of light, wiry horses and a life lived extensively in the saddle, with expert horsemanship a criterion among its people. It’s all the more logical to-day with Alberta developing a real polo pony industry.”
“You see,” he went on, “views have got twisted. Polo isn’t primarily a fashion display but the expression of fine and expert horsemanship and the satisfying of a craving for more exciting, and dangerous, and sporting forms of riding. Polo is older than modern society. It’s as old as horses. The Persians played it in heaven knows what year B.C. The modern game originated at Aldershot when some officers of a Hussar regiment, seeking a satisfying outlet for animal spirits, used their horses to this end, and started knocking a billiard ball over the turf with hockey sticks. Just the same way ranchers in Southern Alberta took up polo when time was heavy on their hands and they wanted to insert some form of game involving reckless riding in between hard work on the range. The old timers who did the pioneer work for the game are out of it now and their day is done. We look to the youngsters to carry it on for, as I have explained, it is thoroughly characteristic of the Canadian West.”
It was in the late eighties that ranchers in Southern Alberta began to add zest to ranch life through the playing of polo. They were sufficiently organized to play regular matches in Calgary in 1890, among the horse and cattle men, devotees of the game at that time, being many prominent figures in provincial life to-day. Their example was infectious for, in the following year, teams were organized at High River and Macleod, and in the next year at Pincher Creek. Subsequently other playing bodies came into existence at Pekisko, Millarville, and Fish Creek in Southern Alberta, at Winnipeg and Brandon in Manitoba, and at Indian Head in Saskatchewan.
When Polo Was ‘Western’
THE eyes of old timers light up when they talk of those days. Polo added a new and absorbing interest to an already stirring and varied life. When, periodically, groups of ranchers met together for play, a great deal more than the game and its outcome were involved. It was the convention time of widely separated followers of a common, romantic calling; men of a peculiar and tremendous capacity for enjoyment. Each capable of extracting the utmost from congenial intercourse, they mingled in explosive compounds. These were occasions of that riotous and wild merrymaking which largely have passed away with the ranches but which still is to be experienced when the few ranchers that remain meet for the celebration of a frontier day in a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable.
Continuous playing on top of a groundwork of superb horsemanship made them expert players. In 1905, the team from High River, after defeating every other in the western provinces and securing the Western Canadian championship, journeyed east with its ponies where it met and defeated teams representing Toronto,
Montreal, Rochester and Buffalo, adding the Eastern Canadian championship to its western trophy, A yet greater tribute was paid these rancher-players when two of the High River teams were selected to play upon a representative Canadian team at Montreal against teams representing the best in England and the United States. Another player from the same High River quartette made a name for himself on the playing fields of California.
This scattering of players corresponded with the wane of ranching in Western Canada, with the ceaseless penetration of agricultural settlement, and with it came a steadily declining interest in polo which heralded the close of the first era of the game in that territory. As the ranchers went out no others came forward to take their places and continue the sport. The war quite definitely put an end to it, for not only did most of the remaining players join various branches of the army service but the ranches were drained of the best pony stock which found its way overseas into the cavalry and artillery.
When, for some time after the Armistice, the sport seemed most dead, it suddenly revived under very different circumstances and in a manner which promises it the greatest permanency. Just as in a broad consideration the playing of polo in Western Canada sprang out of the existence there of vast herds of light, wiry horses which could be adapted to play, so the new era of playing is proceeding apace with a new horse industry which has developed since the war. Just as the old play waned with the curtailment of the range, so the new game can be expected to come into greater favor and increase in popularity as the new and thriving little industry expands and prospers.
The horse which was used by the ranchers for play, before the war, was straight cow pony, often taken direct from the range and his daily work to the playing field. The qualities which made him a valuable cow pony made him equally efficient as a polo pony. In fact, some of the old ranchers maintain to-day there never were and never will be better polo ponies than the native-bred cow pony they raised, though it is to be suspected that this is a matter of natural prejudice. It is significant that in spite of the periodical movement eastward of western players with their mounts there was no foreign sale of ponies at that time. The ranchers apparently never gave a thought to export possibilities but were solely concerned with the sport.
Just prior to the war, however, and during the period of hostilities, there was considerable import of thoroughbred horses into Western Canada, and when interest in breeding was resumed again, after the Armistice, there were on the ranges many half thoroughbred mares
and many three-quarters or better, hardy and wiry from their rigorous, outdoor life on the plains. A few breeders, alert to the trend of the times, awakened to the profit which might exist in breeding polo ponies for sale to the United States where the game was being taken up much more extensively both in the army and among civilians. The success of the first to engage in the industry induced others to come in, and, to-day, there are three ranches in Southern Alberta devoted exclusively to the breeding of polo ponies, while several other ranches and even many farms are breeding a few ponies on the side for export.
A New Market For Western Ponies
T EADERS in the industry claim that L better polo ponies can be raised more economically in Western Canada than, probably, in any other part of the world. Ponies raised in Western Canada have the hardy qualities of generations of ancestors who withstood the rigorous, selective range life, combined with their forbears’ inherited agility and dexterity developed in herd work, ability to pull up sharply, turn quickly, and withstand the onslaughts of other animals. The nutritious buffalo grass of the southern ranges develops a sturdy and rugged body, and the outdoor life in such a high altitude unusually strong lung power. Western Canadian bred polo ponies are practically never wrong in the wind. They are sturdier than those raised elsewhere— stayers, able to stand up under the most gruelling sort of treatment.
There has been no trouble in finding a market for the available supply of partially trained ponies from Southern Alberta, the demand being greater than the offerings. About five carloads or one hundred ponies are exported each year now, going to practically every state of the Union. In the condition in which they leave the ranches they bring from $500 to $1,000 per head, and when perfected for play are worth from $1,000 to $3,000. The industry is well founded and thriving and promises to steadily expand and attain important proportions.
From Western Canada’s great herds of half wild broncs have evolved the equine aristocrats to be seen on distant playing fields, while from the roots left by the hard riding ranchers has sprung a new group of playing enthusiasts which has taken hold of the game. Regarding both phases one can scarcely doubt that polo will loom up in increasing prominence in Western Canada in the future. The breeding industry is due steadily to grow in importance and send more animals farther afield. The playing of the game in that territory is unique in that it has been brought more into line with golf, tennis, and other sports of the masses. Who can tell what ’ its ultimate influence on the game in general may be?