Polo became the passion of the ranchers who worked the extensive corporate grazing leases in southwestern foothills of the Rockies by the late 1880s and quickly developed into a sport of daring horsemanship and exploits. Polo Clubs were initially organized by the wealthy owners and managers of the large ranches, former mounted police officers, and remittance men from well-to do landed families in Britain and Ireland. Recreational polo blurred social boundaries. These socially upper class men played on teams alongside small ranch operators, cowboys, and farmer-settlers, and even store clerks. In a time when everyone rode and in a place where ranchers bred thousands of potential mounts, polo offered social and business connections as well as thrills (and spills) for rider and spectators alike.
Polo had ancient origins in Persia. It had only come to the British Isles, via its colonial connection with India in the 1870s. Popular among British military officers, it became an organized sport. A small number of early ranchers in the foothills had some experience or had seen the game before coming to Canada. One of those who participated in informal pickup games in the 1880s was Captain E.M. Wilmot of Chinook Ranch, credited with founding the first polo club at Pincher Creek in 1889.
Mostly, it seems, Alberta’s players found time to learn the rules, then adapted and honed their range land skills to the game played on hay meadows. Alberta’s tough agile little cow ponies, accustomed to herding cattle in quick response to commands, made steadfast partners. As the Fort MacLeod Gazette noted in 1892, “the qualities that go to make a good polo player—dashing horsemanship, courage, quickness and sureness of eye, and strength of wrist and arm, are those which are especially dear to the western heart.”
Overall polo is played in a way reminiscent of hockey. On a 300 yard long ten acre field, mounted competitors, four to a side, galloped up and down using mallets to drive a ball into the opponents’ goal. Polo is a positional game: a designated player number four, or back, plays defense, a designated number one player plays well ahead, and numbers two and three play mid-field. The ponies had to gallop hard: each rested after one or two seven and ½ minute periods called a “chukker.” The player could change ponies several times during a game. The ponies made hard contact shoulder to-shoulder as players attempt to “ride-off” their opponents and take control of the ball.
Two mounted referees, and a third on the sidelines, enforced the rules that mainly pertain to riding infractions and dangerous maneuvers that interfere with flow of the game or can lead to violent collisions. The ball kept in continuous play so the excitement was non-stop during the four, and later six, chukkers that made a game.
The first polo games were played between teams formed within each club, but polo tournaments caught on quickly. Fort McLeod organized the first tournament in June 1892. Four club teams, Calgary, Fort McLeod, Pincher Creek and High River, competed for a cup donated by Colonel James McLeod, former Commissioner of the North West Mounted Police. The Calgary Challenge Cup, presented at the first Calgary tournament in September 1892, has been in continuous play since. The same year a team travelled from Calgary to challenge polo players on the west coast, bringing their ponies described by a Victoria newspaper as “strong close-knit little brutes.”
Organizing and attending tournaments took work: ponies had to be ridden to the rail line, loaded in a box car, and feed arranged. Club finances and skilled teams were sustained by wealthy enthusiasts. Within a few years clubs formed at Cochrane, De Winton, Fish Creek, Millarville, High River, Peisko at the Bar U Ranche, Cowley, and Pine Creek.
As the twentieth century began club rivalry intensified. New trophies, including the Sheep Creek Challenge Cup (awarded to the winner of the annual Millarville tournament beginning in 1903) and the Fish Creek Challenge Cup (first awarded in 1906), were sought after. Most clubs had enough riders to mount several teams. For club play team configurations shifted constantly as senior and junior levels or A and B teams formed, while the best teams played at tournaments. The club allegiance of expert players became uncertain: they moved club as it suited them. A professional aspect became apparent; individuals and teams from Alberta played at tournaments across Canada and were popular at the Coronado Polo Club near San Diego.
It seemed that everyone was passionate about polo and polo players. Games were avidly followed by the press and tournaments were family outings. High River and Calgary hosted dinner dances after tournaments that were major society events. In 1903 a hundred guests attended Calgary’s polo ball. In June 1905 the town of High River shut down and everyone set out to the polo grounds about a mile from town for the day as the Calgary team arrived on the train accompanied by 100 supporters. Polo hit its high as a spectator sport at the Calgary Exhibition of 1907 where 20,000 people watched a game.
Seven years later the flame was extinguished. Polo teams fell apart in Alberta as war took many players to the European front. After World War I the great ranching communities declined and the heyday of the horse drew to a close. Attempts to revive the game with fewer polo teams were on-going and women took up and promoted the game during the 1920s. The downturn of the 1930s and World War II, however, resulted in the Calgary Polo Club being the only club surviving by 1945. The days of the ranch cow pony doubling as polo pony were long over. As polo slowly revived during the 1950s, it was evident that horses and polo playing had become the preserve of the well-to-do. J.B. Cross, son of A. E. Cross (a founding member of the Calgary Polo Club and grandson of Colonel James McLeod), provided new grounds for the Calgary Polo Club east of the Millarville in 1960. From the late 1970s the Fish Creek Challenge Cup was back in play after a decades-long hiatus.
Today, the Calgary Polo Club covers about 300 acres with nine playing fields, about a dozen professional players and numerous amateurs call it home. Two other clubs in Alberta are active, Grande Prairie Polo Club, an established club prior to World War I, and Black Diamond Polo Club founded in 1999. The traditions and rules of play for polo have remained constant in Alberta. From June through early September club matches, local, and interprovincial tournaments are open for spectators to enjoy one of Alberta’s earliest sports.