It is about as far out of the way as a polo club can be, yet it is one of the 10 largest in the United States, boasting more than 45 full-time members. There are no leagues played for here; the biggest tournament of the year was a 3-goal handicap, yet two of the last three winners of the U.S. Open have their headquarters and breeding operations there. Once accepted as a member, it may be one of the cheapest clubs to play in America; dues are $1,000 a season, during which more than 30 trophy games are played for. Possibly the largest summer youth and beginner programs in the United States are here, yet not one dime of PTF money is spent. There are no professional umpires, yet they have had a carousel of professional managers.
|Bighorn Polo Club is one of the largest in the United States
Every American 10-goal player, from
Foxhall Keene to Adam Snow, has made a
pilgrimage here. Tommy Hitchcock played
one of his first tournament games here. The
town’s population is 217, yet in one of the
two bars in town, there are pictures of more
than 90 visiting polo players from all over
the world, even though few locals attend the
games. I played chukkers last summer and
my teammates were South African, English
and an Indian; not a Cheyenne or a Crow
but an Indian from India. After three
chukkers the Indian left and was replaced by
There are sometimes 240 horses tied up
around a single field waiting to play, and it
may be the only field in the United States
where members are allowed to take sets on
the grass. Now it starts to get a little crazy:
Couples married there have a tradition of
returning to midfield in front of the club
house and consecrating the memory of
their matrimonial bliss. The unique thing
about that is, so many couples have been
married there over the years, and the
summer season is so short, at least one
couple claimed to have pulled up in the
dark and waited for another to leave before
starting their lawn mowers.
“We even waved hello as we passed in the
dark,” one of the couples said.
So you’re thinking, “With 217 people,
how many people get married?”
You’d be surprised; long winters.
Some say there was once a type of
organized gambling out of the grandstand,
and players have been known to get so drunk
after weeknight games that they could
neither find their rig nor their horses in the
dark. Apparently, they resorted to stumbling
around until something snorted at them and
at least a half dozen tailgates left down have
been ruined in this way. A former president
of the club once played barefoot and led his
horse on to the field by tying it with a 30-foot
rope to the bumper of an American Motors
Co. Gremlin. Did I mention the most
prestigious polo breeding operation in the
world was located right here?
History; you want history? The first man
to umpire a polo game in the area was a
personal friend of Crazy Horse; a man whose
own people didn’t know him!
The Big Horn Polo Club, near Sheridan,
Wyoming, goes back to the early days of the
West, where everything seems to be
measured by how many years before Col.
Custer got killed. Well, it seems they played
some sort of polo in Sydney, Nebraska, pretty
much the same time Custer was killed, which
goes to prove that G. Gordon Bennett, who
happened to be a personal friend of Custer’s,
may have had a hand in the whole affair.
In other words, when the military
hammer came down from President Grant
after some pretty angry mothers wanted to
know who was responsible for their son’s bad
haircut, most of the military in the district
could claim they were off playing polo in
Stay with me, this is a feature article.
Actually Big Horn is quite a ways from the
Battle of the Little Big Horn, yet as few as 10
years ago there was a polo game that pitted
cowboys against Indians.
On July 4, 1893, in the town of Sheridan,
Wyoming, there was a game of polo played in
front of several thousand spectators, warmed
up by a military band before the match
started. Of course there were also
steeplechase, flat race, trotting race and even
a fat man’s race run, but polo started the
festivities. The teams featured five mainly
British players to a side, pitting Beckton vs.
The regulation game is an hour and 10
minutes long with five minutes breathing
spell every 20 minutes. Frank Grouard and
H.C. Alger were umpires.
Frank Grouard was a Polynesian captured
by the Sioux in 1870, living with them until
he joined the U.S. army as a scout for Gen.
George Crook. Crook was surprised by the
Sioux eight days before Custer was killed and
retreated to the Big Horn area, where the
men enjoyed the fishing, hunting and even a
game of baseball in the most pristine setting
in the United States. Grouard went into the
horse business after the Indian wars and
gravitated back to Big Horn, where a
Scotsman named Malcolm Moncrieffe
started a polo operation on the flats not far
from where Crook had waited for the Indians
to cool. With 40 playing ponies in work from
1898 to 1912, Moncrieffe shipped horses to
England, where they were played and
marketed by Lord T.B. Drybraugh, who
featured pictures of Moncrieffe and his
horses in his book published in 1906.
|Malcolm Moncrieffe and his Wyoming pony Ways
|There has never been an event like cowboy polo.
Moncrieffe had acquired quite a string of
horses as he had looked over more than
50,000, handpicking 20,000 for the British
cavalry and artillery for use in the Boer War.
During the 1900s, Moncrieffe and his friend
Bob Walsh, a former piano player in a
whorehouse in Miles City now turned
president of Moncrieffe’s First National
Bank in Sheridan, traveled to Denver and
Colorado Springs to play area military teams
on the lawn of the Broadmoor Hotel. It was
neither Moncrieffe nor Walsh that had
shined for the Big Horn teams but a genuine
cowboy bronc rider, steer roper, relay rider
and cattleman named Johnny Cover. Cover
was in charge of Moncrieffe’s polo operation
as a teenager and evolved into one of the
better players in the district if not the
Cover quit Moncrieffe over Moncrieffe’s
using Cover’s team and wagon without
asking and was immediately hired by Goelet
Gallatin, who, with Col. Milt McCoy, had
built one of the finest and most elaborate
polo facilities in the world. Gallatin, a New
York attorney, had played at Squadron A at
the turn of the century and belonged to the
rough riders who rode there. He had
married Edith Post, the energetic
horsewoman and big-game hunting daughter
of Charles Post. A cousin, Fred Post was
evolving as one of the largest horse dealers of the time. With a private polo field and a
hundred-stall barn built on the former site of
Boer warhorse inspections, the Gallatins
acquired government remount stallions of
the day plus stallions such as Kemano, who
was a gift of Quincy Shaw of New York.
Kemano won top polo stud classes in both
England and America. The Gallatins’ friends, the Von Stades, Hitchcocks,
Igleharts, Millburns and dozens of others,
brought mares from Argentina, England and
all over the United States. The Circle V polo
company expanded its polo operations to
include more than 150 top brood mares and
a barn in Aiken, South Carolina, where the
horses were played in the winter.
It was on a visit to the Gallatins’ where a
young Tommy Hitchcock and Devereux
Millburn followed Johnny Cover around to
get the secret of his booming backshot. After
making the final of a Kansas City
tournament, Cover was asked to join a team
of Americans traveling to England, which he
declined, stating he had “cows to look after.”
Years later Foxhall Keene would call him the
second-best Back in the United States,
behind his former protégé Millburn. The
Gallatins had some of the best trainers in the
United States and also some accomplished
players, including Cover, Ray May, Milt
McCoy and several others who could band
together to play 16-goal games.
|Kids came from far and wide to participate in a polo clinic at Bighorn
Cameron Forbes and his brother Waldo,
who were members of the Dedham Polo
Club outside Boston, also played polo in the
area. Their family had started its own
breeding facility along the Big Horn
Mountains and had built one of the best
fields in the United States. They imported
stallions and a crew of polo players and
shipped their horses to Boston, where they
were played by the Forbes brothers and sold
there. The Forbeses would invite up to six
entire teams to come and play at their field
for two months of the summer, enjoying the
fishing and mountain riding as much as the
horses. Cameron Forbes would go on to be
one of the leading officials in the United
States Polo Association in the 1920s.
By the 1920s the area had thoroughbred
breeders who had been in business for more
than 30 years, producing some of the longestwinded,
hearty horses on Earth. The
Forbeses’ neighbor, Vess Hardee, raised a
horse that ran in the Kentucky Derby, and
numerous horses raised in the area had gone
off to horse shows, racetracks and polo fields
around the world.
|Bighorn has one of the biggest and most successful polo schools for youngsters.
Moncrieffe’s neighbor and partner in the
Boer War horse-buying spree, O.H. Wallop,
had a son who was a member of Yale’s
championship collegiate polo team of 1927
with Winston Guest and Michael Phipps.
Wallop played in Big Horn in the summer
and Santa Barbara in the winter. In Big
Horn, local players often trailed or led horses
up to 12 miles to the games. For a while the
little town of Big Horn was polo central with
the Moncrieffes, Wallops, Gallatins and, not far off, the Forbeses. There was even a fop
named Bradford Brinton who, though a
competent art collector, was somewhat of an
“all smoke and no fire” type who liked to
show up in his britches and boots and tell
big windies. And don’t you know it was his
house that got preserved. He must have
thrown the best parties.
For a while, Neponsit
Stud Farm, which was part
of the original Forbes
Ranch, kept polo going after
the war with games being
Moncrieffe’s and the
Forbeses’ fields. After World
War II Neponsit Stud Farm
featured games until polo
faded out in the late 1950s.
In 1963 Bob Tate, a local
horse trader and polo player
who had gone partners with
Jimmy McHugh, Frank
Butterworth and Charlie
Leonard on Wymont Ranch,
organized local ranchers to
start up polo on the old
Moncrieffe field. Wymont
Ranch, with Tate at the helm, received a
flood of buyers from Paul Butler to Pete
Bostwick, Cecil Smith, George Oliver and
Memo Gracida. Tate’s connections put the
area on the map to almost everyone in polo.
The 1970s found the Big Horn Polo Club
a hard-drinking group of bump-and-run
area ranchers, some of whom had traveled
enough to be dangerous. The bright spot in
any summer was the arrival of Bud Tyler,
who schooled the locals on how to ride
broncs and score goals. The best lesson
anyone could have learned from Bud was to
have fun when you play.
McHugh brought in Virgil Christiansen
as a manager and coach for
two summers, but there
was no one with the energy
of the Moncrieffes, the
Forbeses or Gallatin to
elevate the club. Paul
Nicholson, an area
rancher, brought in Kay
Morgan, a professional
from Kansas in the 1980s,
and Tate brought Skee
Johnston to the area. The
two formed a friendship,
which eventually led to
Johnston buying the Flying
H ranch on the former site
of the Gallatin Ranch and
Circle V Polo Co.
|Wyoming has rustic vistas, beautiful mountain views and wide open spaces.
At roughly the same
time the polo club moved
to a new facility featuring one large level
field approximately 900 by 400 yards.
Johnston brought Oakleigh Thorne out for
the summer, and a string of players followed.
The Flying H soon developed its own field,
which was near the old Circle V field.
Johnston brought out Tao Astrada, Jeff Atkinson and Boone Stribling to lift the level
of play in the club. Johnston soon established
one of the largest polo breeding operations
in the country at the foot of the Bighorn
Mountains. The Flying H ranch can be
counted on to send up to eight players to the
field at any one time.
Johnston joined a host of smaller area
breeders, and horses raised in the area began
to find their way onto polo
fields from Palermo to
Saratoga. At any one time a
polo player might look at
over a hundred green and
made prospects if he is with
the right guide.
In the early 1990s the
World Cup 30-goal
tournament featured horses
from five different ranches
spread across five different
teams raised by members of
the club. By 1995 players
came from the four corners
for the unique experience to play at the Big
Horn Polo Club. All games are set up in a
match format, which changes every week,
and pros are even switched around among
players who bring them. A third private field
was put in by Brian MacCarty, and games are
often held on off-days to supplement the
three-games-per-week schedule. Brian’s
grandfather Alan used to play in the 1940s
and pony his horses down the Bighorn
Mountains and after the game turn them
loose and drive them back up. Tommy
Wayman, as well as Tommy Boyle, have bought ranches in the area. Boyle
bought the ranch of Paul Nicholson,
whose daughter Julie is Boyle’s wife.
Dr. Paul Wollenman has also moved
to the area, which gives members
years of his experience at Palm
Beach Equine Clinic. Perk Connell runs a
local instructional riding school complete
with beginner horses and an indoor ring.
Barbecues are thrown every
Friday night, and sometimes
the games must be played in
the mornings to make room
for the steer ropers in the
In the early 1990s a series
of steeplechases were run
around the fields, but never
has there been an event like
cowboy polo, which was
played at halftime of the yearend
game between rival dude
ranch crews. The game is
played three men to a side,
with brooms and a volleyball. There are no
rules except to chug a beer before you start
or an O’Doul’s for alcoholics. The game is
played directly at and away from the
grandstands with about a 5-yard runoff. No
line, no umpires.
One year, a dude ranch boycotted the
games and the leftover Crow Indians from
the Indian relay races took on the cowboys
and Hoka Hey! Intertribal!
The Indians did not have saddles as they
ride bareback and requested that the
cowboys jerk their wood (i.e., take their saddles off). Within three minutes all the
cowboys had fallen off their horses.
The polo school, which bars both parents
and polo players, has new riders and players
playing 15 minutes after they show up. So
far, between 12 and 40 show up every week
in June and July. In August they get to play
real chukkers in the club if they graduate.
This school is totally free to the public and
worth every penny, as benevolent sponsors
like the Denison family, Lee Taylor, Kelly
Howie, the Last Chance Bar and P&O Ports
of Miami like the idea of what we are doing
and pick up the check for everything from
helmets to pizza. Also the Uskups of Chicago
have donated helmets, boots and mallets.
This school sponsors a free rodeo, featuring
relay race, polo, roping barrels, poles and
jumping. All instructors, with bighearted
volunteers such as Tommy and Rosey
Wayman, Laura MacCarty, Vicki Kane,
Brendan Whittle and Amanda Blish, Shane
Winkler and Roger St. Claire, pitch in to help
a slew of others in the rain and heat.
|Vicki Jorgensen and Julie Boyle mis it up on the fields used by many champpion teams, including two U.S. Open winners.
You can still get a scotch and soda out of
the drive-through window at the Last Chance
Bar in Big Horn, but very few people get one
before the game anymore. I could tell you the weather is perfect unless you are foolish
enough to play in the heat of the day, which
some do as it’s way better to risk frying a
groom than miss Sheridan’s night life. All I
can say is I’ve never seen anything like it.
The thing that stands in the forefront of
the club is a certain attitude that prevails. It
takes a certain kind of person to show up
where the only flights in and out have one
seat on each side of the plane, where
restaurants don’t serve skim milk for dieters’
coffee. The logic is, “If you’re on a diet, drink
it black, otherwise we got cream.” It’s quiet,
but some people like it quiet. To top it off it
is the best horse country on Earth.
At the helm of the Bighorn Polo Club are
Charlie and Vicki Jorgenson, who are about
as affable hosts as you can ask for. Both have
played in the club since it was at the old
Moncrieffe field and have watched it evolve
to what it is today. Shane Winkler, the
manager, is one of the best. Both the
Jorgensons and Winkler have watched out
for the welfare of everyone, whether they
have been there five years or five minutes.
With the history of the place it might not
be that surprising that two of the
last three teams to win the U.S.
Open hail from a club whose town
has a population of 217. If you look
hard enough you’ll find trophies
spread around the area from 1917
or 1904. The first U.S. Open trophy
sits on a shelf of one of the earliest
ranches of the area. Another U.S.
Open, in 1956, was won on horses
from this ranch. The sponsor, a
bighearted man, was too ill to leave
Wyoming to compete.
|Well, the buffalo don't roam here much anymore, but the deer and the antelope still play.
In 110 years the names
associated with the Big Horn Polo
encompass an entire sports history.
Moncrieffe, Forbes, Wallop,
McHugh, Johnston and Boyle.
In a field near Beckton stock
farm are some indentations of old
rifle pits used by a handful of hay
cutters who defended themselves
from an attack of more than 300 Sioux
Indians. The Boyles C Spear ranch is 30
miles away from the Little Big Horn battle,
and Oliver Henry Wallop, a former Oxford
polo player, witnessed the scalping of a Crow
Indian by two Sioux from the door of his
cabin. Johnston’s Flying H ranch was the
scene of a mounted running battle between
the Crow and the Cheyenne. Go back 200
years and you really have a story.