Polo: In B.C., it was once a sport for
cowboys, not just the idle rich -- a Victoria club keeps that
CREDIT: John Stillwell, Associated
Britain's Prince Harry, younger son of
Prince Charles, playing polo for his father's team at the
Guards Polo Club in Windsor, England.
CREDIT: Peter Blashill, Special to
the Vancouver Sun
Brent Hoeppner, of the Victoria Polo
Club, gets a snuggle from Holly before a match.
CREDIT: From the book Polo, the
B.C. fans take in a few chukkers back
in the early days.
CREDIT: From the book Polo, the
Galloping Game: An Illustrated History of Polo in the Canadian
West, by Tony Rees
Riders pose after the 1923 Kamloops
Polo Challenge Cup, won by the Vancouver Polo
Victoria Polo Club members Dan Adey (left) and Dan Pedrick clash near the goal line during a match.
'A polo handicap is your passport to the world," Winston
Churchill once told a team of Oxford students, and I'm finally
beginning to understand what the old boy meant. Watching eight men
and their horses at play on a freshly-cut field just north of
Victoria, it feels as if I've travelled to a different country, and
far back in time.
The red team's Number Four, its defenceman, Mike Adey, rides up
to the ball and backs it, hitting a reverse shot to Steve Mann, the
red's Number Three. Dan Pedrick, the blue team's Number Two, hooks
Mann, and their mallets crack together as loud as gunfire. A scrum
of riders gathers around, furiously whacking at the ball. Even
though it's a cool grey afternoon, the players and their mounts are
drenched in sweat.
Then the ball squirts free. Brent Hoeppner, the blue team's
Number One, winds up and belts it, a clean line drive, sailing past
the scrum and the dozen spectators gathered along the sidelines. The
riders turn their horses, erupt in a simultaneous "Eeyaah!" and
thunder down the 300-yard field toward the red goal, turf flying
around them, evoking for a moment the drama of a cattle roundup, or
a cavalry charging into battle.
Whenever most people utter the word "polo," their inclination is
to pronounce it in an accent so plummy you could turn it into jam.
Polo immediately connotes Empire and opulence -- Prince Charles, the
Raj, champagne, silver cups, valets, hyphenated surnames.
And in many places, polo is still like that: as the riches of the
global elite have swelled, the "game of kings" has enjoyed a
resurgence. It's more popular today in India and Australia than it
has been for decades; despite Argentina's economic woes, polo still
rivals soccer as that country's national sport. In England, young
aristocrats continue to take up the game (perhaps following the lead
of Prince William, who told his father that his life's ambition was
to become a professional polo player). And in the United States,
it's steadily growing in popularity at exclusive country clubs,
where CEOs can assert their dominance atop the hierarchies of
zoology and social class.
But here on the sidelines of the Victoria Polo Club's practice
field, the scene's a bit more down-to-earth. The referee toots a
horn on one of the cars parked along the fence to signal the end of
the final chukker. Elderly ladies set out tea and lemon cakes while
regimental marches blare from a ghetto blaster. As the exhausted
riders arrive, I discover they're all regular joes -- Adey's a
dentist, Hoeppner's a fireman, Pedrick runs a B&B.
"There's the cucumber sandwiches and all that stuff," Steve
Hughes tells me, wiping his brow. "But you get out there, and
there's nothing pretentious about getting horse manure in the teeth
as you're charging down the field at 30 miles an hour with somebody
trying to bump you off from the other side. It's real."
Hughes, 45, is the last guy you'd expect to find on a polo field.
He drives an excavator for a living, and with his long curly hair he
looks like he should be in front-row seats at a monster truck rally.
But six years ago, not long after he learned to ride, he went to an
afternoon polo clinic taught by a pro visiting from Mexico, and he
got hooked on the rush that comes from smacking a ball a hundred
yards at a full gallop. Now, like many of the dozen hard-core
members of the Victoria club, he plays twice a week.
"I thought it was going to be this poncy little game -- 'Cheerio,
nice shot, well done' -- but it's seven-and-a-half minutes of rodeo.
It really is. Generally it's a safe game, but I've seen guys come
down hard. Concussions, broken ribs. But you cowboy up, get back on
and away you go. It's the original extreme sport, far as I'm
Hughes is right. For nearly as long as people have been riding
horses, they've been playing polo: the game itself is at least 2,600
years old (see "Polo's roots," D13). And as it turns out, here in
western Canada, where horsemanship was once an essential skill, polo
could be considered as much part of the historical landscape as
cattle drives and calf roping.
According to Polo, the Galloping Game: An Illustrated History of
Polo in the Canadian West, by Tony Rees (Chinook Valley, 2000), the
game was first brought west in 1883 by a British rancher who trained
cowboys to play it in Pincher Creek, Alta. In B.C., military
officers played it in Esquimalt and Victoria as early as 1889.
British cattlemen, backed by investment money to raise beef for
England's booming population, established polo in Kelowna and
Kamloops; the poet Robert Service ("The Cremation of Sam McGee")
played several chukkers with the Kamloops club in 1904. Players were
so obsessed with the game that they travelled hundreds of miles to
compete in tournaments: in 1896 a team from the Nicola Valley rode
its ponies 50 miles to the Canadian Pacific Railway line at Spence's
Bridge, then took the train to the coast and crossed by ferry --
back then, a journey of several days each way -- just to play a trio
of teams from Vancouver Island.
The 20th century changed everything. Polo's always reflected the
course of human history, and what happened to the game in Vancouver
proves it. A polo club was established in the city in 1913, but many
of its key members -- especially those in the cavalry -- were mowed
down by machineguns in the First World War. Though the game became
popular with the city's elite during the Roaring '20s, it was killed
again by the Depression and the Second World War. It didn't reappear
again until 1953, at the Southlands Riding and Driving Club -- now
the Southlands Riding Club.
Tony Yonge, a Saanich farmer who now plays polo with the Victoria
club (he was a member of the first Canadian team to play polo in
England in 1973), fondly remembers the days at Southlands. The '50s
were a gentle time; in the winter, when the playfields were boggy,
the club would ride their horses and practise on the sands of
Spanish Banks at low tide. But inflation swelled the costs of
keeping ponies at Southlands, and the polo club relocated to Delta
A decade later, the Vancouver club disbanded, in part, Yonge
says, because it became -- how very '80s -- "too rich and too rude.
All the rich people hung together, and you can't have that in polo
if you're going to play on the same team." A coterie of Vancouver
players recreated the club in Delta for a few years in the late '80s
and early '90s, but after one of its members bought property near
Bellingham, they started playing south of the border, and continue
to do so today.
Polo is still played across Canada. There are 16 active clubs in
the country: the largest are in Toronto and Calgary, and one with
around a dozen members continues to play in Kelowna. But the game's
practically disappeared from the B.C. coast. Fifty years ago there
were more than a dozen clubs on the Lower Mainland and Vancouver
Island; now Victoria is the only one left, and it just manages to
hang on by remaining true to its modest roots.
(The Victoria club does enjoy a bit of finery, though. On Sept. 6
and 7 its members will swap their jeans and sweatshirts for
professional uniforms and compete with other Pacific Northwest teams
for the Lieutenant Governor's Cup, a trophy donated to the club in
1983. For more information, see http://carriagehouseband
The Saanich peninsula still contains numerous small farms where
people can keep horses, and every summer a few newcomers attend the
Victoria club's annual clinics to try out the game. But Yonge -- who
rides Polonius, a grandson of Triple Crown-winner Seattle Slew --
knows that the ever-rising cost of owning even a few horses will
make it hard for the Victoria club to expand. "Horses need money,"
he says. "And your horse is 80 per cent of your game."
Polo players consider their game the ultimate test of
horsemanship, and it's easy to see why. Trying to hit a ball from a
galloping horse is about as difficult as trying to hit a one-handed
golf shot while riding a speeding motorcycle -- and a motorcycle
with a mind of its own, at that.
Not just any horse can play polo. In Argentina and India they're
specifically bred for the sport, but in most other places, Victoria
included, they're often former racehorses that couldn't win at the
"They still have to be extraordinary animals," says Dan Pedrick,
the Victoria club's secretary, and a part-time farrier (a blacksmith
who shoes horses). "At the very least they have to be bred for
athletic behaviour, and well put together."
One chukker lasts seven minutes and the horses often run flat-out
for much of that time -- two horses are buried on the edge of the
Victoria club's practice field, felled by mid-game heart attacks.
(Before anyone protests, remember this happened over the course of
the Victoria club's 40 years of play.)
Beyond their physical conditioning, horses also need to learn the
game itself. Besides maintaining their composure with mallets and
wooden balls flying around their head and legs, horses must learn to
stop, turn and accelerate to a full gallop in an instant, and to
"ride off" (bodycheck) other riders headed for the ball. Pros will
often spend up to a year training a horse, and a "made" (game-ready)
horse easily sells for several thousand dollars more than the
trainer paid for it. Top-flight polo ponies can cost $50,000 and up.
Argentines say a polo player must have presencia, a presence that
inspires confidence and team spirit, and garra, the heart to fight
back when down. Comprehensive medical insurance is a good idea, too
-- polo players often wrench their backs or sprain their arms
contorting themselves to make shots, and several Victorians have
shattered their legs in high-speed collisions.
But more than that, polo players need friends at the bank.
Players switch to fresh horses after every chukker, so even in
Victoria they need at least two or three, and along with the tack,
the cost of stabling and game equipment imported from the United
Kingdom, they often need a second playfield to allow the
fairway-quality turf to recover. Fortunately, two of the Victoria
club's members are farmers, and are such fanatics for the game that
they've converted part of their fields to polo grounds.
"Polo has always been exclusive. It's hard to play, and you have
to marshall so many resources," Pedrick says. "That's not to say
everybody who plays polo is rich -- there are plenty of cowboys who
play polo. But the people who have money are necessary to the sport
because it doesn't generate money on its own. It comes from
patronage, and without it, polo would die."
Because most people consider polo a pastime for the wealthy, it
has difficulty being taken seriously as a sport. It was removed from
the Olympics after the Second World War because of the cost of
transporting the horses, and it never turns up on TV in this part of
the world. (One of the few egalitarian things about polo is that men
and women often play it equally well, and frequently compete in
"Polo has some serious problems with the way it's perceived by
the public," concedes Pedrick. "People are intimidated about coming
to a polo match because they think they're going to encounter a
bunch of snobs. But believe me, every polo player in this neck of
the woods really works against that."
In Victoria, at least, it's possible to see polo for what it
really is: a game with a history and a culture as travelled and worn
as an old saddle.
See Also: Polo has its Roots in Ancient Warfare(sidebar)
Ross Crockford is the co-author of Victoria: Secrets of the City,
published by Arsenal Pulp Press.