Long Shot

Members of Missoula's storied cowboy polo team struggle to keep a vanishing Western tradition alive


Dust and the scent of horse sweat mix in the air around the Willowbend Farm polo arena in Turah. A modest crowd—less than 50 people—sits on a pair of wooden bleachers, cheering for both teams without discretion. A construction worker from South Africa passing through on business wanders over from the nearby KOA campground, his camera trained on the Western oddity known as cowboy polo.

Play-by-play commentary comes from the announcer’s box as Jeff Patterson, decked in a white polo shirt and jeans, reins his horse around for a clear shot at a red rubber ball. Patterson, who plays for Missoula, swings from the saddle with a long mallet, driving the ball up the arena toward the Cascade County team’s goal. Patterson’s pass finds its mark, but his teammate misses the ensuing shot wide right. Missoula ends up losing the game, a rare defeat before rallying to win the four-team tournament.

Later on during the hot mid-June afternoon, Patterson, 52, sits at a picnic table with his son, Josh, and his daughter-in-law, Shannon. The group talks shop, giving Shannon pointers and watching Patterson’s 13-year-old grandson, Austin, try his own luck in another game against Cascade County. Behind the family, kids from the local 4-H chapter sell burgers hot off the grill. Spurs and worn tack leather squeak in the parking lot as the Gallatin County Polo Club readies its steeds for the next game.

The players and fans exude an upbeat attitude during one of the state’s few scheduled cowboy polo tournaments, but it belies a growing concern within the sport. Today, a generous estimate would place the number of cowboy polo players in Montana around 50. As far as anyone can tell, the state’s four remaining teams—Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Missoula—are all that’s left of a sport that once boasted 75 teams across the country, hosted raucous national championships and even made a splash in Australia. Cowboy polo is going the way of the covered wagon or the homestead, another relic of the Old West that may soon kick the bucket.

Nevertheless, the Montana teams persist, through weeknight practices and informal tournaments, holding out hope for a resurgence. Patterson and others say they’ll continue playing the game until the day they die.

“Missoula has hung on really well, kept a pretty strong interest,” says Patterson, who notes the local team has actually increased its players the last few years. “What I’ve really worried about mostly is the other teams petering out and having no one to play. We’ve seen a lot of teams go away in the last 20 years, from Livingston to Lewistown to Fort Benton to Butte. You get this fear that the whole game is dying because there’s no one to play against.”

Cowboy polo looks familiar at first, but like any sport, it’s full of its own intricacies and traditions. There are terms like “chukker,” the four 15-minute periods that make up a match, and “jump shot,” where both players rush the ball for possession after a foul.

Jeff Patterson finds himself clearing up confusion fairly often. He starts by noting that the similarities between cowboy polo and the more recognizable English version end pretty much at the horse and mallet. In English polo, speed is key and riders (four per team) rely on a long string of thoroughbreds to carry them across a 300-yard grass field in pursuit of a wooden ball. Expenses are high, making it a historically white-collar sport.

Comparatively, cowboy polo requires little more than a quarter horse, tack, a rubber mallet and one of those bouncy playground kickballs. Two five-member teams advance the ball through a dirt rodeo arena divided into five sections with a goal at either end. One player from each team is confined to a section, where they match skills in a game-within-a-game. For a newcomer, the match looks something like live-action foosball with strong elements of croquet. Patterson jokingly calls it “poor-man’s polo.”

“It’s so different from anything else you see right now,” says Dana Kopp, a member of the Missoula team. “Most city people haven’t seen something like this. They’ve heard of English polo, but this is a lot different from the Prince Charles polo. So it’s probably not what your basic person is going to think of as a true cowboy event. But you have to be able to ride and handle your horse to play. It’s been around so long, it’s a part of history. You hate to see something die off that’s been around for over 50 years.”

Kopp has done her part to keep the game active. She joined the sport shortly after marrying her husband Doug, a national cowboy polo MVP, and doubles as the Missoula team’s historian. Her collection of historic photos and newspaper clippings, as well as aging anecdotes, shed much-needed light on her sport’s murky origins. Kopp talks intently about cowboy polo’s past, almost as intently as she drives a horse during a game.

Variations of English polo began cropping up in Montana in the early 1950s as the sport’s influence spread beyond posh country clubs back east. Some iterations were as simple as a volleyball and a few brooms in the hands of rustlers, others called for more specialized equipment.

Palmetto polo, developed in 1952 by the Smyrna Beach Saddle Club in Florida, proved a particular hit with cowpunchers in the state. The American Association of Sheriff Posses and Riding Clubs officially adopted palmetto polo in 1954 and hosted highly competitive world championship finals in Texas. Gradual tweaks in the rules by groups west of the Mississippi River spawned a unique new version: cowboy polo.

“We know that they were playing some earlier versions of cowboy polo in the early ’50s, maybe even the late ’40s,” Kopp says. “But the organizations actually got going in the late ’50s, in ’58 and ’59. That’s when the organizations really gelled and wrote the rules that, for the most part, we still follow.”

The true pioneers of cowboy polo in Montana were members of the Cascade County Sheriff’s Posse, a group of mounted law enforcement reserves pivotal to search and rescue in the days before ATVs and helicopters. They drafted an official set of rules and by-laws in 1958 and banded together with other Montana sheriff posses for lively matches. Polo fell into the mix of parades, drills and horse sport competitions that dominated the posses’ community presence.

Missoula caught polo fever fast, taking home the first state trophy in September 1958. A few years later, with the sport gaining major traction, state posses formed the Montana State Cowboy Polo Association and started playing national tournaments in other states. Championship games were typically hosted in Texas or New Mexico against teams that, all agree, practiced a rougher strain of the sport.

“When you went to a championship tournament, you had all the marbles out there,” says Larry Jowers, a Texas resident who’s played since 1968 and served as Cowboy Polo Association president through the early 1990s. “When you went out there to play, you played as hard as you could play. You went out there to win, and you didn’t go to let everybody play like you do in kids’ baseball.”

In other words, cowboy polo could be a full-contact sport. Montana players recall games against southwestern teams that would buffet and check without remorse, even run horses into fences for a point. Patterson’s seen a horse shatter a leg bone during a warm-up. Once an errant bridle split a horse’s nose and the animal bled considerably while exiting the arena.

“After it was over with, everybody was friends,” Jowers says. “You’d walk around, have a beer together. But when you were on the field, it was blood and guts.”

According to Patterson, Montana’s teams prefer a brand of cowboy polo that relies more on strategy and finesse than brute force and speed. And that emphasis on strategy has spawned a fair share of star players, men Patterson and others mention in reverential tones. Names like Stan Kopp, Bob Cochran and Bert Walters carry the same weight as baseball’s Babe Ruth or Ted Williams. Today’s veteran players seem to measure their own skills in telling how they scored points against or blocked shots by such stars.

“I used to play guard against Bert [Walters],” Patterson recalls. “He’d pick the ball out of the air with his mallet, set it down and tell me exactly what he was going to do with it. And there was nothing I could do about it.”

Those names and the rich history they embody stand as prime examples of what could be lost should Patterson, Kopp and their teammates fail to create a new generation of legends.

In 2005, the U.S. Cowboy Polo Association dissolved, and with it all semblance of the interstate order that fueled highly competitive national tournaments for half a century. Teams across the west dried up. Crowd numbers dwindled. Cowboy polo lost what little public exposure it once enjoyed, and a modest tradition born from rodeo arenas, Western saddles and the need to keep working horses fit all but disappeared.

“Everybody just made up their minds they were going to quit,” says Jowers from his Texas home. “It died out across all the states. We had teams from Washington state and Oregon all the way down to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Alabama. They all finally just died out, one at a time.”

Montana’s cowboy polo players have defiantly rejected the trend, but still note a significant decline within the state. The reasons for the drop-off vary, but each reflects the natural evolution of the West.

The sport has always relied heavily on sheriff posses, groups of county-level volunteer peace officers you’ve likely seen carrying flags on horseback in local parades. The posse’s members come from all walks of life: Jeff Patterson works as a private investigator and operates the Willowbend Farm; he ran for a commissioner seat in Missoula County last year. Kopp serves as a librarian at St. Patrick Hospital’s Center for Health Information.

The posses used polo to keep their horses in top form, but it also gave the organizations a much-needed social outlet. As the need for horses in search and rescue situations decreased in the late 20th century, sheriff posses became shadows of their former selves. In Gallatin County, the sheriff’s posse disbanded as a mounted operation several years ago. Keeping polo alive required the interest and dedication of those still playing to form an official club.

The loss of sheriff posses only provides part of the explanation for the sport’s decline. Players past and present contest that the real factor is money. Other competitive horse sports, such as team roping or cutting, drew potential polo players away with the possibility of a payoff in competition. Polo is more of a glorified hobby that requires a $10 entry fee. Players pay in, but they don’t cash out.

“Times have changed,” says Doug Kopp. “We’ve found that a lot of people, if there’s not money or fame and fortune involved, they don’t get too interested. You played for pride and that was it, there was no big payoff. You just got a trophy or a belt buckle. Nowadays people aren’t as interested in playing for pride. They want to win money or be in the spotlight.”

Patterson has met with his share of discouragement working to fill out the ranks of the new generation. He says he hosted a polo clinic in Kalispell a few years back. Several young men from Browning approached him about creating a Browning cowboy polo team. Their excitement almost matched Patterson’s own. The men liked what they saw, but they had one question.

“I sat there in the grandstands and visited with them, and they were really excited about having a Browning team,” Patterson says. “Then one of them asked me, ‘Well, what are the purses? How much is a purse?’ I told them we don’t play for money and he said, ‘Oh, we aren’t interested.’”

A new generation scoffed at polo in favor of the prestige and financial profit occasionally won in rodeo. Patterson, a convert from his younger rodeo days, warmed up to polo in 1984 when he joined the Missoula County Sheriff’s Posse. His exposure to polo through the posse led to his son’s induction in the sport, and later to his grandson’s.

“It’s a fun, family game,” Patterson says, “and we’ve always been afraid that if we got money involved it would destroy the atmosphere of playing for fun.”

The sheriff posses themselves are also to blame for cowboy polo’s current situation, Patterson says. They haven’t done a great job of advertising the sport outside family and close friends, and outsiders often don’t realize how little riding experience is required to play. While most players already own horses for ranch work or hunting, Patterson encourages people with even minor experience in the saddle to stop by a practice. Someone always has a spare horse and tack.

“Part of it is our fault, ’cause we just go out there and have fun and dink around,” Patterson says. “You don’t have to be a lifelong cowboy to play cowboy polo.”

Family is a universal motivating factor in Montana cowboy polo and likely the one element keeping the sport from extinction.

Take Adam Pulasky, 29, the star Bozeman forward who doesn’t enter the arena without thinking of his grandfather, Merle Pulasky, who served as the first Montana State Cowboy Polo Association president. Most credit Merle with nurturing the sport in its infant years and relish stories of his talent.

“That’s why I play polo, because of my grandpa,” Pulasky says. “The only way I’d quit polo is if polo quit.”

Pulasky recently returned to the arena after a 10-year hiatus. He played polo through his teen years but focused his efforts on hockey during college. That led to a semi-professional career with a team in Billings. Pulasky only left hockey when he broke both his knees. The saddle seemed an excellent place to regain some competitive prowess.

In fact, Pulasky’s saddle is a powerful heirloom in the legacy of cowboy polo. A hunk of worn, weathered leather, it doesn’t look like much. But it has seen decades of action. Merle played in that saddle. He passed it down to Adam’s dad, John, who likewise passed it to Adam with the simple command “take care of it.”

“With that particular saddle, sometimes I just have memories of my grandpa and my dad,” Pulasky says. “I just try to think about what they were trying to think about before they played polo.”

Pulasky didn’t use the saddle during the Missoula tournament, but he still brought it with him. It needs some oil, Pulasky says, but otherwise it’s in great condition.  He’s determined to keep it that way.

Doug Kopp feels he’s carrying on a similar family tradition in cowboy polo. Kopp is one of the stronger polo players competing today, an experienced rider and high-scoring forward. A number of Montana players ride horses with the Kopp brand. The going theory in the arena is Kopp’s as good at raising polo horses as he is at playing on them.

Kopp traveled to nationals four times on Montana teams, and in 1996 won MVP in Albuquerque, N.M., on the back of his father’s horse. Stan Kopp, Doug’s father, held similar esteem during cowboy polo’s prime in the 1970s and ’80s. Now Stan rides with a whistle around his neck, a gray-haired referee watching as his son sends the ball far up the field with one stroke.

For Jeff Patterson’s son, Josh, family is the one thread keeping him tied to cowboy polo. He says it’s tough with a wife and kids to find that single sport everyone enjoys.

“I keep playing because my kids play,” says Josh, 32. “My wife has interest in playing, my dad plays. The family part of it keeps you involved. It’s really easy to do when the whole family does it, you don’t have to fight about what the family recreational activity’s going to be.”

But even Josh, who was once offered a position on a rough-and-tumble Texas team following a game in Billings, has considered throwing in the towel after nearly 20 years in the sport. He runs an independent Missoula contracting firm and can’t help feeling torn between the game, his job and his family.

“It’s a hard call ’cause [cowboy polo] is a lot of work and it takes up a lot of time,” Josh says. “There have been lots of moments I’ve thought about quitting because polo really consumes a lot of my available time for recreation. I find myself unable to do other things I like to do because I play polo.”

Missoula’s tournament feels much like a large family reunion. Small children run around the grass or press their hands against the wire fence separating them from the game.

Rocks fly from under hooves like polo shrapnel as a scuffle for the ball escalates. There’s a pause as the ball rolls under a player’s horse, but the player soon spots it, whacks at it, and the action is off at a dead-run for the far side of the arena.

Jeff Patterson smiles and rubs his salt-and-pepper beard as his nephew Jess sips a mug of coffee. It’s a rare break for Jeff. He seems constantly drawn to the field, like a fly to a polo horse, either swinging a mallet or touching-up the chalk lines in the arena between matches.

Meanwhile, Josh Patterson talks about pulling his son Austin from the next game. The kid’s got deadly aim, but he’s played the last three games straight. There’s concern in the 80-degree heat that he might be working himself too hard.

Whistles blow and the announcer shouts, “That’s the end of your chukker. That’s the end of your game.” Players exit the arena, dismounting in the dirt or riding straight for the parking lot to water their horses. Some look beat, most are smiling, none remember the final score.

“Like I said, we play for the fun and for the family and for the camaraderie,” Jeff Patterson says. “Most of these people are people we’ve known forever. We’ve seen them grow up, we’ve played with their parents, their dads. Now we’re playing with the kids and maybe the grandkids. One of the kids in Billings now, I started playing when he was running around in diapers.”

As Jeff talks, his son commends his wife on a one-pointer—or point scored from the closest section to the goal—she made during the last match against Cascade County. Nearby, Adam Pulasky and his wife, Kaycee, entertain one of the dozen or so children roaming in the shade. Kaycee joined the Bozeman polo team three years ago. She’s the team’s newest recruit, and plays a mean center position over the course of the weekend.

Family is a proven saving grace for cowboy polo, for now. Montana made an unspoken but unanimous decision in the late ’80s to soften the rough edges of the sport. Wives entered the arena for practice games and tournaments, as did kids under 16. That decision gave teams a needed boost in membership, likely staving off the sport’s further decline. The ball may not fly as far as it once did, Jeff says, but there are enough players now to field a tournament’s worth of teams.

But the family angle alone can only save the game for so long. What cowboy polo really needs is new teams, new families, new future legacies in the making.

“As players get old and start retiring, it’s hard to replace them,” Jeff says. “Unless you’re in my position. When I finally give up the ghost of polo, I’ve got a son and a grandson that will continue to play. They’ll carry on the tradition for me. But for those who don’t have kids or family to take their place, we have to find new blood.”

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