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Sioux Falls Group Works to Establish Polo In East River

Heather Benson
South Dakota Public Broadcasting

South Dakota is known as a state without a lot of pretension.  It’s a big state with a small population that feels no one is better than anyone else.  The sport of polo, on the other hand, is considered a sport for royalty and the wealthy, so you may not think people from a humble state would have an interest in such an activity.  But a small group of people in Sioux Falls is trying to make polo a popular activity.

Garth Brooks song, “Rodeo,” immediately conjures images of bull riding and barrel racing. Of dust and heat and that angry bronco in the chute, waiting to spill its rider.

This is not one of those stories.

To most people in South Dakota, the idea of polo being played in a place where rodeo is the state sport is about as strange as a segue from Garth Brooks to Michael Buble.  But, as the sounds of a Buble song cover a large patch of ground in Lincoln County, a group of eight people who form the Sioux Falls Polo Club are bringing the sport to the state’s largest city.  One of the players, Jeff Schneekloth, has played professionally—he says, if they’re looking for something different, rodeo cowboys would make excellent polo players.

Schneekloth cautions, “But I don’t see many cross over.  I don’t know if the interest isn’t there; it’s not in our culture.  I think they would like it, but I don’t see much of it happening.” 

The Sioux Falls Polo Club will take every opportunity to grow the sport in South Dakota.  On this sunny Saturday, they’re treating fans to a sample of the sport.  Their field is south of Sioux Falls, near Harrisburg, and a decent gathering is on the south side of the playing area, in lawn chairs and under tents.  The man who owns the field, Doctor Bernie Bahnson, says anyone new to the sport has a pretty steep learning curve.

According to Bahnson, “It’s not a simple game—it’s a little bit like hockey, I’m told.  I’m not a hockey player, but it takes a while to figure out what’s legal and what isn’t—kind of the direction of the ball and what the principles of the game are.  The initial players are looking at how fast it goes, kind of how many horses are out on the field, how aggressive and how dangerous it might be.  It’s not always the greatest spectator sport because the fields are so large, so sometimes, the play is quite a distance away from the spectators.”

A typical polo field is 300 yards long—it’s the longest playing surface in team sports.  Polo is also the world’s oldest team game—it was developed by the Huns as a post-battle celebration.  The losing team supplied the skulls that were used to score the goals.

With the relative youth of the Sioux Falls Polo Club, members are continually looking for new players—a recent member of the squad is Chelsea Strand.  The former North Carolinian prepares her horse by braiding the animal’s tail and checking the safety equipment used during the event.  She’s also taking the time to plan her strategy for her time on the field.

Strand says,  “Yeah, well, I’m probably going to play more defense than anything, because it’s gonna be really fast.  I’m probably gonna be doing more driving off and hooking, but I’ll be closer to the goal—so if the opportunity arises, then I’ll be there to shoot in.”

The Sioux Falls club is playing a team from Madison, Wisconsin—more than 400 miles east of South Dakota.  One of that club’s most enthusiastic members is veteran player, Carol Jean Schnier—but you can call her C.J.  She will share her knowledge with anyone who will listen, and first explains the player positions, numbered one through four.

C.J. says,  “Usually the first two players—one and two—are more defense, and they will play closer to the goal.  And the number three and number four players are the big hitters.  And they will help to define the play, hit the ball, and send the ball to the other people.”

C.J. says trying to take a mallet and, while on horseback, put the three-inch, white plastic ball between the posts is only part of the challenge.  

“But then," she says,  "you reverse direction when it gets back—now I have to take out that man; I have to keep that man from hitting the ball.  So, it’s constant offense-defense-offense-defense.” 

The Sioux Falls club’s answer to C.J., is Rebecca Barker—she grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, where polo is popular.  In the first period—known as a “chukker,” she’s actually performing a sort of play-by-play to the crowd, to help them get to know the sport and what players are trying to accomplish.  The Madison club is wearing Cardinal Red shirts, a nod to the University of Wisconsin that shares their city and wears that similar shade of red.  The Sioux Falls team normally wears blue, but today, their tan shirts carry the logo of the tournament sponsor, a local auto dealer.

Madison scores quickly in the first chukker, and takes a one-goal to nothing lead.  It’s a fairly easy goal to start the match, which concerns Sioux Falls player Matt Barker.

Barker reflects, “Yeah, that first goal there—it kinda shows the importance of defense, y’know.  You kind of watch these games, and you think you’re watching an NBA basketball game—but really, there is an aspect of defense in polo; it’s called ‘marking your man, where you’re trying to ride that person off, to not give him the opportunity to have a breakaway or make a nice shot on the ball.” 

The horses strain with effort during the chukker, and Sioux Falls gets into the flow of the match much better.  The local team overcomes the early deficit and takes a three-to-one lead.  A chukker lasts seven and a half minutes—and after each of the four is finished, players leave the field, cool the horses down, and get replacements.  Heather Benson, a horse expert and SDPB’s Social Media Specialist, says a good polo horse is made, and not born.  She says a lot of them are retired from racing.

Benson says,  “Most are smaller thoroughbred mares that might not have another career after racing—but they’re small, they’re quick, they’re agile—and they’re obviously quick, since they’re racehorses, so they’re pretty sought after by polo people.”

More often than not, the racehorses are given away to polo trainers—after the training and a couple years’ experience, they can fetch the trainer a quarter million dollars.

If you’ve seen the Julia Roberts movie, “Pretty Woman,” you may remember the scene where she and Richard Gere attend a polo match, and her character repairs the divots in the field at halftime.  That’s done in Sioux Falls, too—one woman, named Deb, says she never thought she’d spend a Saturday fixing a field.

Deb admits, “No, I did not—but we were here last year, and we found divots, and we’ve become fans.  And we try to come out here whenever we have a tournament.”

Deb has one caution for those new to polo divot repair:

“Yeah, you have to be careful that the poo is not, one of the divots, you know.  And maybe, sandals aren’t the best thing—maybe full shoes would be better for stomping.”

Halftime also features a chance to hit a polo ball with a stick, and there’s a fancy hat contest, too.  Then it’s back to the action—Sioux Falls keeps Madison at bay for a five-to-three win.  Rebecca Barker is happy with the turnout at the match, and appreciates the enthusiasm of the local fans.

Barker says, “Well, I just hope they had a great time, and that they enjoy the sport as much as we do.  It’s just kind of a—it’s about having a fun day, very family-friendly, and just a fun way for people to get together.  I hope some people watched it and say, “maybe we should give this a try,” I’ve already had two people come up to me and say, y’ know, I’d like to come out and give it a try—and that’s good.  We love new people.”

The teams congratulate each other after the match, pose for photos, and hand out trophies, while the fans go home discussing what for some was their first trip to a polo field.  The Madison club prepares its riders and horses for the eight-hour trip back to Wisconsin—the Sioux Falls players get ready for another tournament in a matter of days.  For South Dakota Public Broadcasting, I’m Gary Ellenbolt in Sioux Falls.

Note:  For more information on the Sioux Falls Polo Club, visit the club's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/siouxfallspolo/?fref=ts

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
A polo rider braids and secures her horse's tail before competing. The work prevents a polo stick from becoming caught in the tail.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
A special shoe worn by polo horses to allow them to make tight cuts on the field.

Credit Gary Ellenbolt / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
Madison polo enthusiast, Carol Jean "CJ" Schnier

Credit Heather Benson / South Dakota Public Broadcasting
South Dakota Public Broadcasting
The Sioux Falls Polo Club, which defeated Madison, WI on August 6th, 2016