BIG HORN — Bob Brotherton didn’t know much about polo for the first 50 years of his life.
Brotherton grew up a cowboy and rancher and rode horses, but he wasn’t interested in the sport. That changed when he received a polo mallet from a man to whom he sold a horse.
Brotherton was hooked immediately. He hasn’t stopped for the past 18 years and, at 71 years old, is the oldest regular polo player at the Big Horn Equestrian Center.
“I started hitting the ball and haven’t ever quit,” Brotherton said.
Brotherton was one of eight polo players who participated in a white pants practice Sunday afternoon at the equestrian center. The practice entailed six seven-minute periods, or “chukkers,” and had a more relaxed pace to help acclimate new horses to polo. The key for a polo horse is to remain calm, quiet and not react unexpectedly when a player hits the ball.
“Some of these horses have never played polo,” Big Horn Polo Club President Perk Connell said. “And there’s going to be some that have played a ton.”
The equestrian center’s 26th competitive polo season begins June 17 at 1 p.m. with the Big Horn Smokehouse Kickoff. There are two competitions in June and then the calendar ramps up with two contests every Sunday in July and August.
Don King Days in early September mark the conclusion of the Big Horn polo season.
Connell said the club — which was founded in the 1890s — has around 40 active playing members, but many other players from around the world receive invitations to compete during the summer season. She said the toughest part is organizing chukkers when lots of people show up eager to play. Eight people — four on each team, the standard for a polo match — practiced Sunday, but sometimes there are 20 or 30 players, making it much more difficult.
Connell grew up in Oak Brook, a suburb of Chicago, and began playing polo at age 8.
“I was raised on a polo field,” Connell said.
Connell and her husband — a high-level polo player — have lived in Big Horn since 1980.
The game has evolved over time, mainly in rule changes over the past 20 years to speed up the game flow and make it more viewer-friendly. Technology has helped as well, and like most sports, the players, horses and equipment have naturally gotten better.
“The game from when I was a kid has evolved incredibly fast,” Connell said, adding that there are a couple rule changes this year that should help speed up the game.
Brotherton’s introduction came much later, but his passion hasn’t waned over the years. He started playing competitively after about three years of polo school, where he had learned all the rules, regulations and different saddles.
“I came here and started coming out here watching them, never thinking I would ever play, but it ended up (that) I got a chance,” Brotherton said.
The competition keeps him coming back each year.
“It’s an adrenaline high to hit the ball at 24 miles per hour,” Brotherton said. “It’s just the greatest game in the world. That’s about all you can say about it.”
Brotherton owns five horses and rides four of them for polo because horses can only do two chukkers per match. As soon as the weather allows, he rides almost every day, practices Wednesdays and Fridays and competes Sundays. Brotherton has played in Arizona during the past three winters as well.
He has lived in Sheridan for roughly 40 years.
“I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could,” Brotherton joked.
From fans and organizers like Connell, to players like Brotherton, Sunday signaled the beginning of another busy polo season.