Using the head of a defeated leader as the ball is no longer a rule in polo. It's one less nuance to pick up for the newly formed Montana State University Polo Club. Historians believe polo originated in China and Persia about 2,000 years ago. It was a way to celebrate a victory on the battle field.
Part of the celebration was to cut off the head of the defeated leader and use it as the ball during a match. This was a practice of the dominant royalty, and through the ages polo has been looked at as a sport for the affluent. "One of the myths about polo is that you need a lot of money and horses to play," said Wilbur O'Ferrall, instructor and referee for the Polo Training Foundation. "Some programs run on shoestring budgets and get horses where they can."
The MSU Polo Club is one of those programs. It has relied on the support of area businesses and horse communities. Rob Brooks, Joe Smith and Lance Barney helped get the five-woman team the necessary horses and practice. "MSU doesn't supply the girls with horses, so we try and scratch up as many as we can," said Brooks, who also runs polo matches at the Circle L Arena in Belgrade. On Sunday, the team worked out at MSU's Bob Miller Pavilion. "We brought the best horses we had today," Smith said, "so they could have a good time."
The student who contacted these horsemen was transfer Angela Yoder, the team captain. She grew up playing soccer and basketball, and riding horses. The strateg involved in both team sports helped her to understand polo. "It involves passing and blocking out your opponent," Yoder said. "But it's more like hockey on horseback."
She transferred from Eastern Oregon University as a club was forming there, so she decided to start one when she arrived at MSU. "I got into it because it's fast-paced," Yoder said. "I was never interested in showing horses because it was too serious. This is a lot more fun." An opportunity to ride regularly lured Yoder's roommate to the club. Sarah Walhert had few opportunities to ride before she met Yoder. She was bored with riding trails and trotting in circles around an arena. "It's a good way to learn how to control a horse and stay on," Walhert said. "I'm still learning though. The first time I tried to hit the ball on a run I fell off." Falling off isn't a problem for two sisters who could ride before they could walk. Amanda and Jessica Shotzberger of Libby were carried on trail rides when they were babies. Their parents worked for the U.S. Forest Service and were constantly on horseback in the wilderness. Both of the foresters' children developed a bareback riding style, but are adjusting to the English saddle required in polo.
"The whole English thing is new, but it's worth it to get another chance to ride," Amanda said. "It gets our mind off of school and keeps us from getting bored." Julie Wagner, 21, is another team member who has been riding horses for as long as she can remember. She heard about the club through Brooks. Fun may be the main reason for the creation of the club, but they are also looking for competition. First, they must get a better grasp of the rules. The primary rule involves right of way. A player who charges a ball directly in front of them has the right of way. Another player cannot cut in from the left or the right and take the ball away. This rule helps keep the horses from getting tangled up. The proper way to move an attacker off the ball is to ride alongside and use the horse to push them away from the goal. Goals are at both ends of the arena. Players can also use mallets to "hook" an opponent's mallet and prevent them from swinging on the ball.
"The game moves really fast so you really don't remember what happens from one period to the next," Jessica Shotzberger said. The match is separated into four-, seven- and a half-minute "chukkars." Teams rotate horses at the end of each chukkar to ensure one team doesn't have better horses.
Thus far, MSU has lost 11-9 to Washington State and 12-10 to Eastern Oregon. "We did a lot better than we thought we would in the first match," Amanda Shotzberger said. "We're not as good as other teams at playing the ball, but we're good on defense and riding people off the ball."