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Hockey on horseback

Hockey on horseback

A pair of horses shoved shoulder-against-shoulder as their riders whacked at a red rubber playground ball.

For a moment, the standoff seemed like a foosball game, the motionless ball lodged between horses' hooves as each player leaned out over the saddle while trying to bat the ball toward the opponent's goal.

Beyond the arena, horse trailers sat parked in a cockeyed row against a hillside at the Laurel Saddle Club off Buffalo Trail Road.

Few in the sparse crowd at the cowboy polo Field Days competition over Labor Day weekend were simply bystanders. Most were connected to families whose members had grown up in the sport, fathers playing alongside grown sons and daughters.

"Everybody's got to have their insanity. This is ours," said Dennis Neilson, who plays for the Laurel team.

But the game is in danger of vanishing from the Western landscape, crowded out by the lure of prize money at events such as team roping and penning.

In the 1950s, Neilson's father played in Montana's first Field Days competition at Lincoln, back when Montana's cowboy polo teams were all tied to volunteer sheriffs' posses.

"Most of the people around the state who do this are severe horse enthusiasts," Neilson said.

The sport is so obscure that it's tough to buy the specialized equipment. Players usually inherit their mallets or make them out of fiberglass shafts with hard rubber heads.

Neilson's daughter uses a mallet handed down from her grandfather.

Rob Brooks, of Bozeman, compares the chaotic, rough-and-tumble competition of cowboy polo to hockey on horseback.

As Neilson describes it, "You get two 1,200- to 1,400-pound horses pushing against each other with your leg in the middle."

The five-person teams compete for bragging rights but the action is intense, especially over Labor Day weekend when teams from four Montana cities vie for the traveling trophy, which caps the season. Years ago, the sport was even more cutthroat and less genteel.

The trophy is named for Merle Pulasky, the first state president of the Montana State Sheriff's Posse Association.

His grandson, Adam, a 20-year-old farrier from the Bozeman area, is a fierce competitor. In the announcer's booth, Adam's father, John, a veteran weathercaster for the Northern Ag Network, offered the game's play-by-play.

The ref's wife used to baby-sit Adam, and the Bozeman team's captain, Brian Ward, grew up watching the game with Adam.

"This is my extended family," Adam Pulasky said. "Everybody here, I care about."

While the Bozeman team waited for the second match to begin, his wife, KayCee, sat in the saddle cradling their 15-month-old daughter, Maizy.

"The golden rule on the field is you really can't tell your wife what to do," Pulasky said.

The game's other rules are simple.

The arena is divided into five zones. Two players, one from each team, work each zone. Both players must stay within the zone as they move the ball toward the goal, a rule that seems designed to prevent horses from moving too fast.

Games are divided into four periods, called chukkers.

Unlike traditional polo, which often requires strings of thoroughbred horses charging up and down the field, cowboy polo can be played with a single horse. Rules forbid the use of more than one horse during the two-day Field Days competition.

Traditional polo relies on a solid, hard plastic ball about the size of a baseball, and riders use English saddles rather than Western tack.

"We ride predominantly quarter horses or that type of horse for the agility," Neilson said. "Sometimes it takes awhile to find a horse that likes the game."

Although the game seems chaotic and intimidating to novices, the rider takes more of the abuse than the horse, said Justin Roberts.

Roberts, whose grandfather raced chariots before getting involved in polo, took a vacation from his job in the oilfields of Pennsylvania to play for Laurel during the Field Days. In the last 10 years, Roberts has only seen one horse seriously hurt, when a mallet hit it in the eye.

Last year, Neilson broke his pelvis when he slammed against his bay mare, after the horse started bucking during a match.

"Sitting on a horse, chasing a round ball across a field, I guess country songwriters wrote that's where you're most alive, and, for me, it is," Neilson said.

"I can leave everything else at that gate when I come to play polo. I don't worry about anything else," he added, before another teammate interrupted him.

"Tell the truth. We make sure the beer is cold," Kevin Richeson said.

By tradition, a player who falls off his horse during a game, buys beer for his teammates.

"It's not in any rule book, but I think that's probably the most steadfast rule that we have. The cardinal rule," Neilson said.

In the mid-1970s, Missoula's Memorial Day tournament attracted 15 teams. Today, the only remaining teams in Montana are based in Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Laurel. A Butte player joins Laurel's team.

Only Missoula and Great Falls are still associated with sheriff's posses.

Elsewhere, cowboy polo has declined even more precipitously. The last national tournament was in 2002, and the national association disbanded in 2005, said Larry Jowers, a Texan and former president of the now-defunct Cowboy Polo Association.

Montana may be the last state in the nation to hold statewide tournaments, Jowers said.

Strong family ties have helped bind Montana teams together.

Great Falls boasts enough players in one family, the Nilsens, to field a five-man team.

The team captain, Maureen Nilsen, was one of the first women to join when women were allowed to play in the mid-1990s. She and her husband, Earl, have three sons and a daughter-in-law who compete.

Kevin and Heather Richeson, a couple who play for Laurel, met each other at a cowboy polo match in 2007, when he played for Great Falls and she played for Laurel.

Kevin Richeson describes his wife as the better, more aggressive player.

"We come home and compare who has the biggest bruises," he said.

During the winter, they do team penning together to keep their horses in shape.

Cowboy polo began in Florida as "palmetto polo," with the first mallets made from palmetto palm fronds, Jowers said. It spread from saddle clubs to sheriff posses. In Texas, it morphed into cowboy polo.

Cowboy polo hit its heyday in the 1970s, when 75 active teams played in the United States and two in Australia. Montanans went to the national tournament for the first time in 1969, said Neilson, who played for the Missoula team before moving to Laurel a decade ago.

The Laurel team practices twice a week at the saddle club and gathers for tournaments around the state about once a month. The season ends with the Laurel Saddle Club Field Days, a competition that includes team relay games, like barrel and stake races, where riders grab a pole from one barrel and plant it in another.

This year, the traveling trophy, for the team with the highest accumulated point total during Field Days, went to Missoula.

The ongoing challenge for each of the teams may be attracting enough new players each year to keep the trophy traveling.

Contact Donna Healy at or at 657-1292.

To learn more about cowboy polo, contact the Laurel Saddle Club through its Web site,

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