The DCI’s call for information about historic cowboy polo had barely hit the newsstands on Oct. 30 when information from readers came flowing in.
Raye Ann Holland sent the first email, all the way from Canutillo, Texas. She’s an online subscriber and, reached by telephone, she said she likes to keep up with things in her hometown. Her father, Melvin Chick, is generally credited with being one of the folks who helped put cowboy polo on the Delta County map.
Delta resident Jo-an Barnett also responded. For 10 years she’s been a volunteer with the Delta County Museum/Delta County Historical Society. She and another museum volunteer, Brad Carelli of Delta, dug through the museum’s files to provide copies of informative documents.
Melody Hamilton wrote that her husband Doug remembered watching his father Calvin play in cowboy polo matches and a phone interview with Doug revealed details about the competition and equipment. The Hamiltons reside in Cedaredge.
This article is a compilation of material from the 1999 DCI article and interviews with the aforementioned readers.
Online resources suggest that the game which would become cowboy polo first surfaced in Florida in 1952. That adaptation of traditional field polo employed western saddles, modified mallets and a larger ball, along with a different attitude. Cowboy polo was destined to become a far cry from civilized upper-class polo matches associated with wealthy participants. Eventually the sport took on an egalitarian and rural flavor as it rapidly spread to other states. Soon teams of Western horsemen were competing in local and regional contests from Texas to Montana.
Spreading through the rodeo circuit, the idea reached Delta County in 1958. Doug and Melody Hamilton and Raye Ann Holland and her brother Bill Chick recalled that a lot of cowboy polo’s early history in the county was outlined in a 1999 article written by Helen Morgan, a local historian and contributing writer to a special DCI Pastimes tabloid produced for Deltarado Days. Barnett and Carelli scoured the files of the Delta County Museum to find copies of the Morgan article.
Morgan’s ‘Rodeo Delta Style’ is a wide-ranging story covering events from 1936-99. Pertinent to the history of cowboy polo, she recounts the start of Deltarado Days (1936) and the formation of a group of horse enthusiasts called the Roundup Club (late 1940s). Raye Ann and Bill’s father, Melvin Chick, was a member of the Roundup Club. The elder Chick served as secretary-treasurer for the informal group which first met in the Delta Hardware Store.
Initially the Roundup Club held rodeo events up near the present-day site of Delta’s Blake Airfield. In the early 1950s the club moved to a place known as ‘Campbells switch’ and held roping and riding contests on grounds near today’s Tractor Supply Company and Delta Ace Hardware. After a few years, the group went dormant, but Melvin Chick’s faithful stewardship of the club’s bank account kept open the possibility that the Roundup Club might become active again.
Melvin and his wife Helen Chick owned a small acreage on Garnet Mesa and they built an arena where local cowboys gathered to socialize and practice roping. Melvin used some of the club money to purchase roping calves which he later sold, depositing the proceeds back into the club’s account. He did the same thing the following year until by the autumn of 1958 the club’s assets had tripled to the tune of $300. Bill Chick recalled that his father also auctioned off a pony to raise funds for the club.
As the winter of 1958 approached, a wave of enthusiasm for cowboy polo resulted in renewed interest in reconstituting the Roundup Club. Soon the club was functioning again as it quickly formed a polo team to take on a rival Cedaredge squad. According to Helen Morgan’s article:
“After one practice session enough new members enrolled that they got their team and they started practicing. Then came the first match, their horses trained to chase a ball in place of a cow, and all the enthusiasm in the world for this new and daring sport, and the team headed out for Cedaredge to play their first match. Of all things, it started to snow and, although it dampened the arena, it did not dampen their spirits, and they played and won.”
The source of this account of Delta City’s first cowboy polo match was Helen Chick whom her daughter Raye Ann recalled sitting for hours at the family’s dinner table while Morgan took notes. Included on the snowbound Delta team were Melvin Chick and his father Elmer who then worked for the Porter Cattle Company. The other members of that first “snowball” team (as many names as Helen Chick could remember) are included in the “Who’s Who” list accompanying this article.
During the late 1950s to early 1960s Delta fielded four five-man teams plus several reserves all of whom traveled to other Western Slope communities to compete in matches. Bill Chick, who was a young boy at the time, recalled that so many cowboys were eager to play that starting line-ups were formed by drawing names out of a hat. He also remembered that matches were held in the evenings under the lights or on weekends because most of the competitors were workers with day jobs in town or on rural ranches, orchards and farms.
Bill Chick recalled that, in addition to Cedaredge and Delta, Hotchkiss, Olathe and Montrose also fielded town teams. Morgan’s 1999 article mentioned a large round robin tournament hosted by Delta which, in addition to teams from nearby towns, included riders from Grand Junction, Cortez, Durango and Bayfield. In that contest (which apparently occurred sometime in 1958-59) she reports that the Delta cowboy polo team beat Cortez to win the championship. The members of that winning team are listed in the “Who’s Who” box.
At the height of its popularity, cowboy polo became something of an obsession with certain participants. There is a legend in the Surface Creek area that ranch hands who worked at the Bull family ranch and dairy were so enthusiastic about cowboy polo that they had to be disciplined by the foreman for neglecting their milking duties.
In the early 1960s Bill Chick was 4 or 5 years old when he watched his father Melvin, grandfather Elmer and uncle Albin playing cowboy polo. Doug Hamilton was around 10 or 12 years old when he witnessed his father Calvin competing during 1958-60.
Doug recalled that the polo mallets were about 6-feet long with a strap on the grip-end and a rubber mallet on the business end. Bill describes the tip as reminiscent of a big rubber spoon. Both agree that the rubber ball used was fairly large. Online sources call it a “medicine ball” and period photographs show a red rubber ball reminiscent of those used by school children to play dodge-ball in gym class.
Whichever way the ball is described, the cowboy polo sphere was far larger than a traditional polo ball. At around 12-18 inches in diameter it dwarfs the traditional ball which is a mere 4 ½ inches in diameter. And yet, even though the cowboy polo ball constituted a bigger target, hitting it at a gallop while four friendly and five opposing horsemen were trying to do the same was no picnic.
The size of a cowboy polo competition ground varied with the town. In a pinch an unplanted field or other suitable flat stretch of ground was smoothed over and a perimeter established using railroad ties or fencing material. Boundaries and goal lines were marked off with whatever was handy — lime chalk was a popular marking medium. Doug Hamilton recalled watching volunteers create a polo ground near Eckert. Sometimes formal arenas were available such as those established at various locations in Delta and the grounds which form the present-day Surface Creek Saddle Club east of downtown Cedaredge.
Having the right horse — one with a fearless competitive streak and a smooth gait — seemed to make all the difference. And, since action was non-stop, a competitor might have as many as three mounts on hand. As competition intensified, Doug Hamilton recalled that riders began to favor increasingly bigger horses.
Horses were ridden hard during the matches but, since each cowboy’s livelihood depended on the health of his animal, care was taken to keep the animals safe by reining in and shying off to avoid collisions. The legs of some horses were protected with splint boots. And, to avoid striking an opposing horse, mallets were generally used to reach for and scoop the ball forward rather than trying to whack at it. The large bouncy ball seems to have been sufficiently pliable to reduce horse injuries. Plus, if a competitor scooped the ball just right it would fly high in the air and cover a lot of ground.
Skill in maneuvering and positioning the horse were keys to cowboy polo. Chasing and advancing the ball called for skills which were familiar to the working cowboy since they simulated what a rider and hazer must do to achieve success in traditional rodeo events such as team roping or steer wrestling.
So a certain amount of finesse was required, but that didn’t mean the contests weren’t rough-and-tumble affairs. According to Bill Chick, “Things got pretty wicked. It was like hockey sometimes. And there were a lot of bumps and bruises, but it was all it good fun.” Injuries were apparently no more serious than a few broken bones. Both the Chick and Hamilton households recall seeing family members and other competitors in arm and leg casts.
Some town teams went all out, wearing colorful outfits with striped shirts and other bright fabrics, but many participants showed up and competed in their everyday duds. In states such as South Dakota where cowboy polo continues to flourish to the present day, participants now wear protective helmets and the horses are literally armored, but 60 years ago Delta County’s riders wore cowboy hats and caps and the horses came as they were.
Regarding rules, each team consisted of five active riders with an unlimited number of reserve horses and riders who could be substituted during the match as needed. The goal of the contest was to knock the ball over the opponent’s goal line. There was at least one referee on hand and a rider could be disqualified for overly-aggressive play. Contests were rough, but generally light-hearted and subject to an unwritten cowboy code of fair play.
Bill Chick recalled that the matches were “just a bunch of people that got together to have a good time.” Each match lasted about as long as a football game, with at least one rest-break in the middle. There was no prize money or trophies, but scores and standings were kept and periodic playoffs were held to determine a season’s champion with the season primarily limited to the summer months.
Asked about photos, Bill Chick said that his family took a lot of 8mm movies, but he couldn’t recall any still pictures. His sister Raye Ann didn’t have any photos on hand and neither did Doug Hamilton. Then, just when it looked like no images of the county’s early polo days existed, Barnett came to the rescue. In researching Delta County horse topics she discovered that the John Deere Manufacturing Company’s corporate magazine ran an article about Western Colorado cowboy polo in 1962. She didn’t have a copy of ‘The Furrow’ magazine, but an online search utilizing her information led to the cover image which accompanies this article.
Delta County’s love affair with cowboy polo lasted from 1958 to the mid-1960s before it began to wane. None of the sources for this story had a firm idea about why interest in the game faded. “The old guys started dying off,” Bill Chick recalled, “And like with the rodeo and the gymkhanas, interest just tapered off.”
One theory is that the cowboys themselves moved on to other more tradition, and more financially rewarding, rodeo events. Now, over half a century later, most of the riders from those early days have passed away, but their exploits live on in the memories of their families and, thanks to the work of researchers and writers like Barnett, in the annals of the Delta County Museum.
Anyone with further written information and images of the county’s cowboy polo activities is encouraged to contribute their materials to the museum’s archives. For more information, call the Delta County Museum at 970-874-8721 or email them at email@example.com.