A right good chukker

Most polo players and polo enthusiasts will argue that the coolest halftime activity of any sport is not a marching band or free-throw contest, but the stomping of the divots.

For 20 years the annual benefit for Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding, Stomping the Divots, has been not only a great way to get Jackson Hole’s polo field back in order for the match but a pivotal fundraiser for the nonprofit.

And after a two-year pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, the excitement for the event’s 20th anniversary is overwhelming, Therapeutic Riding Executive Director Tori Plennes said.

“Tickets sold out a month before the event,” she said. “There were fewer than 100 tickets remaining by the time invites arrived in mailboxes.”

Despite having an original cap at 350, 370 tickets were sold, Plennes said.

“We have clearly oversold and have a running waitlist that increases by the day,” she said.

Everyone involved with JH Therapeutic Riding — staff, volunteers, supporters and board members — is eager to get back to the in-person event.

“But I think more than anyone, our participants are excited for the opportunity to display the skills they have been working so hard on perfecting,” Plennes said.

Stomping the Divots is not a Carhartts and Chacos kind of drive-by event. It’s one of Jackson Hole’s fancier affairs. There’s even a suggested dress code that encourages attendees to think about their footwear for the evening. Wedges: check. Boots: check. Heels: not so much.

The feature event of the evening is a polo match played by professionals from Chile, Argentina, California and Texas. The benefit gets its title from the halftime activity, when spectators are invited to get on the field and replace the sod gouged out by galloping horses and swinging mallets.

After the match Therapeutic Riding takes to the field for a presentation that includes a riding demonstration, the bestowal of the group’s Rider of the Year, and the annual Horse Sponsorship. There’s also a raffle and silent auction, and a multi-course dinner served by Genevieve Catering, with a live auction beginning after the meal and, to wrap it all up, dancing to the band The Famous Undercover.

Plennes said the evening out on the polo fields is an incredible event for Therapeutic Riding’s participants to show off their accomplishments.

“They work tenaciously throughout the season to develop skills, both in and out of the saddle,” she said, “and this is a chance for them to take center stage and be proud of all they have achieved and overcome. It gives our attendees, many of whom have not experienced our program firsthand, the opportunity to witness what our program is all about.”

It’s not just young children who benefit from Therapeutic Riding but also veterans, aging adults battling dementia, adolescents recovering from trauma and many others.

“It is important that our supporters see with their own eyes to truly understand the magnitude and impact of their giving,” she said.

This year’s Ride of the Year award will go to Pinedale resident Rick Lawrence, who served for 14 years as a chief petty officer in the United States Navy. After that he continued to serve by organizing hunting trips for his fellow veterans through the California Waterfowl Association Veteran Hunt Program. While stewarding Veterans Administration programs, Lawrence has been open about his personal battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and how he has found some healing by serving others.

In February 2021 Lawrence received a diagnosis of service-related terminal cancer and given an estimated 18 months to live. He was introduced to Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding through a social worker at St. John’s Health.

“This has been something for me to really look forward to … on a weekly basis,” he said. “Going up there and visiting with them and being with the horses — that connection with a horse is indescribable, especially for the PTSD. … You know that you connect with a horse on a level that you cannot connect with a human being.”

Lawrence said the only time he truly forgets about cancer and his military trauma is when he’s with the horses.

“It gives me an opportunity to step away from it,” he said.

Lawrence is one of more than 250 people with disabilities, PTSD or any number of other difficult life circumstances that Therapeutic Riding serves each year.

“But none of that would be possible without all the support,” she said. “All of our lessons are subsidized, and more than 65% of riders depend on further financial assistance in order to participate.

“As our most significant fundraiser of the year, this event raises over half of JHTR’s annual operating budget,” she said. “In our nearly three decades, we have never turned away an individual due to the inability to pay, and for that we have our community to thank.”

Along with the many supporters, an army of volunteers, and a busy staff that manages lessons and horse care every day, there is another benefactor who makes Stomping of the Divots the event it is: Paul von Gontard.

“Paul von Gontard, the owner of the Melody Hereford Ranch and founder of the Jackson Hole Polo Club, has for two decades gifted the use of his property for this annual event,” Plennes said. “His generosity has ensured not only the most breathtaking venue, but that a greater percentage of the proceeds directly benefit the program and our riders.”

Known for his leather fringed vest, bolo tie and cowboy hat, von Gontard recently turned 90.

Plennes said it is hard to encapsulate what makes Stomping the Divots so special. She observed that few fundraisers sell out year after year for decades.

“From my perspective it is the assemblage of all the pieces that elicit all the emotions,” she said, “the thrill of the polo match, the joy of being together with friends, the pride in supporting a great cause, and the empathy in watching others facing obstacles and knowing that you can be a small part of their journey in overcoming challenges. It is in essence a big party, but one with a big purpose.”

Auction-entertainer Letitia Frye, from Scottsdale, Arizona, will be returning to encourage sponsorship of the polo ponies and to run the live auction, which features vacations like five days in Mykonos, Greece, or a week in Maui, Hawaii. Bronze artist Heather Jansch, from Diehl Gallery, has her horse sculpture “Jupiter” in the auction, Judith Dragonette has two paintings up for bidding, and Pearls by Shari has donated a set of South Sea pearl and diamond earrings.

With such luxuries on the block, it’s no surprise that Therapeutic Riding achieves its fundraising goals year after year.

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