Polo Under the Tetons

The Jackson Hole Polo Club

Polo Under the Tetons

By Ben Graham

The Jackson Hole Polo Club plays a summer season at Melody Ranch. Photograph by Bradly J. Boner
The Jackson Hole Polo Club plays a summer season at Melody Ranch. Photograph by Bradly J. Boner

THWACK! THE SOUND of a mallet striking a hard, plastic ball rings out over a field. Thirty-two hooves pound the earth, sending up dust and a thunderous roar that echoes through the surrounding hills. Atop each horse sits a well-dressed but sweaty rider, mallet in hand, chasing the ball that was just hit downfield.

Jackson Hole might be best known for mountain pursuits, but this scene—polo—plays out in the valley every summer. Dozens of players from around the country, including Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi, make an annual sojourn here, bringing friends, family, and even their horses along. They are the Jackson Hole Polo Club, founded in 1966 by Paul Von Gontard.

Von Gontard, now eighty-two, learned to play polo as a young man in his native St. Louis, Missouri, and brought it to Jackson Hole when his family began spending summers here after World War II. Von Gontard found the valley to be fertile ground for the sport; horses and horsemen abounded. In the earliest days of Jackson Hole polo—before the club was officially formed—Von Gontard and friends organized games on freshly cut hayfields, using a rubber ball and, for mallets, brooms with the bristles cut off. Today, the club has dozens of members but most live elsewhere. Almost all local-born players have either retired or passed away.

Last summer, twenty-eight players came to the valley, staying from late June through August and, on many days, playing multiple games. “The majority of our members have played twenty-plus years, and they’ve competed in high-stakes games,” says Polo Club manager Craig Ramsby. The club sometimes invites professional players, which ups the level of competition even more. Melody Ranch, where the polo grounds are located, was boarding two hundred horses at last season’s peak. “It’s great to get up there in the mountains and the clear air,” says club member Bayard Erb, fifty-five. Erb travels to Jackson from his home in Memphis, Tennessee. “Everybody just wants to be out here. There’s not a more beautiful place to be during that time.”

If the full truth be told, club members aren’t just here for the polo. It’s also an extremely active social organization. Members host cookouts, organize trail rides, and enjoy river trips. “They come to play polo, but they also come to Jackson for the good life,” Ramsby says. “We probably outdo everybody on river trips.” One of the club’s sayings is, “We may not win every tournament, but we never lose a party.”

FOR THE UNINITIATED, the basic rules of polo are both simple and complicated. The simple version: two teams of four players on a ten-acre field try to score in the opposing team’s goal. Complicated: there are rules about which rider has the right-of-way in different situations, what qualifies as a foul, and how riders can approach the ball. Regardless of your level of understanding, the speed and power of the game is thrilling to watch.
Excelling at the sport requires teamwork and practice but also “a whole lot of horsemanship,” Erb says. Competent western riders can catch onto the horse part quickly, he explains. But strategy takes longer to learn. Players describe the sport as a “war game” and a “chess match.” Want to become a member and play? Seasonal dues are currently $5,500.

Matches are mostly free and open to the public. Games begin the first week of July and take place through the end of August. If you only catch one match, though, it’s (sadly) one that’s not free: annually the club hosts Stomping the Divots, a benefit for the Jackson Hole Therapeutic Riding Association. Set for August 1 and priced at $300 per person this year, Stomping the Divots includes more than just polo—there’s a seated dinner and live music by the Richard Brown Orchestra. Ramsby says it isn’t necessarily black tie, but people do dress up, have a good time, and watch some great polo.


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