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Some years ago, a famous American polo authority, Colonel Grove Collum, dropped in at my ranch at San Patricio, N.M. My colleagues and I were playing our own informal brand of Wild West polo. The colonel happened to catch a scrimmage participated in by a visiting oilman who played with more zest than style. Later in the afternoon, between sips of a Martini cocktail, Colonel Collum remarked of our guest: "That man plays polo as if he were killing snakes." His estimate of the oilman's game was accurate. More than that, his remark had a double aptness: It probably described the rest of us as well as it did the oilman and, as we all belonged to San Patricio, which was named for the Irish nemesis of snakes, his words gave us the name of our team?the San Patricio Snake Killers.
I've been playing this game for almost 20 years. I never intended to, even though I can't say I never intended not to. I got into it quite by accident. A young captain of cavalry stopped to visit at the ranch?on the Rio Ruidoso, 50 miles west of Roswell?after a polo tournament at Fort Bliss. He was a polo coach at New Mexico Military Institute and his conversation on that summer afternoon, as we sipped long tequila drinks, turned mostly to polo. From where we sat in the patio we could see, grazing on the nearby hillside, the four saddle ponies that had come with my newly acquired ranch. Suddenly the captain asked: "Why don't you guys up here start playing cow-pasture polo?"
Visiting me at the time were the late Eric Knight and a horse-minded youngster from the East known as Chico. Eric had fled a distasteful job as writer for one of the movie studios to be with me a couple of months and help get the ranch operation started. It was Knight who jumped up and said, "Why not? Pete's got one of the few flat pieces of land in the whole valley."
Whether it was the ensuing accounts of fabulous Western polo teams which had burgeoned on cow-pasture playing fields, or repeated copitas of tequila I can't say, but the virus was planted. Within minutes, we drove to the spot Eric had spoken of?a nearly flat, though gently rolling piece of land roughly 700 by 400 feet. It was the site of a pre-Columbian village or camp, and pottery shards and occasional stone implements littered its grassy surface. There was some cactus?big cholla and prickly pear?and, reflecting that these might possibly prove detrimental to our game, we yanked them out with a log chain tied to a rear bumper. Chico penned the ponies and saddled them. The captain took his mallets and some polo balls from his car, while Eric and I hauled four bales of hay up to the field for goal posts. Having improvised the essentials, we immediately entered into an impromptu scrimmage. The captain taught us rules as we played.
POLO ON THE DOLE
Even that little taste of the game was exciting and absorbing. We were all for more of it, but one thing occurred to us as we talked: Though the captain had cited the resemblance between our setup and that of other ranch polo teams, he had failed to mention one big difference?money. We were all broke, Eric and I living somewhat precariously from writing and painting respectively, Chico on a small monthly allotment from his parents. Moreover, these were the dark days of the Depression; but the germ was planted. There was no stopping us now.
We shamelessly scrounged used polo balls at N.M.M.I. When soaked in water, dried and repainted, they did very well. Mallets were a little more difficult. In those days a new Meurisse mallet cost $3.50?about what it cost one of us to live for three or four days. But we learned of a janitor at the institute who had a hoard of 23 used sticks, collected, he said, from cadets' rooms after they left on vacation. A pint of whiskey was discreetly shown him, and the sticks were at once ours. This gifted janitor proved a ready source of sticks for several years and, prudently, we didn't inquire into how he continued to have an apparently endless supply. After our initial barter deal, the price was set at 25? for a mallet with a fair head; for one with a good head, 50?.
Our resources were strained, but we all had helmets and kept a fair supply of mallets on hand. Chico, who was a good craftsman, experimented with native woods to replace broken heads, and finally, after shattering a number of experimental but beautifully carved heads of pear, apple and live oak, we discovered that the wood of the native Soapberry tree?Sapindus Drummondii?was excellent. Its tough, compactly crossed fibers withstood the double attrition of balls and a stony field. For pony boots we used pieces of sheepskin to which we sewed billets. Saddles were a hodgepodge of ancient stock saddles?a couple of foxhunting ones and a steeple-chaser, patched, repatched, riveted and, in places, wired together.
TOUGH AND WIRY PONIES
Our ponies and those of the other teammates we recruited were tough, wiry little cow ponies like those in Will James's drawings. I once acquired, in a swap, a pony named Pecos, which I trained and played many years. After the bill of sale had been executed, the former owner looked musingly at Pecos, a short-coupled pony with neat legs and a good head.