Polocrosse - Passion on the Prairies
By Tania Millen
Polocrosse players in Alberta and Saskatchewan are gearing up for a full season of competition in 2022.
“We’ve got an active group here. Last weekend, we had 10 people playing 10 horses,” says Gayle Smith, the secretary of Bridge City Polocrosse Association (BCPA) near Saskatoon. She says there are also eight kids learning the game and “they’re really doing well with their little cow horses.”
Polocrosse combines polo with lacrosse and is one of only a few team sports played on horseback. It’s a fast-paced sport where teams of three players try to score by throwing a foam ball through goal posts with their lacrosse stick while out-maneuvering the opposing team’s riders.
To participate in polocrosse riders need only one horse, which makes the sport affordable. Pictured is Alf Epp. Photo: Emma McGeough
“I think what makes polocrosse special is that it’s one horse-one rider which makes it economical for people to get into,” says Benn Armstrong, the President of BCPA. He played polocrosse as a teen in Australia before immigrating to Canada 22 years ago and now lives at Kenosee Lake in southeast Saskatchewan.
“The sport is fast. It’s full contact [at upper levels] and any horse can play at the lower levels,” Armstrong says. “The whole family can enjoy it. Men, women, children — it doesn’t matter.”
Smith thinks polocrosse broadens the appeal of riding horses for boys.
“Girls are highly engaged with horses, but I think polocrosse appeals to boys who have a sporting interest, especially the hockey players and lacrosse players because they know stick-handling,” Smith says.
Related: More Fun! And Why It's Important
The sport of polocrosse appeals to men and boys who know stick-handling, especially hockey and lacrosse players. Photos: Emma McGeough
Smith and her husband have tried many different horse sports including jumping, cow work, and trail riding.
“When my husband got a racket in his hand, a light bulb went off. He was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I can play a team sport on horses!’” says Smith. “I thought, this is a way for my husband to be quite engaged in horse sport, so we just took off with it.”
Smith also explains that any tack is suitable at the lowest level, but snaffle bits are required and minimal artificial aids are allowed. As such, good riding skills and well-trained horses are essential.
Benn Armstrong shows that good riding skills and a well-trained horse are keys to success in polocrosse. Photos: Emma McGeough
The rules of play are fashioned after polo where riders follow the line of the ball and avoid crossing paths for the horse’s safety.
“One of the goals [of the game] is safety. Another goal is fairness and the other one is fun,” says Smith.
Unlike polo, where riders switch horses so require several mounts, polocrosse riders have only one horse each. Smith rides an off-the-track-thoroughbred mare which she’s brought along herself and says horses under 15.2 hands are ideal.
The game is generally divided into six, six-minute-long chukkas (periods). However, Armstrong says it depends on the tournament how long each chukka is and how many chukkas there are in each game.
Each team has a total of six riders. Three riders play the first chukka while the other three riders sit out, then the second group of three riders play the second chukka while the first three riders sit out. They continue switching back and forth throughout the game so that horses (and riders) can rest while other teammates play.
In Canada, however, games are played differently due to a shortage of riders. Canadian teams have only three riders. Therefore, during tournaments, rest periods between chukkas are filled with another game. That means there’s always a game for spectators to watch and riders can rest their horses while other teams play.
The goals of the game are safety, fairness and fun, as demonstrated by Keri Kelly with her family team in purple. Photo: Emma McGeough
Although COVID-19 put a damper on polocrosse practices and tournaments in Saskatchewan and Alberta, Smith says, “We’ve just kept playing and developing the sport.”
She and her husband regularly host practices at their horse boarding facility southeast of Saskatoon.
“Before COVID hit in 2020, we had two international players booked to come [to Canada] for the summer. Both were high level players, and they were going to come stay with us and travel around and play. But of course, they couldn’t come [due to COVID restrictions].”
However, Armstrong plans to bring two players to Saskatchewan this summer.
“We’re trying to get a World Cup player from the United States, Australia, or South Africa to fly over, depending on funding, to run some clinics for us,” he says. “We would love for them to come and play at our tournaments, too.”
Smith and Armstrong connected over social media when Smith and her husband were first learning to play.
Related: The Science of Schooling Horses
The game of polocrosse was developed in Australia before World War II, and its popularity has spread to several countries around the world. L-R: Benn Armstrong, Lesley Plant, Amanda Nyuli, Cole Petersen. Photo: Emma McGeough
“We were looking at YouTube videos to figure out how to play because it’s an Australian game,” Smith says. Then in January 2018, Armstrong went to Smith’s facility and taught 14 keen riders from the Calgary and Saskatoon areas.
“We had the best time ever and we’ve all been friends since,” says Smith.
One of those friends is Lesley Plant. She’s the president of Polocrosse Calgary, has been playing for 20 years, and has competed on the Canadian Team at international World Cup competitions.
Plant says there are currently six clubs in Canada including four in Alberta: Polocrosse Calgary, Ranahan Polocrosse in Okotoks, Black Gold and Greater Edmonton in Edmonton. BCPA and Bridge City Polocrosse are both located in Saskatoon.
“Although the majority of play is out west, [Polocrosse Calgary] has shipped plenty of rackets to Ontario — there are folk playing [in Ontario],” Plant says. “We’re hoping to travel to Ontario to meet up with them or have them out to play with us.”
Armstrong and Plant are keen to develop the sport in Canada.
“We’re open to coaching anywhere in Canada, and not charging a fortune. For us, it’s about building the sport,” says Armstrong.
Armstrong thinks polocrosse has a natural home in Canada because horses are a big part of the rodeo culture and because lacrosse is Canada’s national summer sport.
One family that has embraced the sport is Quinton Baird, his wife Monica, and their three kids – Taylor (age 13), Riley (age 12) and Kaylee (age 10) — who live in central Alberta. Monica was the first to learn to play, then Quinton tried the game, and then all three kids took a clinic and now they’re hooked.
“The kids have been using Western tack, but Monica and I have bought Australian stock saddles. We started by borrowing equipment from people, then I got tired of borrowing so we started investing in our own stuff,” Baird explains.
“Our kids are in junior high school rodeo so our horses do extremely well because they’re not afraid and they’ll get in and push [because they’re used to] sorting cattle. Polocrosse helps our horses become better horses because they’re exposed to more than one discipline. We’re all super competitive so we enjoy going to the tournaments and seeing how we do,” says Baird.
To riders thinking about trying polocrosse, Baird says, “Take the plunge! There are some super people in the sport and you can have a heck of a lot of fun.”
Riders of all ages and levels of skill can participate, and the basic requisites are a love of horses and the ability to ride. Pictured is Amanda Nyuli (in black). Photo: Emma McGeough
To learn more about Polocrosse:
- Alberta Black Gold Polocrosse – on Facebook
- Bridge City Polocrosse — on Facebook
- Greater Edmonton Polocrosse
- Polocrosse Calgary
- Ranahan Polocrosse
- Rocky Mountain Polocrosse & Equestrian Club — on Facebook
Related: Reviving Ancient Horse Riding Skills
Main Photo: Combining polo with lacrosse, polocrosse is a fast-paced team sport played on horseback. L-R: Kass Renz, Evan Plant, Shelby Denesiuk. Credit: Emma McGeough