A Flint Hills ranch keeps a rougher version of polo alive
Photography by Jason Dailey\
Polo is one of the world’s oldest sports, believed to originate in the 6th century BCE among the nomadic tribes of the area that is modern Iran. Over time, the sport became associated with royalty and the upper class, in part due to the expense of keeping horses.
But other people have horses—ranchers and cowboys, for example. And it turns out that their less glamorous working attire substitutes well for the white-starched finery of regal rivals. Like polo boots, cowboy boots are tall to shield the shins. “We wear our chaps, too, which work very well for protection. Cowboy gear works great for polo,” comments rancher and cowboy Josh Hoy.
Hoy, along with his cousin Warren Kruse, owns the 7,000-acre Flying W Ranch in Cedar Point, a working ranch with about 400 cow-calf pairs and 1,600 yearlings. In his free time, Hoy, his family and friends also keep the sport of cowboy polo alive. It’s a Kansas tradition dating back to at least the 1920s and 1930s—and they have the photos to prove it.
Josh’s dad, rancher and retired Emporia State University English professor Jim Hoy, has memorialized one particular historic match that took place in Cassoday in his nonfiction book Flint Hills Cowboys: Tales from the Tallgrass Prairie, available through the University Press of Kansas. The legendary polo games between Cassoday and Wichita were part of a community celebration that included dances, a rodeo, and a barbeque. “They were celebrating the railroad coming through. It didn’t come through the central Flint Hills until 1923,” explains Jim Hoy. The polo matches took place over two days, between the “real” polo team from Wichita and the cowboy team of Cassoday, a team Jim’s dad William Hoy and his uncle Marshall Hoy played on.
“The Wichita team won the first day because their horses followed the ball and the cowboys’ horses were kind of trained to not get run over by another horse, and they’d veer off,” says Jim. “The cowboys got together that night and decided the next day they were staying on the ball no matter what—and they did—and things got pretty rough. Two people hit the ground, I guess, from collisions, but none of them were cowboys. The Cassoday team won the second match, and the story I heard was when they suggested playing another game to break the tie, the Wichita team declined.”
Growing up, Jim’s dad and uncle played cowboy polo with other cowboys in the area on the family’s original homestead, the Flying H Ranch near Cassoday. It was this tradition that inspired Jim’s son Josh to bring back cowboy polo in the early 1990s. “We just used brooms and soccer balls for a while, until we made our own mallets,” he laughs. “Eventually I found some actual mallets and polo balls to play with.” Josh and his friends played casually for a couple of years until they’d built their skills enough to have some tournaments with area cowboys from Matfield Green and Cedar Point. The Matfield Green versus Cassoday game, Josh says, “was pretty wild.” “There was a lot of blood spilt upon the field,” he recalls, “but also there were some good times.” Cassoday’s team is known as the Coyne Creek Polo Club, named for the creek that runs through the middle of Flying W Ranch.
Josh explained the differences between traditional and cowboy polo. “In real polo you always hit the ball forward and if you miss, you ride off—you turn and get out of the way so that someone behind you can get it—so you’re always moving forward. If the ball gets stolen, you reverse and go back while the other team takes it the other way. In cowboy polo, a lot of times people ride smack right into you and steal the ball. It’s just a little rougher.”
And, of course, there are the hats. Polo clubs tend to wear protective caps with short visors. Cowboy polo players tend to wear—you guessed it—cowboy hats.
Otherwise, the rules are largely the same. Polo games are timed, and the team that scores the most points wins. “It’s divided into what are called ‘chukkers,’ and generally we play four chukkers of four minutes apiece, with four-person teams,” Josh explains. “The four-person team should include a striver—someone looking to score a goal—two people playing defense, and one person who can do both.”
By the early 2000s, Josh had gotten out of the habit of playing polo. But when he made friends with a young man from Essex who was volunteering with foster youths at nearby YMCA Camp Wood, Josh knew he had to bring the game back again. “We call him Ollie the Englishman,” Josh says. “He’s a passionate polo player.”
Ollie Williams returned to England and then moved to live and work in San Francisco, but he’s kept in touch with the Hoys and tries to make it back to Kansas when he can. Ironically, Camp Wood was where Ollie Williams learned to ride horses, and the Flying W was where he learned to play polo. “I ended up going back to England and pursuing polo on the side,” he says.
Today, the Flying W keeps a mowed polo field of 150 yards by 100 yards and uses traffic cones to mark off the goals. While real polo fields are immaculate, “Ours is a little rough,” Josh admits. “It’s got some mole hills and gopher holes in it.”
Tentatively, the Fairfield polo club south of Wichita has agreed to send an exhibition team to Cassoday in 2023 to play on the hundredth anniversary of the Cassoday cowboys versus Wichita, and as before, at least one Hoy will be in the game. Josh is sure to play, but Jim still plays cowboy polo, and now, Josh’s daughter Josie has learned to play, ensuring another generation of cowboy polo in the Flint Hills.
Flying W Ranch
In 2020 the Flying W Ranch was the recipient of the Leopold Conservation Award, which “recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic.” It’s given to private landowners who have made a commitment to land conservation.
Aldo Leopold was a revolutionary conservationist in Sauk County, Wisconsin, who wrote A Sand County Almanac in 1949. The book is a sort of philosophical treatise of essays and sketches about the ethics of protecting the natural environment as a steward of the land.
“He’s one of the first people that really brought around the idea that conservation of wild lands needs to include agriculture and human beings because most land is used for agriculture and privately owned by individuals,” explains Josh. “Getting people engaged in appreciating their environment landscape is a lot more powerful conservation tool than anything else.” Josh first read A Sand County Almanac as a sixth grader, and the book had a profound impact on him, so winning the award was particularly poignant. “He’s been a big influence in my life.”
The Hoys have committed themselves to ethical ranching that protects the remaining tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills by grazing ruminant animals just as the bison grazed the Flint Hills for tens of thousands of years prior.