Polo, ranching and family: Connells combine disciplinesWritten by Rebecca Colnar Mott
In Sheridan, polo, ranching and families have dovetailed since the late 1880s, starting with English aristocrats who came to Wyoming and Montana from England to raise polo ponies – and later remounts for the Boer War. Today, polo and ranching remain vibrant, with several generations raising cattle and polo horses.
One of these families is the Connells, whose land lies only a few miles out of Big Horn. Bob “Doc” and Bunny Connell, along with their children and grandchildren, still keep the ranching/polo tradition alive.
“I was born in Oregon, and after my mom died when I was four my aunt raised my two brothers and me. She worked for the Gallatins, who owned a ranch near Sheridan, and when I was eight years old the Gallatins suggested I head out there in the summer and lend a hand. The first year I was out there, I worked for a dairy,” Doc remembers.
The 87-year-old explains that by 1940 he was working for a ranch that included the Circle V polo company. Part of his duties included bringing horses for the umpires to the polo field.
“This area was considered a hot spot for polo ponies, as several folks had large polo operations. I soon had the opportunity to ride the ponies,” he says.
Doc, a veterinarian, started actively playing polo in 1952.
“I have to admit, at that time, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I played anything that was sound. Then we began to own studs and mares, and started raising and training polo ponies,” he explains.
“Ranching and polo go together well. A horse can get bored playing polo, so being able to take that horse and use it to work cattle is good for its mind. In addition, using our ranch horses for polo is the only way our family could afford polo. The sport has really been great for us,” Doc notes.
Sons Orrin and Mike Connell became active not only in the family’s cow-calf operation, but also with polo. Orrin agrees that polo is a great family sport and adds additional skills to a ranch horse.
“I became more serious about breeding polo ponies around 1990,” explains Orrin. “When you breed a pony, you want her offspring to be better than she is. My one stud is out of a mare I bought in New Zealand, and now many of our horses have the New Zealand Thoroughbred blood. We like Thoroughbreds for polo because they are bred to run and have stamina. This year we’ll have about 12 ponies playing in Big Horn.”
Orrin’s philosophy is that, if you have horses to use on the ranch, you might as well play them and then sell them.
“We break them as three-year-olds and go right into working cows,” Orrin explains. “We get them used to polo in their first 30 days under saddle by swinging mallets, hitting balls and riding in with other horses so they learn to accept contact. Generally we have them playing polo after 45 days of riding.”
The Connells have had success with many of their ponies; some have been purchased by high-goal players and have played in the U.S. Open, which is to polo what the Super Bowl is to football. To get his ponies seen by a variety of players, Orrin sends his ponies to promising young American polo players; this not only helps a young player have a good string of horses, but is a great way for other players to see his horses in action. The recent establishment of the Flying H Polo Club outside of Big Horn, which brings in top players in July and August, has been a coup for those selling quality ponies.
Perk Connells’ stud Tommy’s World has sired seven Best Playing Ponies at all levels of polo, including Camacho Cup winner Java Time; Outback 20 goal winner Blueprint; and United States Polo Association’s 16 goal winner, Bright Eyes.
Polo is certainly a family affair with the Connells. Orrin’s wife DeeDee is active in all aspects of polo, as is daughter Katie, 25, who has made a career of working with polo horses. Their younger daughter Alli, 21, is currently giving polo a try. Orrin’s brother Mike and his wife Perk both played polo until recently and are still very involved in polo pony breeding and training, as well as ranching.
Perk currently serves as president of the Big Horn Polo Club. The Connell brothers’ sister Laura and her husband also work for a neighboring ranch.
“Polo is always a mental and physical challenge at any level,” says Orrin. “Come on out to the Big Horn Polo Club, or there’s a club in Jackson Hole and the University of Wyoming recently started a collegiate team. The best way to start is bring a horse, bring your Western saddle, pick up a mallet and come play. If you can drag calves and sort cattle, and put up with critters wandering by, you can compete in the sport of polo.”