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Polo Meets Rodeo In South Dakota

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This story starts with the fact of the day. The official sport of South Dakota is rodeo.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

I love rodeo.

INSKEEP: You love watching rodeo? Or you actually want to, you know...

CHANG: Oh, no way would I get on one of those bucking broncos, but I love watching.

INSKEEP: I would not bet against you. Now, I want to tell you though, some people in South Dakota, where the official sport is rodeo, want rodeo riders to transfer their skills to another sport, polo. Here's South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Gary Ellenbolt.

GARY ELLENBOLT, BYLINE: Rodeo has such a following in South Dakota, the high school championships are shown each year on a statewide network.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Perfect run, little buckskin horse - she's going to ask him to give it all he's got coming across the line.

ELLENBOLT: Young cowboys and cowgirls compete to earn scholarships to take part in college rodeo. Terms like pole bending, goat tying and other rodeo jargon are well known by fans across the state. Not so well known are terms like chukker. That's a term from one of the world's oldest team sports. Rebecca Barker grew up in Jamaica, where polo is very popular. She's working to promote it here in South Dakota. She says rodeo riders would make very good polo players.

REBECCA BARKER: I think a lot of the general principles that do translate very well is riding at high speeds, stopping, sudden turns, things like that. Really, I think that would be a seamless transition.

ELLENBOLT: Barker is a member of the Sioux Falls Polo Club, one of about 300 clubs recognized by the U.S. Polo Association. There's another club in Rapid City, clear across the state. There are two in Iowa, 11 in Illinois, and four in nearby Wyoming. Polo was one of the oldest team activities in the world. And for modern players, there's a lot less at stake than when the sport was invented. In the earliest days, skulls of the members of the losing team were sometimes used in the next match.

Matches are traditionally played in six periods known as chukkers. They're seven and a half minutes long. The riders wear eye protection, boots and helmets and carry mallets that can stretch to nearly 6 feet long. The object is to strike a 3-inch, white, hard, plastic ball between goal posts. The field is 300 yards long, three times longer than a football field, and 160 yards wide. Polo players say it's the largest playing surface in team sports.

EMILY ISAACS: We're playing Rinky (ph), Zeke (ph), Bambi (ph), Elle (ph) and Tango (ph).

ELLENBOLT: Emily Isaacs is preparing her team's horses for a Wisconsin team, for a match in Sioux Falls. She's tying up horses' tails.

ISAACS: For tournaments, we're required to tape them. So you braid them all the way down, keep them tight, and tape them up three times too. It's just to keep the tail out of the way of the shot.

ELLENBOLT: During the match, there are eight riders on the field at any one time. Anyone can score, but some are responsible for defense. Kimo Huddleston is a professional player turned umpire. Today, he's wearing the striped shirt for this match. He makes sure players follow the rules and keep a safe distance from each other.

KIMO HUDDLESTON: Simplest way to put it, if you're watching it, the line of the ball is like the center line on the highway. And, you know, the cars - if you stay on your side of the highway, no accidents.

ELLENBOLT: Unlike rodeo, polo offers a chance for audience participation.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you, guys, for stomping the divots.

ELLENBOLT: At halftime, they're invited onto the field to stomp out the divots caused by hooves and mallets. Longtime stompers say it's important not to mistake something else left behind by a horse for a divot. While polo won't likely overtake rodeo as South Dakota's official sport, local players are happy to develop their own following and show people here a different style of horsemanship. For NPR News, I'm Gary Ellenbolt in Vermillion, S.D.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RODEO")

GARTH BROOKS: (Singing) Well, it's bulls and blood. It's the dust and mud. It's the roar of a Sunday crowd... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.