Hunting Hounds and Polo Ponies

Hunting Hounds and Polo Ponies

“A canter is a cure for every evil.” Disraeli

For over one hundred years, horse lovers in Johnson County and Kansas City have been gathering regularly to pursue two rather unique recreational activities — polo and foxhunting. Organized foxhunting and polo both got their start locally around the turn of the century. Foxhunting was introduced by a group of Englishmen who came to Kansas City to purchase mules. A few members of the Kansas City Country Club enjoyed the activity so much that they formed the Missouri Hunt and Polo Club in 1895 and built kennels for their hounds. The kennels and clubhouse were located on a farm on the east side of Wornall at 56th Street. Members of this early equestrian club went on to found other similar groups in the Kansas City area, including the American Royal Horse Show and the Mission Valley Hunt Club.

In 1898 the Kansas City Country Club bought land for a polo field between Summit Street and Belleview Street, from 52nd Street to 54th Street. For several years, members of the Kansas City Country Club and the Missouri Hunt and Polo Club pursued their interest in foxhunting and polo.

The Missouri Hunt and polo Club disbanded in 1911. Sixteen years later, Ralph LeRoy Nafziger organized a new club, the Mission Valley Hunt Club. The Mission Valley Clubhouse, kennels, and polo fields were located in Johnson County, at 83rd and Mission Road. The property adjoined the Nafziger farm. The first hunt was held in March 1927, with Mr. Nafziger as Master of Fox Hounds.

Foxhunting Without a Fox

Foxhunting is a term that actually encompasses several different types of hunts, not all of which involve a fox. Originally foxhunting was done to eliminate the threat to livestock. The first organized hunt was held in 1747. From that point on, North American foxhunting has differed from British foxhunting in that the British emphasis in on the kill, while in North America, the focus is on the chase. Also, many American hunts actually involve following the scent trail of a coyote that is leading the hunt, successful hunts end when the animal is accounted for by entering a hole in the ground, called an earth. Some hunts end when the hounds lose the scent.

Live hunts (with a coyote or fox) are less frequent than they used to be. There is no shortage of foxes, but a live hunt is not safe in areas with busy roads, little open land, and other restrictions. Many hunts are now “drag” hunts. The scent is artificially placed, laid down by a human before the meet. Another new practice is using the hounds to track people. Marathon runners are instructed to run in an area, and to try to behave unpredictably, as a fox would. This type of hunt is as safe as a drag hunt, but can be as spontaneous as a live hunt.

The Mission Valley Hunt Club has practiced both live and drag hunts. In 1930, one hunt, held north of Olathe, lasted three days, and ended with the killing of the coyote. During the early years of the Mission Valley Hunt Club, both foxes and coyotes were hunted, and occasionally killed. Local farmers would alert the Club when they sighted the predators on their property, and a hunt would be planned. When not actively hunting, club members would practice their skills. Sometimes riders would follow several miles of paper flakes scattered by the manager of the club. Members would race to see who could avoid the false trails, and ride the correct path through corn fields and pastures to the clubhouse.

Hunt Staff Lead the Way

An organized foxhunt requires a staff. Members usually pay a fee to the club, and this money is used to support the hunt staff, and the costs of maintaining the hounds. Each hunt club has a Master, or Joint Masters. The Master is responsible for maintaining good relations with the owners of the land used during the hunts, the care of the hounds, planning hunt meet locations, and appointing the hunt staff. If the Master does not hunt for the hounds himself, he may appoint a Huntsman. The Huntsman is often a professional. The first Huntsman of the Mission Valley Hunt Club, Captain Fred W. Egan, was formerly a Huntsman in England and had also led the first British indoor polo team to come to the United States. The Huntsman is responsible for leading and controlling the hunting hounds, and is assisted by the Whippers-in. The Whippers-in usually try to make sure that the hounds do not run onto roads or restricted land. Other individuals take on the duties of opening and closing gates, and supervising junior riders and “hilltoppers.” Hilltoppers are those riders who don’t do jumps, but follow the hunt. Some hilltoppers even follow along in cars on nearby roads. The hunt secretary collects the “capping fees” paid by non-member riders participating as guests of members. In the case of the Mission Valley Hunt Club, the Huntsman is the only paid member of the staff.

The Hunting Hounds

The hounds used in foxhunting all come from one of three classifications: English, American, and Crossbred. The Masters of Foxhounds Association of America (MFHA) Foxhound Kennel Stud Book has been in existence since 1907, and it keeps a record of all hounds bred by member hunts in the U.S. and Canada. The requirements for breeding are strict, and American and English hounds must have less than one-sixteenth outcross blood in their pedigree to be considered purebred. The Mission Valley Hunt Club has hunted with a combination of English, American, and Crossbred hounds.

The type and number of hounds determine whether an organized hunt will be registered and recognized. Among other rules, the hunt must have twelve couples of registered hounds (hounds are counted by twos) for a live hunt, or six couples for a drag hunt. The hunt must have a breeding program and produce their own hounds. Of course, the hounds must be trained, and this is done by the Huntsman and Whippers-in. Hounds are generally ready to join the hunt at twelve to eighteen months of age. If the rules are met, the hunt will be recognized by the MFHA. The Mission Valley Hunt Club was recognized in 1930.

The Mission Valley Hunt Club’s hunting hounds were kept on several members’ properties. Often, when a new Master took over the hunt duties, the kennels would be moved to his or her property. This practice began in the late 1930s. The Depression took a financial toll on some club members, and in 1936, the Mission Valley Hunt Club left the original clubhouse, and moved the kennels to the Nafziger farm (Somerset Place). Over the years, the hounds have been housed at the Kempe farm near Belton, Cass County, Missouri; Joe Mackey’s stable on Santa Fe Drive in Overland Park; the Bunting farm at 90th Street and Nall Avenue; and the Blue River Farm in Stilwell.

Ratcatcher Dress and Pink Coats

During “cubbing season,” when young hounds are introduced into the pack, “ratcatcher” dress is allowed. Ratcatcher usually means a dark sport coat and shirt and tie or turtleneck. Once the formal season starts, the hunt staff wears its formal dress, with red coats, white breeches, and black boots with tan leather tops. Some members wear the red, or “Pink” coat. There are several theories about the Pink coats, but no definitive answer. Some say they were named for a London tailor named Pink, who was the original designer and maker. Or maybe the term filtered down from the early 1800s, when it meant “fashionably dandy.” In any case, the term is still used by foxhunters today.

The foxhunting season lasts from fall to spring. The Mission Valley Hunt Club held hunt meets on Saturday mornings, followed by a breakfast. Occasionally hunts were held on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons. Special events included the annual Thanksgiving Day hunt and the Boxing Day hunt. On December 26, Boxing Day, a hunt would be held, and all club members would show their appreciation by putting a gift in a box for the Huntsman.

Polo “Bigger than Baseball”

Beginning in 1898, members of the Kansas City Country Club participated in regular polo matches. During this period, the Missouri Hunt and Polo Club maintained an affiliation with the Kansas City Country Club. The sport of polo grew in popularity for several years, fell into decline during World War I, and reached a pinnacle in the 1920s, when the Country Club had enough players for three or four teams. When not playing rival clubs, the Country Club “Reds” and “Blues” would play each other, while spectators watched from their cars. In the late 1920s, the Country Club built a polo pavilion for fans to use in warm weather. At the height of its popularity, a polo match could draw 5000 spectators in Kansas City. Many thought the game would be “bigger than baseball.”

The growing enthusiasm for polo was a factor when the Kansas City Country Club decided to move to 63rd Street in 1924. During this period, an international match on Long Island attracted 40,000 people. A game in New Delhi, India drew 120,000. The game was certainly thriving. The Club’s directors stated that interest in horseback riding was increasing and that the new Club’s proximity to open country would serve to further stimulate this interest. They also noted that polo was rapidly becoming more popular around the country, and that the game added “greatly to the atmosphere, color and exclusiveness of any club.”

When the Mission Valley Hunt Club was founded in 1927, members formed a polo team, as well as a foxhunting club. Many members of the Mission Valley Club were also members of the Kansas City Country Club, and played on both teams. As the Mission Valley Club grew, several teams were organized, so that members could play each other. The Mission Brook Polo Club and the Somerset Farm team were two of these. Games were played at the Mission Brook Polo Field, at 87th and Mission Road.

Kansas City polo clubs were part of the Northwest Circuit, along with Wichita (which once had seven polo fields), Topeka, and Chicago. Local clubs also played teams from Des Moines, St. Louis, and Ft. Leavenworth. Therefore, local polo players traveled often during the summer playing season.

When asked what went first in a mature polo player, renowned polo player Tommy Hitchcock replied “the money.” With the maintenance of the horses and travel expenses, polo was a very expensive game. First, each player had several horses to purchase and board. Then, not only the players and horses were transported, but also hired help, saddles, bridles, feed buckets, water buckets, hoses, and other equipment. One player, Frank McDermand, commented, “it’s like moving a city.”

Playing “The Emperor of Games”

Polo is played in games of six periods, called “chukkers,” or “chukkas.” Each chukker lasts seven and a half minutes. There are four players on each team. Ideally, each player will have a fresh horse for each chukker. In the early years of the game, this was usually the case, but modern players sometimes will use one horse for two chukkers, because of the high cost of maintaining so many horses. These costs were particularly high for polo players in Kansas City and Johnson County because of the climate. The polo season lasted through the warm summer months, but when the winter came, the horses were often sent to warmer climates for winter pasturing, and returned to the city in the spring. The polo horses are a large investment for each team member. In 1949, top polo horses sold between $500 to $3000. Today, the best can cost $50,000 or more.

The basic rules of polo are deceptively simple. Each team attempts to score by using mallets to hit the ball through the opponents’ goal. The actual game is quite exciting to watch and play. The speeds reached by the horses (up to 40 miles per hour), the speed of the ball (up to 100 miles per hour), and the danger of injury, or even death, make the game a compelling one.

Though not as popular as it was during the 1920s, the game of polo is still very much alive. It is played in over 55 countries, and there are over 200 clubs in the United States alone.

The Mission Valley Hunt Club continues to thrive, and currently has 140 members. The Club’s hounds are kenneled at Fin and Feather in Louisburg, Kansas. Foxhunts are held from October through April, every Wednesday, and either Saturday or Sunday each weekend. The polo season lasts from May through September, and the Club’s polo team has an active schedule, including travel for games with out-of-town teams.

Advera and Itan

Successful polo ponies must be strong, quick, and responsive to the rider’s needs. The pony must be able to make sharp turns, stop short, and take hard bumps. It must be able to work in partnership with the rider. Horses usually begin training for polo at about five years of age. Training lasts approximately one year. Then, the horse may continue to play until age twenty. For many years, the most popular polo mounts were bred in South America. In the 1930s and 1940s, horses bred in the Southwest United States became very popular.

Some of the best polo ponies have acquired quite a bit of fame for their skills. Mr. S.H. Velie, of the S.H. Velie Motor Company, had two of the best in the country in the early 1900s. The two thoroughbreds, Advera and Itan, were used by Mr. Velie during polo matches with the Kansas City Country Club team. They were also loaned to professional polo players and ridden in the 1910 international polo games at Meadowbrook, in Old Westbury, Long Island, in matches between the Americans and the English. The horses traveled to international games in a private car, accompanied by their stable attendants. Both were heavily insured against accidents during their travels.

Mr. Velie received several offers for the horses, some as high as $5000 for each. However, he declined to sell them, preferring to continue using them himself in matches played at the Kansas City Country Club and at other sites around the Midwest.

–ALBUM vol. 11, no. 3 (summer 1998)