SKULL VALLEY - In 1999, when C. Paul Harris purchased the spacious Van Dickson Ranch in a remote spot of this unincorporated community some 15 miles west of Prescott, he envisioned clearing space in front of his home for a polo field.
A polo player from Texas who's now 71, little did Harris know that the property's original owner, John Van Dickson, played the sport and trained young polo thoroughbred ponies on the old homestead's field during the early 1900s. He even leased his horses to famed cowboy Will Rogers.
Upon Harris' arrival at the ranch, he painstakingly refurbished the 200-yard by 100-yard field, one that is three-fourths the size of a regulation outdoor polo surface and had become overgrown with brush.
He eventually planted heavy-duty Bermuda grass geared to the ranch's 4,500-foot elevation and brought water to the field, which he still maintains and features a finely cut, gorgeous green pitch.
"It's taken quite a while to get it established, but it's done well," Harris said from his picturesque ranch Saturday morning. "We fertilize it and irrigate it."
Annually over the past several years, Harris and his wife, Carolyn Harris, have hosted United States Polo Association (USPA)-sanctioned players' cup tournaments to help keep polo's rich tradition alive in Arizona.
On Oct. 6, the couple will welcome in a few veteran teams, including one from Texas, and a couple hundred spectators for the eighth edition of the round-robin tournament that's closed to the public. The Harris' will follow it up with a mini-tournament Oct. 18 and 19.
The Van Dickson Ranch has one of the few remaining polo fields in Arizona, joining the likes of WestWorld of Scottsdale and the Arizona Polo Club's arena in Cave Creek.
Harris holds a special place in his heart for polo. His father, who shares his name, played polo in the Army in the Texas National Guard. After World War II, his dad established the Houston Polo Club.
In the late 1970s and '80s, Harris took over the responsibility for his father's horses and played polo with them in Austin, Texas, where he founded the Austin Polo Club.
The Harris' keep 17 polo ponies on their property and conduct practice matches almost every weekend. Players in the Skull Valley Polo Club, many of whom are from the Phoenix area, trek to the ranch to stay fresh and learn more about the sport.
On Saturday, nine polo players congregated at the ranch to take turns playing 3-on-3 matches in seven-minute chukkers, or periods, with breaks in between.
In polo, a player wields a long wooden mallet in his or her right hand while galloping on horseback. The idea is to reach down with the mallet and strike a 3-inch hard-plastic ball or a 6-inch soft-inflatable ball on the ground to tally a goal or pass to a teammate attempting to score. There are two goals, one on each end of the field, which consist of two vertical poles spaced 24 feet apart.
The object is to drive the ball in between the posts. The team with the most goals at the end of the match wins.
Bill Stalcup of Mesa, a solid 57-year-old player, operates the Skull Valley Polo Club. The outfit has about 10 active players and six beginners who ride at a slower, steadier pace than more experienced players.
Many of the players who were in Skull Valley Saturday are beginners who were looking to gain valuable insight from Stalcup about the intricacies of the game. The USPA gives grants to clubs, such as Skull Valley's, to develop young polo enthusiasts.
"The USPA is trying to grow membership, because it's become stagnant," Stalcup said. "All other horse hobby-type things - jumping and cross-country and showing - have gone up (in popularity)."
Stalcup added that the Van Dickson Ranch field is an excellent place to play polo.
"It's the best turf in the Southwest - I don't care what kind of field," said Stulcup, who visits the ranch every weekend during the summer months to teach polo. "It's a little small, but I've never seen a horse trip or the footing give way. They've done a tremendous job in preparing the footing, and that's important."
On Saturday, Stalcup set up a microphone attached to a speaker on the field's near sideline to critique the players as they practiced. He offered praise and advice while pointing out common errors and fouls when they occurred.
Men and women of various nationalities and ages play polo. Hector Gutierrez, originally from Mexico, was one of those players on-hand Saturday to pick up tips from Stalcup.
"I was telling my brother that I wish I would have found polo 10 or 15 years ago," said Gutierrez, 41, who speaks with a slight Spanish accent. "This is perfect. I have played ice hockey, and at a certain point I was on the national team for Mexico. I raced motorcycles.
"But this is the fastest non-motorized sport in the world. This is the oldest sport, and it's also the fastest team sport. That's why I like it so much. It combines the speed with the teamwork."