It heralds from the days of ancient mythical gods; the Ottoman Empire; the fall of Constantinople and exiled princes of Persia. So, whilst it may be wrapped in the romantic mysteries of the Far East, the game of Polo is purportedly the oldest ‘team’ sport there is. The name comes from the Tibetan word ‘pulu’ meaning ball. The origins of it go back around 2,500 years and its roots are set in Persia, now Iran.
From around C6th BC, it was used as a training exercise for cavalry units and the event took on more of a mini skirmish than a game, with around 100 or so troops on each side! The first actual recorded game was in 600 BC between the Turkomans and Persians.
It soon evolved into a popular sport with the Persian nobility. There is evidence of a game called sagol kangjei, a form of hockey that was played in Manipur in the C1st AD. Although the sport itself may go even further back in history.
The game in Manipur had 7 to a side and they used Manipur ponies that stood less than 13 hands high. There were no goal posts and the players were allowed to carry the ball.
The polo sticks were made of cane and the ball of either bamboo or willow roots. Players would protect their legs with leather shields, whilst the ponies had to make do with colourful pom-poms dangling on the vulnerable parts! The earliest recorded casualty of the game was Emperor Cantacuzenus, the very unpopular self appointed C14th emperor of Constantinople.
Whilst became known as the ‘Game of Kings’, women were also welcomed. There is a record of the queen and her ladies playing against King Khosrow II Parviz and his courtiers in C6th AD.
By the 16th century, Emperor Babur had established the game in India and around the same time, a polo ground was built in front of Ali Ghapu Palace, Ispahan by Shah Abbas the Great (1585-1628). Today it is used as a public park, although the original stone goal posts can still be seen.
400 or so years on in the mid 1800’s, British tea planters discovered the game in Manipur and founded the world’s first polo club in Silchar. It was due to the British military officers who served in India, that the game of polo finally made its way over to England in the 1860’s. In 1869, Edward ‘Chicken’ Hartopp of the 10th Hussars organised the first game known as ‘hockey on horseback’ on Hounslow Heath and after the some codification of the rules, polo clubs spread across Western Europe from England. John Watson of the 13th Hussars devised further rules for the game whilst serving in India in the 1870’s. He formed the Freebooters team who won the first Westchester Cup match in 1886.
Back in India, the Calcutta Club was formed in 1862 and it is now the oldest club in existence.
The first polo club in England was the Monmouthshire established in 1872 by Captain Francis ‘Tip’ Herbert of the 7th Lancers.
Other clubs outside of India are the Malta Polo Club 1868; the All Ireland, Dublin 1872 and the Meadowbrook, USA 1877.
The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground, Manipur State built in AD33.
The oldest royal polo square is the 16th century Gilgit Polo Field, Pakistan and the highest polo ground is on the Deosai Plateau Baltistan, Pakistan at 4307 metres.
The first formal set of rules was drawn up by the Hurlingham Polo Association (the first governing body for the game in the UK) in 1874. The Hurlingham Rules stated there must be a limit of 5 team members and it established the ‘offside rule’, (you can only hit the ball on the offside and not the nearside). It was however, not until 1975 that that left handed play was stopped due to safety reasons. There are 3 players on the world circuit today, who are naturally left handed, but they had to learn how to use their right hands to play polo.
The popularity of the game increased rapidly and on 3 September 1875, the first official match was held in Argentina, the game having been introduced to the country by English and Irish engineers and ranchers.
In 1876, it was taken to Australia by Lt Col Thomas St Quintin of the 10th Hussars and in the same year, James Gordon Bennett Jnr; publisher, balloonist and adventurer (whose scandalous behaviour is believed to have inspired the expression ‘Gordon Bennett’) introduced the game to the USA. Within 10 years there were major clubs covering much of North America. Bennett also organised the first US match at Dickel’s Riding Academy at 39th Street and 5th Avenue. The game soon caught on in Brazil, Chile and Mexico.
It was the States that introduced handicaps in 1888 but it was only in 1910 that England and India followed suit. The handicap system in use today, is the exact opposite to that used in golf, each team having a handicap, the higher the handicap, the better the player.
It was during the early C20th that American Harry Payne Whitney changed the game to a high speed sport, introducing the fast break instead of short passes, sending long passes down the field to riders who had broken away at full gallop.
The game has altered very little over the past few decades, although spectators are encouraged to take part by ‘divot stomping’, where everyone helps replace the clumps of earth back into the field that have been torn up by the game.
The size of the grass field has not changed since the rules were drawn up in the 19th century, it must be a maximum of 300 yards long and 200 (or 160 if there are side boards) yards wide.
There are two teams of 4 players and each team has a ‘team colour’. Numbers are given that dictate their position; number 1 being the most offensive post, looking for chances to score; whereas number 4 is the defence position, whose main purpose is to defend the team goal. The most experienced players would be numbers 2 and 3 as they have to race up and down the line with the ball.
The aim of the game is to move the ball down the field to score a goal, the ball being hit by the long side of the mallet head (known as a ‘cigar’) and not the flat ends. Mallets can vary in size and it is held in the player’s hand by a webbed thong called a ‘thumb sling’ that wraps around the hand.
Each player has a ‘right of way’; this is defined by the player’s position relative to the direction the ball is travelling. This imaginary line must not be crossed by other riders and the only way the ball can be taken from the player is by way of ‘riding off’ and moving the player off the line by making shoulder to shoulder contact.
The game is divided into chukkas (chukka or chukker comes from the Hindi chakhar and Sanskrit chakra meaning circle or wheel). Each chukka lasts around 7 minutes with an interval of 3 minutes between each one (this interval extends to 5 minutes at half time). There can be up to 8, but usually there are only 4 or 6 chukkas played. After each goal is scored, ends are changed to give both teams equal opportunity to start off with the ball on their right.
But central to any team’s success are the polo ponies. Their size ranges from 14.2 – 16 hands high at the withers. They must be extremely agile, have lots of stamina and speed and it can take from 6 months to 2 years to train a pony.
A team may have as many as 24 horses available during a match and a player can change horse after each chukka. A group of ponies for a player is called a ‘string of polo ponies’.
The game of polo is played throughout the year, each season being in a different country. The summer season is in Hurlingham, England. Autumn in Buenos Aires and winter in Palm Beach or Palm Desert.
There are some well known ‘stars’ of the game, the more obvious being Princes William and Harry and their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh. Others include Jodie Kidd, Will Rogers and Michael Curtiz to name but a few. Even Walt Disney was a keen player.
So notwithstanding my complete nasal intolerance to horses, hay and freshly mown grass, I am looking forward to a chukka or two followed by a bit of divot stomping, but with our British summers, I may well take along my waders and cagoule and hope my Fiat doesn’t get stuck in the mud on the way out!
Author: Sophia Moseley
Pictures courtesy of The Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame, Florida and the White Rose Polo Club, York.
The Museum of Polo, Florida www.polomuseum.com.
White Rose Polo Club, York www.whiterosepolo.co.uk.