A Brief History of Polo
The traditional game was far more aggressive
Polo is one of the oldest competitive sports in existence, with some form of the game being played from around 1400BC. Whilst contemporary polo is normally regarded as a British pursuit due to the formalisation and popularisation of the game by British colonists, the true origins of the sport lie in Manipur, India, where the game was known as Sagol Kangjei, which roughly translates as horse-stick (which, to be honest, seems like a much more appropriate name). According to the remaining sources from the era, the sport was introduced by King Kangba, who reigned over Manipur during the 14th century BC.
Traditionally, Sagol Kangjei was played with seven players to a side, and did not use goal posts. Instead, a player would score simply by knocking the ball out of either end of the field on which the game was played. The traditional game was far more aggressive, with players being permitted to physically tackle their opponents, providing that the opposing team member was carrying the ball (another striking difference in rules).
Alexander the Great was considered an accomplished polo player. During his military campaign against the Persian Empire around 300BC, he was sent a mallet and a ball by his opposing leader Darius of Persia in order for him to practice the sport. Legend has it that Alexander replied by saying “I am the mallet and the ball is the world. Be alert”. As Alexander conquered other lands across Asia, the game spread with him, eventually reaching as far away as Japan and Mongolia.
Fast-forward to the first century AD, and the Imphal Polo Ground would have been built. Situated next to what is now the Manipur State Museum, the field is the oldest documented polo ground in world, and is still in use today. Joseph Ford Sherer, considered in Western chronicles as the “Father of Polo”, played on the Imphal ground in the 1850s. Sherer established the Calcutta Polo Club, the world’s first, with Robert Stewart in 1862.
The establishment of the Calcutta Polo Club led to the spread of polo worldwide, as military officers imported the game to Britain in the 1860s. After the first formal codification of rules by the Hurlingham Polo Association in 1874, polo clubs were inaugurated throughout Britain and Western Europe. Two years later, after watching a game at Hurlingham, James Gordon Bennett bought a dozen Texan ranch horses and hosted a dinner party in his hometown of New York, after which he introduced his guests to polo. His guests were immediately hooked, and made the game a part of their annual summer retreat in Rhode Island, helping to spread the game across the US. By 1886, the men played the first international game on the same Rhode Island estate, against the British Hurlingham Club (ending in victory for the British team, naturally).
A method of rating teams and players was not introduced to the game until 1890, when the handicap system was devised by Henry Lloyd Herbert, the first president of the United States Polo Association. At this time, polo was the only sport in the world that considered sportsmanship when officially rating a player. The handicap system allowed equally skilled teams to be appropriately matched for games, which paved the way for leagues to be drawn up and for the sport to become further established and popular.
In 1909, the USA won their first game against the British, and from then to around 1950, the Americans were supreme in polo, winning almost all Westchester Cup games against the British until their end in 1939. During this time, however, polo became increasingly popular in Argentina, and after the first Copa de las Americas game between Argentina and the US, the Argentinians have been considered the masters of international polo. Every current ten-goal handicapped polo player is Argentinian, and Argentina has won four out of the ten World Polo Championships played since its inception in 1987. More recently, developments have included the establishment of a Women’s Polo Federation in 2000, and the formation of numerous university polo clubs, including Oxford Brookes and University College London.
Polo in Oxfordshire
Looking to get involved in polo but not sure where to start? There are numerous polo schools across the county that welcome beginner players.
Kirtlington Park Polo School | tutor schools, universities, individuals and teams, and can tailor their tuition to fit your ambitions.
Oxford Polo School | cater to all skill levels, from corporate days out and hen or stag parties to training for competition and team selection.
Heathfield Park Polo Club | can provide for business events as well as private tuition, with a range of professional polo players on hand to teach.
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