To many people the word “polo” brings to mind a Ralph Lauren sport’s shirt, a minty candy or a sport played in the water. To horse people, the word “polo” brings to mind sunny weekends spent at a polo club, spectators replacing divots, well-conditioned polo ponies lined at the trailer’s side and players galloping down the field whacking a ball with the most amazing precision considering the speed involved. It certainly has come a long way from its humble beginnings about 2,000 years ago when somebody started to write and draw about the sport.
Some historians believe that polo probably started as a series of military training maneuvers for the tribesmen of Central Asia, and the sport was described in Persia, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. It was a way to prepare young men for what lay ahead on the killing fields of war. One of the first sportswriters put pen to paper and wrote about a polo match that was held in Japan in the year 727 C.E. and called the sport polo from “pulu” the Tibetan word for ball.
In 1859 the British got their first glimpse of the sport in India, and Bengal Army Lt. Joseph Sherar loved the game so much that he eventually became the Father of Western Polo and wrote an excellent book titled: “The World of Polo.” Of course, what happened in India eventually made its way to England, and in 1869, “Hockey on Horseback found a following.
The first tournament took place in 1876, and this same year American newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett so enjoyed watching a game of polo in England that he introduced the game to the USA. Former army officer John Watson who perfected the backhand led his team to victory over the Americans in the Westchester Cup in 1886.
Now that polo was making inroads into America, the total confusion of the game needed sorting out. Initially there were eight players per side and the games went on and on from midday to late afternoon. It was time to put some order into the chaos and the United States Polo Association (USPA) was formed in June of 1890. Players were assigned 100 handicaps and the future President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, was amongst the players of the seven teams. H.L. Herbert was chairman for the next 31 years and he created the rules and the handicap system while the association set pony sizes limits of 14.1 hands, (this was raised to 15.1 hands in 1916), decided that the ball would be made of basswood, and players would be fined if late for a match. In 1892, polo ponies were selling for $115 each. Two years after that the USPA could boast 19 clubs, a number that jumped to 37 clubs in 1908.
Over the next few decades, the Brits and Americans galloped and battled for the Westchester Cup. Imagine the British surprise when the Americans, the newcomers to the sport, beat them in 1902 and again in 1909. The American dominance continued in 1911 and 1913. Sadly when Harry Payne Whitney retired in 1914, the American dominance faded and the cup went back to England.
Then, not to be outdone, the army got involved in 1902 and by 1914 there were 17 Army stations playing the sport. By the 1930s there were actually more Army officers playing than civilians and riding and polo was used for training up until WW II until obvious mechanization changed the ways of war and society.
In the USA, it was catching on like wildfire and people could rent polo ponies for $1.00 for an afternoon, or watch an exhibition game. Ranch hands played in western saddles and there were west and south circuits created although Long Island was where the heart of polo was established. Brooks Brothers developed the now famous polo shirt with the button down collar basing it on the polo jerseys.
In 1922, the Argentineans won the Winchester Cup and in 1924 The Meadow Brook Polo Club saw 35,000 people came to watch the competition on Long Island, N.Y. It was becoming clear that while the Brits were formidable opponents, the next wave of real contenders were coming from the south. The game was creating heroes on horseback and was an Olympic sport at that time, the Argentineans winning the gold in 1924.
The 1930s were the golden era of polo in the USA and despite the Great Depression, the game surged forth with fans and players alike. The need for ponies numbered in the thousands and the game was a real rough and ready affair, in fact so much so that injured players often continued to play with broken limbs and other injuries. Player substitution was implemented.
Hollywood wanted to get into the act and well known people like Walt Disney and Spencer Tracy took to the sport. In the early 1940s there were six chukkers rather than eight.
The 1950s saw the recovery of polo from the war and clubs sprang up in Illinois, Boca Raton, Texas, Beverly Hills and Tulsa. This was also the era when indoor polo, using old armories, emerged as it was less costly to play and would help train a whole new breed of players and ponies.
By the mid-1960s a Polo School Committee and a Polo Training Foundation were established and indoor polo saw a huge surge in popularity in colleges. In the 1970s it continued to gain a following and the first all-women’s tournament started in 1976 in California.
The 1980s saw a change in the sport as the talented amateurs from decades before were replaced by players who saw the need for corporate sponsorship. Companies like Rolex, Cartier and Johnny Walker joined in liking the up market fit between the sport and their products.
Another major change was that the ponies, once trained at ranches in the western USA, were now coming from Argentina and other countries. As American ranches were sold and as the old time ranch hands capable of training polo ponies were no longer around, fresh supplies of polo mounts would have to be found elsewhere.
But, despite the fact that the world was changing, the American landscape was shifting and society was going in a new direction, polo wasn’t going to be left behind!
In my next blog we will take a look at polo in Canada and how it has evolved and grown.
Many thanks to the Museum of Polo for the photos and information. The photos are not to be sold, reprinted or re-used and are for one time educational use