- The Evolution of Polo
Polo is an exciting and dangerous sport—one of the most dangerous, excluding motorized sport. It has been said, “Unless you will lightly risk your neck you are not a polo player.” The thunder of galloping horses, the dash for the ball, and the thrill of watching superb horsemen on great mounts clearing and avoiding opponents at break neck speed is exhilarating. When the game was introduced to the English, they considered sport a pastime engaged in by participants for camaraderie and enjoyment, not an occupation undertaken for the pleasure of spectators.
The origins of polo are shrouded in the folk history of Mongolia, China, Persia (Iran), Tibet, Manipur, and Pakistan, but most likely began among the nomadic tribes in central Asia. The sport’s modern permutation sprang from India in the mid nineteenth century, when British cavalry units of the East India Company began playing and then modifying the game they discovered in the East Indian States of Manipur and Cachar.
In 1858 the British Crown assumed responsibility for the territories previously administered by the East India Company, and soon thereafter the officers of the regular army’s cavalry regiments in India began playing the sport. British military authorities soon became concerned about the long hours spent practicing and playing polo. By the 1870s cavalry officers justified the time spent on the game with claims that it developed both horse and rider in the skills necessary for close quarters fighting, and polo became a central part of cavalry officer training in India.
Polo quickly spread first to Ireland and then to England, Scotland, Argentina, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Mexico, and Spain. Early participants and patrons came from royalty, bankers, diplomats, stockbrokers, railroad executives, and the idle rich. By the start of the twentieth century, polo was played in South [End Page 308] Africa, Germany, Egypt, and Turkey, as well as in the countries that were early adopters of the game. The second Olympiad in 1900 included polo, as it met the basic criteria necessary to be an Olympic sport. It was played internationally; open to all competitors without restrictions on age, ability, competency, or national origin; and it was not motorized. Nationals from only five counties participated in the first Olympic polo experience, in part because polo is an expensive pastime. It is no accident that supporters, patrons, and players of polo are generally rich and well-placed people.
Independent of time or place, fielding a polo team for competition costs a small fortune. Four or more riders (each of which might require six horses), equipping horses and riders, providing grooms and supplies to take care of the horses and equipment, engaging a veterinarian, finding a place to play, and traveling to the site of the tournament costs a lot of money. It is little wonder that it generally takes a country’s economic and social elite to support high goal polo.
Horace A. Laffaye, a member of the Board of Directors of the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, author of four other books on polo—including Profiles in Polo: The Players Who Changed the Game and The Polo Encyclopedia, and an internationally recognized authority on equestrian sports is author of this well-written, thoroughly researched, and informative book detailing the development and evolution of the sport.
Laffaye explains how the sport migrated from India to all parts of the British Empire and beyond, and how the Americans and the Argentineans became masters of the sport during the twentieth century. He describes how the number of players was distilled to four per side; the size of the playing area and the placement goals was established; the construction of balls, mallets, and protective equipment evolved; research on headgear at Wayne State University was undertaken; the duration and number of chukkers was standardized; and the art of play was refined. He discusses the selection and extensive training of polo ponies, and how some wealthy women moved beyond golf, badminton, and croquet to play...