The origins of polo go back a long way. It was played in Persia 2500 years ago, although the Chinese also claim to have played the game in those days. It is highly probable that those civilizations could have learnt the game from nomads of Central Asia, who used to migrate between the Great Chinese Wall and the Caspian Sea.
The Mongolians also adopted the sport, and they played it very well due to their talented cavalrymen and the horses they rode on. These factors, together with good eyesight and courage are nowadays also the basic aspects of a polo player.
The sport went on to grow thoughout Asia, becoming a solid platform for development and for the demonstration of ecuestrian and military talent. Among the historic figures who have played the sport are Genghis Kahn, King Darius of Persia, and Alexander The Great.
Word goes that when Alexander The Great succeded his father to the throne in 336 B.C., King Darius sent him a mallet and a ball, together with a request for him to play polo, and to leave the political work and war matters to those who were better suited for them. Alexander’s answer was that he himself represented the mallet and that the ball represented the world which he wanted to conquer.
The Persians and the Mongolians called the sport “Chaughan”, while in Japan it was known as “Da-Kyu”, in Russia’s steppes “Khis Kouhou”, and in Turkey it was referred to as “Djirid”. Ancient ceramics and drawings give an idea of what the players of those days looked like, with their mallets, the ball, the goalposts and the team assistants. One big difference can be found: the playing field was delimited by walls, against which a rival team’s player was squashed in order to grab the ball from him, giving proof that the sport was already quite violent.
But it was in India where it definitely caught on as it is known nowadays. During the XVIII century, as the British Empire expanded and the Surma Valley became the place in which the passion of Orient and Occident combined in the pursuit of sports talent on a horse. After a cruel war against the Burmese people, the Princes of Manipur Chourajit, Marjit, Gambhir Singh and Nar Singh established themselves in Cachar, one of the outmost borders of the Empire.
The British soldiers watched as the Princes excercised their horses by playing a strange sport, hittting a ball with a stick. That game was called Pulu, the name given to the willow tree, the branches of which were used to make the equipment with which the sport was played.
For the military men from abroad, polo was similar to hockey, but played on horseback, and they immediately took a liking to it and adopted it as one of their sports, although it was as late as 1850 that the British cavalry dictated its first rulebook. Back in 1859, in Assan, India, the first polo club was formed, the Cachar Club, although the oldest surviving club is the Calcutta Polo Club, which was formed in 1862. In 1868, the Malta Polo Club was formed by Englishmen who had been residing in India and who wanted to continue playing the sport.
Polo reached the shores of England in 1869, by means of the 10th Hussar Regiment, based in Aldershot, and a good reference point is the match between the 9th Lancers Regiment and the 10th Hussars Regiment, which went ahead at Hounslow Heath, near London, in 1871.
The first English polo club was formed by Captain Francis “Tip” Herbert in 1872, in Monmouthshire, but the Hurlingham Polo Association was in charge of writing out the rule book and of the organization. On September 3rd that same year the first match in Argentina took place, the teams including English and Irish engineers and landlords. The River Plate Polo Association was formed in 1892, although it gave way to the Argentine Polo Association in 1922.
Polo had already reached Australian shores by 1876, with Colonel-Lieutenant Thomas St. Quintin, and it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who introduced the sport into U.S.A. It was in this latter country where the handicap system was created in 1888.
In the decade of the thirties the sport’s popularity was inmense in the United States and crowds of 30.000 would gather to watch international matches at the Meadow Brook Polo Club. Between 1900 and 1936 it was among the Olympic sports, with Argentina claiming the most recent title.
Nowadays, there are polo clubs in more than 80 countries, in most of which professional polo is played.