Last updated: March 28, 2022
My son, who is a huge fan of polo, recently talked about the origin of polo at the dinner table. The discussion aroused my interest in the subject, so I decided to research polo’s history and find out how this game made its way to the United States.
Polo originated in Central Asia with nomadic tribes. It was introduced to Britain by British officials who observed polo in India. From Britain, the game spread to most of the western world. Today, polo is played in countries around the world.
Many equestrians think horse polo is limited to a small minority of elites. But Polo is a global sport with exciting beginnings. Below, I discuss how polo spread from Central Asia to Britain and then to the USA. I also briefly cover the countries where polo is popular today.
What is horse polo?
Polo is an equestrian sport played by two teams, each having four members. Participants on horseback whack a ball with a mallet through goalposts on either end of a field.
Polo is similar to soccer on horseback and is believed to be the oldest known team sport and is loved by horse enthusiasts all over the world.
Where did polo originate?
Polo originated as a wild equestrian game played by nomadic people in Central Asia. Its origin can be traced from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD.
The style of polo we recognize today has its roots in Iran. There they played on horseback with a wooden stick and ball. The game was called chowgan, and it was still a brutal game.
The game was a competition used to train the King’s cavalry and other elite troops. Polo helped develop coordination and balance on horseback, traits useful for warriors riding horses.
Then it was taken up by the royalty and the nobility, played by both men and women. From the 3rd century BC to the 17th century AD, polo remained popular despite the change in emperors and ruling dynasties.
The sport became so popular at the time it was named the national sport of Persia. In Iran, polo is still called chowgan and remains one of the country’s favorite sports.
From Iran, polo spread east, west, and south. In the Middle Ages, it was played from Constantinople to Japan and spread to Arabia, Tibet, and India. In the 16th century, polo became popular in South Asia, in north-western regions of what is now Pakistan.
Today, annual polo festivals are held at Shandur Top in Chitral, Pakistan, and are attended by enthusiasts worldwide.
The word “polo” may be derived from the Balti word “pulu,” which means ball. Balti is the language spoken in Baltistan, a north-western Pakistani region.
Polo also traveled to China via the Silk Road. It was popular during the 7th to 10th century under the rule of the Tang dynasty.
How was Polo introduced to Britain?
Polo was introduced to Britain during the 19th century by British soldiers who had been deployed in India. From Britain, polo was carried over to most of the western world by the early 20th century when the Empire was still at its peak.
Polo in India was known as “sagol kangjei” or “pulu.” It originated in Manipur, with some religious rituals suggesting the game has a history that goes deeper than available records.
However, formal rules for polo were set down at the beginning of the 16th century, while the game became popular soon after under the first Mughal Emperor Babar.
Manipur in India is home to the world’s oldest polo ground. In Manipur, polo was played even by commoners.
In 1859, the British opened the Cachar Club in Assam – the oldest polo club still in existence. It was followed by the establishment of Calcutta Polo Club by Sherer and Robert Stewart, two British soldiers.
In the 1860s, military officers took polo from India to Britain. After the British set formal rules of the game, polo clubs were established throughout England. The game also spread to western Europe.
The version of polo played in England in the 19th century was quite different from Manipur’s game. British polo was methodical, slow, less aggressive, and required fewer equestrian skills.
How Did Polo Spread to the United States?
James Gordon Bennett Jr. is widely acknowledged as having organized the US’s first polo match in 1876. He was a member of New York City trendsetters who popularized the game in the United States.
However, evidence suggests that English Texans were the first to play polo in America. According to a newspaper report from 2nd May 1876, Denison Texas had a polo club before Bennett Jr. organized what he called the first polo match in US history.
In the 20th century, American polo evolved and became a fast-paced sport, distinguishing its game from the British polo style.
Where Is Polo Most Popular?
Today, the most popular sport in Argentina is polo. David Shennan, a British immigrant, organized the first polo match in Argentina in 1875. The sport quickly became popular, and clubs opened up across the country in a few years. The fast Argentinian horses proved ideal for the sport.
In 1892, the River Plate Polo Association was founded, which later served as the basis for the Asociación Argentina de Polo in 1922. Argentina won the first Olympic gold medal in polo in 1924. The second gold medal followed in 1936.
The popularity of polo in the country has kept on increasing ever since the introduction of the game. Today, Argentina is acknowledged as the capital of polo.
Polo is considered a national sport in Argentina, along with football. Polo matches draw thousands of enthusiastic spectators, and Argentinian polo players are among the world’s top-ranked polo players and regularly win international tournaments.
I have some friends that play polo, and I’ve watched them compete against other teams. It’s noticeable that most of the advanced players are from Argentina.
My friend told me that many Argentine players are raised playing polo and developed their skills at an early age. He also pointed out that most polo coaches in the United States are either from Argentina or Brazil.
Where else Is Polo popular in the world?
Polo is played in countries all over the world. Apart from Argentina, countries famous for professional polo matches include the UK, United States, Chile, Italy, Brazil, and Mexico.
Other notable countries are New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Dominican Republic, Germany, France, Iran, India, Pakistan, Spain, Jamaica, Switzerland, and South Africa.
Polo was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1939. Then, in 1998, the International Olympic Committee placed it under an international governing body, the Federation of International Polo. The Federations conducts a polo championship every three years.
Interesting Fact – Polo in Afghanistan
The rough version of polo played by nomads survived in Afghanistan up until the twentieth century. Hundreds of mounted tribesmen would fight over the headless carcass of a calf or a goat. Grabbing the animal by the leg and dragging it away from the pack would result in victory.
In the 1960s, the National Olympic Committee saw to it that a tamer version of the game was developed.
Polo is among the oldest equestrian sports in the world. Military leaders used it to train cavalrymen because it is a fast-paced game that requires quick thinking and fosters team spirit. Though it originated in Central Asia, today it is played and loved all over the world.
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An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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