Learn the equestrian sport of polo

History of the Equestrian Sport of Polo

POLO AT MEADOWBROOK II 1938, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
POLO AT MEADOWBROOK II
1938, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
Photography by Howard W. Frank

Origins of the Oldest Team Sport

The exact origin of polo, the oldest team sport, is unknown. Polo was probably first played by nomadic warriors over two thousand years ago.

Used for training cavalry, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan in the Middle Ages. Tamerlane's polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand.

Polo Match 600 BC

The first recorded polo tournament was in 600 BC when the Turkomans beat the Persians in a public match.

The Persians and the Mogul conquerors of India, spread the game of polo across the eastern world.

Emperor Cantacuzenus (ruled Byzantium 1341-1347) was one of the earliest recorded casualties of the sport.

Polo Field

In the ancient city of Ispahan a polo field was built in front of Ali Ghapu Palace by Shah Abbas the Great (ruled 1585-1628). Today, still used as a public park, it is the same size as a modern polo field with its original stone goal posts in place.

Akbar the Great, ruler of India in the 16th century, played polo and his stables at Agra are still in place.

Rules of Polo

In the mid 19th century an Irishman, Captain John Watson, of the British Cavalry 13th Hussars, created the first set of written rules for playing polo.

In 1874 the Hurlingham Rules were created. They limited the number of players to five on a team and included the offside rule.

First Polo Clubs

Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Sherer were responsible for introducing the West to the galloping game. They saw a polo match while stationed in Manipur, and in 1859 held the inaugural meeting of the first polo club, the Silchar Polo Club.

The British Army and British tea planters in India quickly took up the sport of polo. In 1863, the Calcutta Polo Club, the oldest active club in the world today, was founded.

Today, the oldest polo clubs outside India are the Malta Polo Club (1868), the All Ireland Polo Club in Dublin (1872),  the Monmouthshire Polo Club in Wales (1872), and the Meadowbrook Polo Club in the United States (1877).

In England, the first polo match was organized by Captain Edward "Chicken" Hartopp, of the British Cavalry 10th Hussars, on Hounslow Heath in 1869. However,  one year earlier in 1868, a detachment of this regiment had played a practice game near Limerick. By the 1870's, the sport of polo was well established in England.

In 1876, James Gordon Bennett, a noted American publisher, introduced the sport of polo to New York City. He organized the first polo match in the United States at Dickel's Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue.

In the spring of 1876, a group of polo players established the first formal American polo club, the Westchester Polo Club, at the Jerome Park race track in New York.

On May 13, 1876, the Jerome Park Racetrack in Westchester County was the site of the first American outdoor polo match. The Westchester Polo Club alternated their playing seasons between New York and Rhode Island before making Newport their permanent home.

The Meadowbrook Polo Club is among the most historic polo clubs in the United States, with its roots dating back to 1877.

PREPARING FOR POLO 1937, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
PREPARING FOR POLO
1937, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
Photography by Howard W. Frank

In 1877, Thomas Hitchcock Sr., Oliver W. Bird, August Belmont, Benjamin Nicoll, and their associates participated in the first polo match on Long Island. The polo match was played on the infield of the racetrack of the Mineola Fair Grounds.

The Meadowbrook Polo Club was formally incorporated in 1881. Members played polo regularly on the infield of the racetrack at the Mineola Fair Grounds on Long Island. The Meadowbrook Polo Club's first polo field was created in 1884, leading to Long Island's role as "Polo Capital of the World" during the 1920s and 1930s.

Within ten years, there were numerous polo clubs on Long Island. Over the next 50 years, the sport of polo achieved tremendous popularity in the United States.

The 1926 Open (Hurricanes vs. Argentina) had over 30,000 spectators. A single polo match in the Westchester Cup Tournament was attended by more than 45,000 spectators and the Cup of the Americas in 1928 was viewed by over 100,000 dedicated polo fans.

The first official match in Argentina took place in 1879, where the sport of polo was introduced by Irish ranchers at Shennan's Estancia.

In 1879, Colonel Thomas St. Quintin of the British Cavalry 10th Hussars, introduced polo to Australia.

In the early 1950's, to make way for a new highway, the original Meadowbrook Polo Club was relocated to Old Westbury, Long Island. The Meadowbrook Polo Club is still active today.

POLO AT MEADOWBROOK I 1938, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
POLO AT MEADOWBROOK I
1938, Meadowbrook Polo Club, Old Westbury, NY
Photography by Howard W. Frank

The U.S. Polo Open Championship was played at the Oak Brook Polo Club in Chicago, Illinois during the 1950's. American interest in polo was revived during the 1960's.

In 1967, the USPA moved its headquarters from New York to Oak Brook, Illinois.

The introduction of sponsor money for horses and professional players soon began to appear. Cecil Smith of Texas, who held a 10 goal handicap for 25 years, is widely regarded to be one of the first polo professional players.

Handicap Ratings

In 1888, handicaps and player ratings were added to polo in the United States so that teams could be more evenly matched in games. Ratings were determined by a single handicapper named H. L. Herbert.

In 1904, another important tournament evolved, the United States Polo Open Championship. The first Open was won by the Wanderers, who scored 4 to the Freebooters 3. The tournament resumed in 1910 and continued every year with the exception of 1911, 1915, 1917, 1918, and 1942-1945. The U.S. Open would become the most prestigious polo tournament. The U.S. Open is still played annually.

At the center of polo was the Meadowbrook Polo Club, the site of many of the first U.S. Polo Open Championships and Westchester Cup Championships. During 1913-14, the Westchester Cup was viewed by 20,000 spectators.

The sport of polo gained popularity across the country, extending to Texas and California.

However, Meadowbrook Polo Club would continue to dominate the sport of polo and was the center of polo during the first half of the 20th century.

George Sherman and Robert A. Graviss worked to promote intercollegiate and arena polo.

Contributing to the growth of polo during this period was the U.S. Army. Joining the USPA in 1902, the Army encouraged their cavalry units to participate in polo to improve their riding ability. From then until World War II, the U.S. Military would play a significant role in the sport of polo.

Later on, in 1910, England and India also added handicaps and player ratings.

Polo matches are played at three levels (low goal, medium goal, high goal) depending on a polo team's total of each player's handicap.

The highest handicap is a 10 goal rating.

Governing Body of Polo

As players and teams proliferated, the development of the sport of polo demanded a governing body to promote it. The Polo Association (later known as the United States Polo Association), with H.L. Herbert serving as its first chairman, was founded March 21, 1890. The USPA's purpose was to coordinate games, standardize rules and establish handicaps.

The first USPA headquarters were located in New York, the center of polo at the time.

USPA membership originally included seven clubs and 142 registered players.

Changes to the Equestrian Sport

In its early days of organization, the Polo Association changed the number and length of chukkers in a polo match. Equipment became standardized and polo pony training improved significantly.

Scoring was adjusted to allow fractional points for penalties. This was later abolished and was eventually replaced with free penalty shots.

In 1915, the Indoor Polo Association was established.

In 1967, with the help of Billy Ylvisaker, the Polo Training Foundation was created for the purpose of teaching and improving the sport.

Polo flourished in Florida, encouraged by John Oxley's interest in high-goal polo and Billy Ylvisaker's promotion of the sport with corporate sponsorship.

With the dominance of the Oak Brook Polo Club fading, the polo centers of the 1980's grew to include Florida, Texas and California.

In 1986, the United States Polo Association moved its national headquarters to Lexington, Kentucky.

Popularity

From 1900 to 1936, polo was an Olympic sport. In 1936 polo was officially dropped from the Olympic Games.

By the 1930's, crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international polo matches at the Meadowbrook Polo Club on Long Island in the United States.

Today, there are more than 250 active polo clubs in the United States Polo Association.

Currently, the highest level of polo is played in Argentina, the United States of America, and England.

Today, polo is played in more than 60 countries and enjoyed by more than 50 million people each year.