Image: Winston Churchill playing polo in India circa 1895
Polo is a fascinating sport. No-one really knows who invented it, but it’s likely to have arisen among the warlike nomadic tribesmen of Central Asia, who honed their horsemanship and fighting skills by playing a game very much like it.
What is known is that by the 6th Century BCE, over 2,500 years ago, it was being played in King Darius I’s Persian Empire by large teams of horsemen probably with few or no formal rules.
From Persia, the sport migrated to Arabia and Tibet (‘polo’ is an Anglicisation of the Tibetan Balti word for ball), and then onto India, China and Japan. Kings and queens played it, an emperor of India died playing it and Japan’s last Shogun loved it.
Polo first became Britain’s cup of tea in the 1850s, when a group of tea planters discovered it in Manipur, an Indian princely state on the Burmese border, and founded the world’s first polo club in Silchar, in nearby Assam.
The world's oldest active club, the Calcutta Polo Club, was founded in 1863 and the Malta Polo Club in 1868, by British officers stopping off on their way home from India.
In 1869, Captain Edward ‘Chicken’ Hartopp of the British cavalry regiment, the 10th Hussars, read about the game in The Field magazine and, with his brother officers, organised the first ever match in England, against a team from the 9th Lancers.
The 1st Lifeguards and the Royal Horse Guards were quick to take up this new sport of ‘hockey on horseback’ and the rest, as they say, is history.
For that first polo match between the 10th Hussars and the 9th Lancers, a set of about ten basic rules were hurriedly assembled. However, it wasn’t until 1875, when Hurlingham became the headquarters of polo that the Hurlingham Polo Committee drew up the first formal set of rules to protect the interests of the sport, the players and the horses.
It was in that same year that British settlers organised the first match in Argentina. Then in 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas St. Quintin took the game to Australia, and the publisher and eccentric, James Gordon Bennett Jr., who’d first seen a match at Hurlingham, introduced it to the USA.
Today, the game of polo is played in 77 countries worldwide, from the US, Central and South America and the Caribbean, to Europe, the Middle East, India, South East Asia, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Of those, a total of 38 countries are affiliated to the Hurlingham Polo Association, which also works closely with the Association Argentina de Polo, the United States Polo Association and the Federation of International Polo.
The HPA, as it’s known in the polo world, is registered as a not for profit company, which as well as governing the game, is also responsible for English national teams at all levels and the development of young players from the age of nine.
Over the past 14 years, it has also donated £1.5 million to the Polo Charity which provides support for injured players; for the development of players in full time education, and for the welfare of ponies.
In the 140 years since the rules of the sport were first formalised, it has seen the game of ‘hockey on horseback’ grow to become an elite and much loved and followed international sport.