So, You Think You Love Horses? Some Reflections on the Nature of Horses and Man

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Equestrian Sports: Polo

Major George S. Patton (left) and Walter Francis Dillingham (right) Playing Polo, Honolulu 1926

Polo is a mounted field sport now played by two teams of four horsemen each. The game consists of six periods lasting seven to seven and one-half minutes each, called chukkers. The teams play on a field measuring 160 by 300 yards and teams score by driving a ball though an eight-yard-wide goal. Handicaps are given to players based on their experience.

I have watched a match between the British Army team and the Potomac Polo Club and found it be fast paced with plenty of action and exciting play. You can understand why it was valued as a means of sharpening the abilities of cavalrymen. Human beings enjoy sport much more than schooling exercises and polo develops a tremendous skill set in both horse and rider.

Polio Team of Battery B, 111th Field Artillery, Hampton, Virginia 1927
Polio was popular among mounted soldiers.
polo team

Two Female Players
The game’s origin is lost in time, but it is estimated to be 2,000 to 2,500 years old and to have originated in the East. In ancient times it was played in all the empires from the Chinese to the Byzantine. The game suffered a major reversal in China in 910 C.E. (Common Era) with the death of a relative of the Emperor during a match. As a result, the emperor ordered the beheading of all polo players within the empire. No doubt Chinese courtiers concluded playing board games was the safer choice after that regrettable event. By the 19th Century, polo was in decline and persisted in only a few isolated pockets, including India. Modern polo had its start when it was picked up by yet another powerful, far flung empire: the British. In 1859 a group of civilian tea planters in Assam observed locals playing the game and organized the first polo club comprised of Europeans. The game was soon picked up by British cavalry officers. Being a more mobile group than tea planters, they brought it home to Britain where it soon became a rage. In 1876 sportsman and publisher James Gordon Bennett observed a match in Britain and introduced the game to the United States. During the next several decades the rules of play were refined, and many clubs formed in countries, such as the United States, Britain, Argentina and Australia. Americans developed a fast-moving, long-hitting style that brought them dominance in international competition and was in contrast to the British game which was slower paced and more controlled. However, American dominance did not last. Polo became even more popular in Argentina and soon Argentine teams were dominating international play. Beginning in 1900 the International Olympics included Polo. Polo has never been an all male sport. Even in ancient times women players were known, and organized female and co-ed teams are active today in many areas of the world.

The Young Winston Churchill
"give him horses"
Among the famous people who were avid polo players were George S. Patton (1885-1945) and Winston Churchill (1874-1965). Churchill was totally given over to the sport and despite injuries played until he was 52. The young and cash-strapped Churchill wrote the following to his wealthy parents while he was serving in the 4th Hussar Regiment:

"Don't give your son [Winston] money. As far as you can afford it, give him horses. No one ever came to grief -- except honorable grief -- through riding horses. No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined through owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them; unless of course they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good death to die."
No doubt more maturity and practice refined both Churchill’s eloquence and his powers of framing a persuasive argument. The game has always been popular with the British royal family and Princes Philip, William and Harry are all active players. Another well-known player was Walt Disney.

It is difficult to predict the future of this sport. Both its player base and audience are limited and it is likely that most horsemen have never seen a live match. It would be sad to see this ancient game that survived the rage of a Chinese Emperor totally fade away.

The Accidental Horseman


Museum of Polo's History of Polo
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