They Said Pulu…We Say Polo! 6 B.C. to 2018 A.D …The Art of Playing Polo

From ‘The Rider’s Art’ and ‘The LIFEHORSE Research Project.’
By Silver Johnson

Growing up with the sport of polo and future legendary players at Joe Mackey’s Somerset Stables outside of Kansas City was an inspiration and a gift. Hall of Famer’s Bart Evans (8), Tommy Wayman (10), Steve Orthwein Sr., Uileins, Phipps, Oppenheimers and many Argentine players were either my stable mates or regular traveling match players. Year-round polo instilled in me a great respect for this very particular horse and human athletic partnership.

Magic ponies did their jobs with gusto. On occasion, I’d get a glimpse of a special one…a very keen polo pony as interested in playing the game and going after the ball as their human team mate. In my desire to define, express and call attention to how important horse/human relationships are, the art, athleticism and gamesmanship of polo inspired me to dig back through time, past my own experiences and reach for the sport’s origins.

In-depth research revealed this ‘sport of kings’ went beyond royalty and straight for its very own festival gods. Who knew??!! Marjing, and his winged pony, is the god of polo. Modern polo, as we know it today, hails from Manipuri, a small state in India. As Manipuri lore goes, when the pony’s wings were clipped, it fell to Earth and became the Manipuri pony. Khori-Phaba is the son of Marjing and the polo playing god of sports. Shrines are built today on cliffsides to honor polo, as locals pay homage to winged ponies and deities that keep polo in the family and generational players on the fields.

‘Cicada.’ Photo: Courtesy of the Breeder Graymar Farms, Franklin, Tennessee
‘Cicada.’ Photo: Courtesy of the Breeder Graymar Farms, Franklin, Tennessee

However, its origin dates back to 6 B.C. and it didn’t start out as a ‘game.’

According to the Polo Museum, the art of polo is older than recorded history. And it focuses on the horse/human relationship. “Origins (of polo) are in the inspirational relationship between humans and horses. This special bond and the unique blending of athletic talents between horse and rider have helped polo evolve into The Sport of Kings.”

So how did Polo get its name?

Recorded as far back as 6 B.C. that horses were essential to humans, their bond as partners was essential in both war and peace. Early ‘stick and ball’ was taught in mounted lessons to learn quick maneuvering and valuable skills for use in combat. All the way from Persia, somewhere between 6 B.C. and 1st Century A.D. (you do the math…) practicing war skills evolved into organized competitive gaming. At times, there could be as many as 100 players on the field! Yikes!

Slowly, yet surely, from one continent to the next, traveling to play polo became a game changer! Transportation to the next match for those early combat maneuvers, was by horse, of course. When practicing combat skills became a ‘game,’ it was transformed into a fast-paced, peace-filled pastime. And it needed a new name!

Early names for the sport were culturally relative and more literal in their description. Can you say ‘Tzykanion,’ ‘Sagol Kangjei’,’ ‘Kanjai-bazee’, and ‘Chugan’ to name a few? Not the origin of the word POLO you expected?

Somewhere between 408-450 A.D., the game migrated to Persia’s Byzantine neighbors. Players and spectators loved the game so much they built a stadium. Known as a ‘tzykanisterion,’ this ‘grand stadium’ was constructed inside the palace of Constantinople specifically for playing polo or as they called the art then ‘tzykanion.’ One could say this is when arena polo was born!

706 AD from the tomb of Li Xian (the crown prince Zhanghuai), near Xianyang, Shaanxi province, ad 706, Tang dynasty; in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, Xi’an, China Encyclopedia Britannica
706 AD from the tomb of Li Xian (the crown prince Zhanghuai), near Xianyang, Shaanxi province, ad 706, Tang dynasty; in the Shaanxi Provincial Museum, Xi’an, China Encyclopedia Britannica

‘Tzykanion’ is most likely the earliest name given to the game. However, ‘Sagol Kangjei’ runs in at number two in A.D. 33. It literally translates as ‘hockey on horseback.’ The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State. The royal chronicle, “Cheitharol Kumbaba,” contains the history of this field, starting from A.D. 33.

Polo mallets were sticks made of cane and roots of bamboo were used to form balls. Leather shields were attached to saddles and girths for protection. The bottom end of the stick was used to hit the ball.

Commoners who owned a pony were allowed to play. Manipur had a royal polo ground belonging to the kings within the walls of their Kangla Fort. The game played at the time was called ‘Manung Kangjei Bung.’ Translated, it meant ‘Inner Polo Ground.’ Even today, games are held at the Mapan Kangjei Bung which means “Outer Polo Ground,” located just outside the Kangla and played on the now endangered and traditional breed of Manipur ponies.

‘Sagol Kangjei’ in early Manipur, India
‘Sagol Kangjei’ in early Manipur, India

Weekly games were known as Hapta Kangjei, or ‘weekly polo.’ Played on a polo ground, familiar to us today, these ancient games were held outside the current Palace. The Silk Road to China was a likely route the game traveled on next. Very popular in the Chinese Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, the sport of kings was also played by women. However, if they wanted to play, women had to wear a male garb. Tomb figures of Tang Dynasty female players remain in tact today. Lucky for 21st Century women’s polo, the game plays on!

Photo Credit: L.Somi Roy PRI News Manipur Polo Association v. USPA
Photo: L.Somi Roy PRI News Manipur Polo Association v. USPA

Getting back to the future of polo, what could be translated in A.D. 33 as ‘hockey on horseback’ slowly moved West and made its way to Tibet.

They said pulu!

It is from the anglicized version of the Tibetan word ‘pulu’ meaning ‘ball,’ that we get our modern-day term, polo. Historically significant in many ways, the nomadic life of early polo players also confirms how horses helped form diverse human language systems and dialects.

Practicing combat skills became enjoyable, and soon became an art to master. Inspiring early dynasties to play the game for fun, ‘pulu’ evolved through the ages as an exhilarating sporting event. Making its way around the globe, pulu attracted other military and civilian cultures to form teams. Enter the British and Americans who brought modern day ‘polo’ into view.

James Gordon Bennett Westchester Polo Club 1876. Photo- Museum of Polo
James Gordon Bennett Westchester Polo Club 1876. Photo: Museum of Polo

Around 1875, British settlers in the Argentine pampas began playing polo. The game became popular and the sport spread rapidly across the country. The year 1875 saw the first official polo game capture the future for the Argentinian country that would be known as the global capital of polo. Stateside, in North America, the U.S. Army supported polo, beginning in 1896 at Fort Riley, Kansas. As noted, many Argentinians played on our Kansas polo fields and provided me with my first glimpse into their brilliant and bold Criollo breed they brought with them.

Early polo ponies were really PONIES! Historically, the game was played on horses not taller than 13 – 14 hands and speed wasn’t even introduced until the early part of the 20th century playing on long grassy fields. More speed was needed to cover more ground. This meant taller ponies and breeding for a larger size and speed was introduced.

Do you have to be a King to play or watch?

Known as the ‘Sport of Kings’ polo was merely their sport of choice and the public was always invited to watch. The game was also played by many ‘commoners’ who owned a pony. From kids to sultans, everyone enjoyed participating in a competition. Even from the earliest of times, the very youngest were taught how to play. In 316 A.D., the young Persian Emperor, Shapur ll, learned to play polo at the age of 7!

Photo: Franklin Polo Academy Youth Polo Lessons
Photo: Franklin Polo Academy Youth Polo Lessons

Don’t have a king’s ransom to go to a game or spend on lessons?

Can you afford a cup of coffee every morning at your local java spot? Dinner out at your favorite dive? A movie including popcorn and a soda? Then you can save-n-trade those same pennies in for a polo lesson! Learning to play polo will find you healthier and in better shape! Who knows, you might even get academic credit for taking a series of lessons or playing on an inter-scholastic team! If you don’t ride but love the sport, you can affordably attend games to cheer on your local team or volunteer to help at club events! Sometimes, clubs and academies also offer sponsorships for lessons.

So where do you start?

James Armstrong, co-founder of Franklin Polo Academy (FPA,) in Franklin, Tennessee, has been playing polo since he was a kid in South Africa. Now this American multi-championship 6 goal man, who learned the sport from his father, is teaching players of every age. Polo clubs like FPA, provide affordable lesson programs (including equipment and ponies to learn on) for all ages. Armstrong says, soon, he and his co-founder and fellow polo legend, Stevie Orthwein,Jr., plan to offer area high schools and universities inter-scholastic team opportunities.

Photo Courtesy of James Armstrong shown with FPA Instructor and Manager, Sammie Uys Franklin Polo Academy Tractor Supply Arena, Harlinsdale Farm Franklin, Tennessee
Photo Courtesy of James Armstrong shown with FPA Instructor and Manager, Sammie Uys Franklin Polo Academy Tractor Supply Arena, Harlinsdale Farm Franklin, Tennessee

Ideally, today’s polo pony athletes stand approximately 15 hands…or around 61 inches at the withers. They are bred for agility and athleticism. As with any athlete, they require consistent conditioning, and expert training to become proficient on the field. For safety, their manes are shaved so mallets don’t get caught in manes and tails are braided and taped as well. Contact with other horses and players during the game requires ponies to not be afraid to bump into other horses, shy at a fast flying ball or swinging polo mallets, especially around their heads.

Ponies need to be in optimum physical condition as this game is fast paced and requires extreme agility. Several breeds are best for polo. Typically, today’s popular mount is a cross between a Thoroughbred and an Argentinian Criollo. Other breeds and crosses used are the Quarter Horse, Australian Stock Horse, Arabian, and Manipur ponies. However, the standard for polo ponies is mid-sized, agile, athletic, and of good bone and brains. Successful breeders, such as Graymar Farms, set high standards for stallion and mare pedigrees. They rely on consistent multi-generational traits in producing excellence in polo pony progeny.

What do humans gain when we practice or enjoy watching the art of polo?
Polo instructors like James Armstrong say learning the horse skills and artful riding rules of polo is a multi-faceted opportunity to apply on the field as well as in our daily lives. For all players and breeders, partnership rules as you practice skills astride your trusted pony. Sportsmanship offers participants a multitude of reasons to practice teamwork, work on their gamesmanship and apply stable manners at home.

Mission Valley Polo Club Winter Arena ‘Stick and Ball’ Mackey’s Somerset Stables c.1962 Courtesy of the Authors collectionMission Valley Polo Club Winter Arena ‘Stick and Ball’ Mackey’s Somerset Stables c.1962 Courtesy of the Authors collection
Mission Valley Polo Club Winter Arena ‘Stick and Ball’ Mackey’s Somerset Stables c.1962 Courtesy of the Authors collection

Not just a sport for kings, on many levels, the game and sport of polo has provided human cultures and societies, economies, education and athletics with diverse contributions throughout our shared histories.

As polo continues to develop and contribute to our modern lives, horses and humans continue to provide exemplary partnerships with peace and friendship at the forefront of the sport. Gathering us together, friends, families, neighbors and new introductions alike, 8 chukkers on 10 grassy acres to 4 chukkers bursting inside a fast-paced arena match, horses and the sport of polo make us all feel like kings and queens, even if it’s just for a few hours.

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