Historians say polo originated in China and Persia about 2,000 years ago. The name of the game may come from the word “pholo” meaning ‘ball’ or ‘ballgame’ in the Balti language of Tibet.
The first recorded game took place in 600BC between the Turkomans and Persians. The Turkomans won. In the fourth century AD, King Sapoor II of Persia learned to play, at the age of seven. In the 16th century, a polo ground (300 yards long and with goalposts eight yards apart) was built at Isfahan, then the capital, by Shah Abbas the Great.
The Moguls were largely responsible for taking the game from Persia to the east. By the 16th century, the Emperor Babur had established polo in India. The sport had long been played in China and Japan, but died out by the time the West came in contact with those countries.
In the 1850s, British tea planters discovered the game in Manipur on the Burmese border with India. They founded the world’s first polo club at Silchar, west of Manipur. Other clubs followed and today the oldest in the world is the Calcutta Club, founded in 1862.
Malta followed in 1868 when soldiers and naval officers visited on their way home from India. In 1869, Edward “Chicken” Hartopp, of the 10th Hussars, read an account of the game in The Field Magazine while stationed at Aldershot, and organized the first game. Then known as “hockey on horseback,” it was played on a hastily-rolled Hounslow Heath. Hounslow Heath is a public open space and local nature reserve in the London Borough of Hounslow. A short list of about 10 rules were hastily assembled.
But, it was John Watson (1856-1908) of the 13th Hussars who formulated the first real rules of the game in India during the 1870s. He later formed the celebrated Freebooters team who won the first Westchester Cup match in 1886. He was a key player at the All Ireland Polo Club, which was founded in 1872 by Horace Rochfort of Clogrenane, County Carlow.
The first polo club in England was Monmouthshire, founded in 1872 by Captain Francis “Tip” Herbert (1845- 1922) of the 7th Lancers, at his brother’s estate at Clytha Park, near Abergavenny.
Handicaps were introduced by the USA in 1888 and by England and India in 1910.
The first official match in Argentina took place on 3rd September 1875. The game had been taken there by English and Irish engineers and ranchers.
In 1876, Lt Col Thomas St. Quintin, of the 10th Hussars, introduced the game to Australia. He is credited with being the Father of Australian Polo. Two of his brothers stayed on there as ranchers and helped the game to develop. In the same year, polo was introduced to the USA by James Gordon Bennett Junior who had seen the game at Hurlingham during a visit to England.
Today, more than 77 countries play polo. It was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1939. Polo is once again recognized by the International Olympic Committee.