India’s ancient and sacred Manipuri ponies are renowned for being the original polo mount and have made history in both warfare and sport. Not all modern-day polo ponies can claim such a posh heritage, but they do have a definite edge when it comes to maverick manoeuvres and turns of speed.
Photography NISHIKANT SINGH Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.8
The Manipuri breed, from Manipur in eastern India, is famous for being the original polo pony and is one of the most prestigious of the five Indian equine breeds. The Manipuri originally served as war ponies in the cavalry of the kings of Manipur, who were feared throughout Upper Burma.
According to legend, the Manipuri Pony was created when its ancestor, a sacred winged mythological beast called Samadon Ayangba, had its mane and wings cut off. The sacredness of the breed meant it was never used as a transport or work animal, but solely as a fearless cavalry mount or a sport pony.
This ancient pony breed is sturdy, sure-footed and generally 112-132 cm in height with a good shoulder, short back, well-developed quarters, strong limbs, and a high-set tail. The face is concave with small pointed ears and alert eyes. Going by the breed’s appearance, it is believed to have Asiatic Wild Horse and Arab ancestors, which would also explain its intelligence, toughness, and tremendous endurance – all the qualities needed for the game of polo.
Polo is often associated with the British Empire, but the game’s origins are far older and its name derives from the Tibetan word “pulu”, meaning ball. Considered one of the oldest team sports in history, the exact origin of polo is unknown, but it’s believed that it was first played several thousands of years ago by competing nomadic tribes in Central Asia. These tribes domesticated wild horses and migrated to Persia by mastering warfare on horseback, a skill trained by practicing their manoeuvres playing polo.
Used for cavalry training, the game was soon played from Constantinople to Japan as mounted armies swept across these parts of the world, conquering and reconquering. Polo was adopted everywhere as a noble pastime by emperors, sultans, and caliphs of ancient Persia, and thereby became known as “the game of kings”.
The Western obsession with the game came about through its discovery by British tea planters who first saw it being played in India in the early 1800s, and who took to it with relish. The ponies that the locals were playing on were Manipuris and are therefore, by us Westerners, considered to be the original polo pony.
The modern game of polo, formalised and popularised in the West by the British cavalry in 1850s, derived from Manipur. The British army soon realised how useful polo tactics were for training soldiers on horseback, and shortly after the sport was introduced to both England and the United States.
When Manipur became a part of the Indian Union in 1949, the patronage for the Manipuri pony started to decline. Today, these animals are an endangered breed, not only in terms of numbers, sadly, but also from cross-breeding; they are now on the verge of extinction with an estimated population of fewer than 500 animals. As it is a semi-wild breed it has been left free in the open for grazing, but due to urbanisation and the draining of marshes, the traditional pastures have disappeared and the ponies now often live under pitiable conditions, wandering the streets and foraging in the city trash. Fortunately, efforts are being made to save the breed, the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association has been formed and they have established a stud farm now housing 130 ponies.
The original rules of the game in the West introduced chukka, goal posts, and limited the players to four per side as well as the height of mounts to 132 cm (13 hands) – the height of the Manipuri pony. Over the years, the height limit was raised, especially after the game made it to America. In 1919, the height limit was abolished altogether, resulting in the Manipuri and other polo ponies being passed over in favour of larger, faster horses. But the traditional Manipuri rules allowing only right-handed players and right-of-way are still followed in the game today.
In modern times, a polo pony is a horse of any size or breed that is used to play polo: Often the horses are thoroughbreds or crosses between thoroughbreds and horses native to the region.
Polo ponies are now bred throughout the world. Since the 1930s, some of the best polo ponies have been produced in Argentina, where the Criollo breed crossed with thoroughbreds excel in speed, stamina, and agility.
Although polo ponies are not recognised as a distinct breed, they are truly unique horses known for their heart, speed and stamina. During a match, the horses’ tails are tied up and their mane totally shaved to prevent interference with the mallet or reins, giving them similar features.
A good polo pony must be able to stop and turn on a whim, neck rein with minimal pressure, work well from leg cues as well as hold a gait without bucking or shying, and be able to work up close around other horses.
In the course of a match, the average pace is more than 50 km per hour – which is why horses are changed after each seven-minute period or “chukka”. Needless to say, a horse must be well trained for riding before being introduced to polo, and it takes an average of six months to two years to produce a pony that loves to play the sport. This is why good polo ponies are very valuable and the polo players are so attached to these magnificent athletes, whose quality can easily decide the outcome of a match.. •