History of the Sport of Polo: The 19th Century

1886 Men Playing Polo at Newport

1886 Men Playing Polo at Newport

Polo in the 19th Century

Polo’s major leap in history began in 1859, when English Army Lieutenant, Joseph Sherer played his first “pulu” game in Manipur. He established the first European Polo Club in India later that same year. This fast, exciting sport quickly spread throughout the British military stations as an excellent distraction from military life, and an effective means of teaching young cavalry officers’ prowess in the saddle.


The sport of polo was then brought back to England by someone who had never even seen a game. In 1869, Captain Edward “Chicken” Hartopp (1845-1882) read an article in The Field, a British magazine, about polo that the British cavalry was playing in Manipur and said it sounded like “a good game that they have in India.” It is said that the first polo match played in England was played on Hounslow Heath between The 10th Royal Hussars (with “Chicken” Hartopp at the helm) and The 9th Lancers, two cavalry regiments of the British Army. The first official polo club in England was founded by Captain Francis “Tip” Herbert called Monmouthshire near Abergavenny.

In 1874, polo had reached Hurlingham in London and the following year the first set of English rules were drawn up. It was a still unruly game, with eight or more players a side, and matches lasting all afternoon.


From Captian Hartopp, the game spread to Ireland in 1872, the US and Argentina in 1875 and finally to Canada in 1883. The game was usually played in military saddles, with long stirrups and a deep seat. Play began with two opposing players on the fastest ponies who charged the center from behind his respective goal-line, fought for possession of the ball, and tried to score by himself. It was played on a much smaller field: 300 ft. x 600 ft. and the offside fore-shot was the only one used.


David Shennan, a British settler, organized the first game in Argentina on September 3rd, 1875. The game was an instant hit and thrived due to the existing horse culture of the Argentine gauchos. The River Plate Polo Association was founded in 1892 and would eventually be the foundation for the current Asociación Argentina de Polo.


In 1876, Lt. Col. Thomas St Quintin (10th Hussars) brought the game with him to Australia. While he was officially known as the “Father of Australian Polo”, but it was his brothers who stayed on and helped the sport progress.


In 1876, New York Herald owner, James Gordon Bennett Jr, saw a polo match in England, bought a collection of mallets and balls, and upon returning back to New York, bought a railroad car of Texan cow ponies. The first polo match in the United States was played May 6th, 1876 indoors at Dickel’s Riding Academy, stationed at the corner of 39th St. and 5th Avenue. Later that same year he established the Westchester Polo Club and the first outdoor match played in the US, was held in the infield of the Jerome Park Racetrack.

There exists an urban legend that says that the previous story is all a lie. The legend states that the first American polo match was played in Boerne, Texas at the famous Balcones Ranch, owned by retired British officer Captain Glynn Turquand. A newspaper article published by the Galveston News, on May 2nd, 1876 states that a polo club out of Denison, Texas, had challenged Bennett to a match.

USA vs. England

The first international competition between the US and England occurred in 1886. The US lost due to an ingenious development in team-play that the English began using that same year: the back-shot. The invention of the back-shot sped up play, facilitated the transition from defense to offense and encouraged team-play and passing. The Americans were extremely bitter at their loss and a sign was posted outside the Westchester Club in Newport, Rhode Island stating, “Any player making a backhand shot will be asked to leave the grounds.” After the initial sting of the loss to England, the Americans slowly started practicing the back-shot and were delighted at its effect on the game.


The United States Polo Association was founded soon after in 1890. Over dinner one evening in March, H.L. Herbert, John Cowdin, Thomas Hitchcock and a few other polo enthusiasts, drafted the first set of American rules and created what is now known as the USPA. By June 1890, seven clubs had joined, and in no time 100 handicaps had been awarded to amateur players, including future President Teddy Roosevelt.

Polo’s progress in the US began to take off by the end of the 1800’s. In 1894, the USPA had 19 clubs in New England, with the farthest west being in St. Louis and the farthest south in Philadelphia.

Winston Churchill

Back in England, Winston Churchill was a prominent Polo enthusiast and has given the sport some of the most notable quotes. He learned to play the sport as a young cavalry officer in 1895. At that time he wrote to his mother asking for money to buy polo ponies, writing to her a sentiment that many polo players can sympathize with: “I cannot go on without any for more than a few days. Unless I give up the game, which would be dreadful.” Later stationed in India, he bought 25 horses from another regiment and practiced with his team daily, in blistering heat, determined to be the top team in the area. In 1899 they succeeded in winning the inter-regional tournament.

In “My Early Life”, an autobiography of his life up to 1902, he describes a game with the regent of Jodhpur:

“Old Pertab, who loved polo next to war more than anything in the world, used to stop the game repeatedly and point out faults or possible improvements in our play and combination. ‘Faster, faster, same like fly,’ he would shout to increase the speed of the game. The Jodhpor polo ground rises in great clouds of red dust when a game is in progress. These clouds carried to leeward of the strong breeze introduced a disturbing and somewhat dangerous complication. Turbaned figures emerged at full gallop from the dust-cloud, or the ball whistled out of it unexpectedly. It was difficult to follow the whole game, and one often had to play to avoid the dust-cloud.”

He continued to play until age 52, despite an injury to his right shoulder that forced him to ride with his mallet arm tied to his side. Later he advises parents:

“Don’t give your son 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.”

J. Moray Brown

In 1891, J. Moray Brown wrote in the Badminton Library of Sports and Pastimes;

“angling teaches a man patience and self-control; (fox) hunting improves not only good horsemanship, but pluck and observation; whilst shooting inculcates quickness of hand and eye coupled with endurance and the power of bearing fatigue. Football, cricket, rowing, rackets, tennis all bring to the front and encourage qualities that are essentially manly; and perhaps no sport tends to combine all these lessons so much as polo, none makes a man more a man than this entrancing game, none fits him more for the sterner joys of war or enables him better to bear his part in the battle of life.”

Polo in US Military

Polo in the United States military began in 1896, at Fort Riley in Kansas. Cattle ponies were bought for $15 a head and teams were assembled. Not long after, they hit the road and began friendly competition against teams at Fort Monroe in Virginia; Fort Sill in Oklahoma; Fort Bliss and Kelly Field in Texas; Fort Douglas in Utah and Fort Benning in Georgia. By 1902, the Army Polo Association joined forces with the USPA.

The beginning of the century ushered in a golden era in polo. In 1899 the height limit on ponies was raised from 13.2 to 14.2 hands, which allowed a better line of ponies to be bred. Hooking became legal in 1907. In 1908, more than 20,000 fans attended an exhibition match at the Vermont State Fair. Games were regularly written up in New England newspapers and announced over the radio. In 1908, the USPA had 37 clubs and 500 registered members. California joined the rosters in 1909. In 1910-1911, handicapping became more universal, allowing better competition and encouraging international play.


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