History of Polo: The 20th Century

Captain Rodes and US Army Polo Team in 1925 as they take 25 ponies overseas to play at the Hurlingham Polo Club in London

Captain Rodes and US Army Polo Team in 1925 as they take 25 ponies overseas to play at the Hurlingham Polo Club in London

Polo in the 20th Century

As polo gained in popularity, the fields were better maintained and sideboards were introduced in an attempt to keep the ball in play and encourage the fluidity of the game.  Saddles were specifically designed for polo whereas players had normally used hunting saddles or military-style saddles. These new polo saddles had a deep seat, with a high pommel and cantle for stability, but shorter stirrups to allow the player to get up out of the saddle and twist during swings. Mallet design, material and quality improved. The British Army began applying their tactical training to the sport, defining roles and responsibilities for each position on the field.

Polo’s popularity was spreading like wild-fire. It was being played across the US and into territories such as the Philippines and Hawaii. In the south, ranch hands were even playing polo in western saddles.

Polo in the 1910’s

American polo heroes, the Big Four, consisted of Devereux Milburn, Harry Payne Whitney, and brothers Monty and Larry Waterbury. As a team, they never lost an international match. The Westchester Cup matches against England of 1911 and 1913 went to the US due to this dream team. The US dominated England until Harry Payne Whitney’s retirement from polo in 1914. The next two games against England were lost and the Cup moved back across the Atlantic.

In 1913, the sport lent its name to a shirt, specifically developed by Brooks Brothers, for the playing of polo. The button-down collar was created in an attempt to keep the shirt’s collar out of ones’ face while playing a game of polo.

In 1915 the Indoor Polo Association was formed and in 1916 the US abolished the height limits on ponies, followed soon after in 1919 by the English. The National Polo Pony Society was formed that same year to “stimulate and encourage the breeding of polo ponies.”

Polo in the 1920’s

Before 1920, play was not stopped for penalties or fouls that were instead awarded at the end of the chukker. ¼ point was deducted for a safety, ½ point for crossing the right of way, etc. Often, offenders were unaware they had fouled until after the match, which made learning the sport that much more difficult. In 1920, though, the rules changed, and a new penalty system stopped play immediately after a foul. This improved the sport by encouraging stricter enforcement of the rules, creating more knowledgeable players, and by introducing the free shots from the 40 and 60-yard line -made fouls much more detrimental to the offender.

After a series of matches in 1921, the US brought the Westchester Cup back to America, and in 1924 more than 35,000 people watched the game on Long Island. Although polo in the US was gaining wide-spread acceptance as a major league sport, Argentina was coming from behind.

Argentina’s reign as a world power in polo was just beginning. In the 1920’s, Argentina began a breeding program, crossing Argentine thoroughbreds with the native Criollo horses, exploiting the speed of the thoroughbred with the heart, hardiness, and handiness of the criollo. In 1922, it was an Argentine team that won the US Open. The pinnacle of Argentina’s polo in that decade was the win of the Olympic Gold Medal in 1924.

The 1920’s were a golden era for America was well, games were covered in newspapers and play by play reporting was held on radio. In 1922 the National Polo Pony Society estimated that 63,000 ponies were played annually. Thomas Hitchcock was a celebrity athlete at the time, earning the 10-goal handicap by age 22, the highest possible ranking for a polo player.

Women also began to take the field, largely due to efforts by Mrs. Thomas Hitchock Sr, and eventually formed the US Women’s Polo Association.

As the United States prepared for WWI, the Army chief of staff advised, “U.S. cavalry fighters are going to play polo in order to obtain poise in the saddle.”

Polo in the 1930’s

In the 1930’s, the United States economy had crashed, but the sport of polo was still in an upswing. Strategy advanced even more by applying tactics used in soccer. Passing the ball between players became the newest weapon on the polo field. The speed, the rapid change between offense and defense, and the fluidity of the positions made for a much more exciting game.

Several notable celebrities played as well: Leslie Howard, Will Rogers, Spencer Tracy, Johnny Mack Brown and Walt Disney to name a few. In 1935, the USPA claimed 65 clubs and roughly 2,500 players.

In an epic East meets West game, both numbers 3’s on the opposing teams (Cecil Smith and Tommy Hitchcock) were at one point knocked unconscious, but later returned to finish the match. In the same game, Rube Williams’s leg was broken in a ride-off. As a result, the USPA changed the rules to severely penalize rough play and ensure that injured players could be substituted for if they were unable to play.

Internationally, the US won every match (1930, 1936, and 1939) of the Westchester Cup against Great Britain. Crowds of 40,000 gathered in Rhode Island at the Meadow Brook Polo Club. The US was even dominating competitions against Argentina, until 1936, where, Argentina, fresh from winning the Olympics, defeated the US in the Cup of the Americas.

Throughout World War II, the grounds of the Hurlingham Polo Club were turned over to the government for agricultural use and built over afterwards. The sport was officially suspended during the war. In 1952, the Hurlingham Polo Association started up again at Cowdary.

The US Army’s reliance on the horse had started to diminish just before WWI, when motorcycles and jeeps proved faster and more resilient. WWII signaled the end of the use of horses in the military almost universally. They continued, however, to use polo as a sport to train and harden officers until WWII. Eventually, the military barns were closed and the horses sold. The remount depots closed, causing a marked decline in the number of horses available for the sport.

Polo in the 1940’s

The role of horses in society had officially changed from an animal of work and transportation to a companion in hobby and sport. The stresses of the war, the disbanding of the remount depots and the change in focus for the United States, meant that polo saw a sharp decline in the early 40s. By the end of the 40s, the USPA only had about 48 clubs and no Army or Collegiate clubs.

The United States in the 1940’s could only claim four 10-goalers: Tommy Hitchcock Jr., Stewart Ingelart, Mark Phipps, and Cecil Smith. Unfortunately, though in 1944, the US lost a prominent figure when 10-goaler player Tommy Hitchcock died in a crash-landing during a test flight.

Mexico, on the other hand, had a polo loving president: Manuel Avila Camacho. A tournament called the Camacho Cup was inaugurated in 1941 in Mexico City. The US swept all three games that year and dominated the subsequent years up to 1946. A Mexican team composed only of the Gracida family redeemed Mexican pride by winning the 1946 US Open at Meadow Brook. In 1949 the first USPA Blue Book was published.

Polo in the 1950’s

In the 1950s, polo began its steady climb uphill. By mid-decade, the Indoor Polo Association joined forces with the USPA and, due to efforts by USPA Chairman Devereux Milburn, developing and supporting young players became a new initiative. Collegiate, scholastic, and indoor games were pushed as excellent tools to teach a new generation of polo players. Indoor polo used less horses and opened up the sport to people who could afford it. Until then, the only indoor 10 goaler had been Winston Guest. In 1951, Clarence “Buddy” Combs of New Jersey became the second indoor 10 goaler ever.

The famed polo grounds at Meadow Brook were sold after the last US Open to be played there was held in 1953. The “headquarters” of polo in the US moved to the Oak Brook Polo Club in Hinsdale, Illinois. The sport of polo also began to grow in other states such as Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. The 50’s could only claim three 10-goalers that decade: Stewart Iglehart, Robert Skene and Cecil Smith.

Polo in the 1960’s

In the 1960s, polo in the United States really picked up speed. The US Open returned to the West Coast in 1963. The Polo School Committee was created in 1966, and the Polo Training Foundation (PTF) opened in 1967 thanks to a generous donation by the Hickox family of Long Island. Again, though, the only 10-goal players were Stewart Iglehart, Robert Skene and Cecil Smith.

The Cup of the Americas series was started up again in 1966 and 1969. Sick ponies and a harrowing plane trip plagued the US team on its travel to Argentina in ’66 but both series (’66 and ’69) were lost. Riding for the US were Northrup Knox (Captain), Dr. William Linfoot, Roy and Harold Barry, and in ’69, Bennie Gutierrez.

In 1966, the Houston Polo Association was formed and indoor polo was played in the Houston Astrodome. Collegiate polo was back in full swing. An ivy-league rivalry struck up between Yale and Cornell when, in 1967, the Orthwein twin Steve (Yale) beat his brother Peter (Cornell) in the Intercollegiate Championship.

Polo in the 1970’s

The 1970’s gave way to the corporate, professional polo we know today. America embraced corporate sponsorship of high-goal polo teams, and the professionals it attracted. USPA membership increased as pros of all levels and all corners of the globe became more readily available. Subsequently, such an influx of high-goal polo professionals, called for an increase in larger, more elaborate polo clubs.

In 1973, Elizabeth Dailey, Sue Sally Hale, Virginia Merchant, Jorie Butler Richardson and six more were the first women assigned USPA handicaps. It didn’t take long before women were taking the sport by storm. Shortly after, in 1976, the first all-woman’s tournament at California’s Carmel Valley Riding and Polo Center took place. In 1979, the first US Women’s Handicap was played.

Despite the progress polo saw in the ‘70s, there were no 10-goalers for this decade.

Polo in the 1980’s

Continuing with the theme of the ‘70s, the ‘80s saw even more corporate sponsorship, bigger purses, and more high-goal talent attracted to the US from around the world. These professional players replaced the talented amateurs from leading polo families. Team sponsors paid for talented professionals, quality ponies and vied for the prize money purses the major polo clubs offered. Companies like Rolex, Cartier, Johnny Walker, Cadillac, etc were sponsoring teams and tournaments across the nation. This only helped to promote the image of polo as a high-class, expensive sport. Many wealthy businessmen picked up the game as a status symbol, and used the sport as a means to promote their business.

This change in dynamic from teams made up entirely of talented amateurs to teams founded on one or two higher goal professionals mixed with less experienced players created a unique challenge for the USPA to better handicap the players. The -1 and -2 handicaps were added in the ‘80s to better level the playing field. To compliment this change, focus was given to improving umpiring as well.

While earlier in the century, quality ponies were being bred and trained in the western states to supply the polo demand in the East, Argentina and Chile began supplying quality criollo/thoroughbred crosses to the entire United States.

USPA membership reached an all-time high. By the end of the decade, there were 3,042 players, 208 clubs and 25 colleges and universities that played the sport. Women began to play a significant role in the sport: they were playing in colleges, tournaments; they were working as instructors, team managers, pony trainers and even club managers. After a 25-year absence, the US Open returned to California in 1987.

Although Tommy Wayman was the only American-born 10-goaler of the 80s, the Mexican Gracida brothers, Memo and Carlos, were considered US players.

Polo in the 1990’s

After seventeen years of planning, the National Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame finally opened in 1997. Although the Polo Training Foundation continued to have success with youth programs around the United States, the total USPA membership plateaued around 3,000 members.

Polo Today

Today, Argentina is still the Mecca for polo aficionados. They continually churn out quality players, quality horses, and regularly have crowds of 30,000 fans attending major games.

The sport itself is unique to any other sport in the world. It is a team sport, whose success is reliant on an animal teammate; the horse. The connection between horse and rider, the excitement, the speed, the difficulty, the challenge, and the comradery will secure polo’s future. Now, more than ever, the sport is accessible to anyone regardless of age, sex, or economic status. With programs such as “Work to Ride”, impoverished inner city kids get a chance to work in stables in return to learn the sport of Kings.

Today polo is played in more than 77 countries across the world with over half of the world’s players playing in Argentina, England, and the United States. Due to the wide-spread appeal of polo, an international organized effort exists to promote the sport. The Federation of International Polo (FIP) has organized intentional tournaments in an effort to return the sport to the Olympics. In addition to year-round intentional tournaments, clinics, and events, the World Cup is played every three years. The FIP has done tremendous work creating and drafting an international set of rules, and brainstorming how the sport would work in the Olympics (pony pools, etc.)

The Future of Polo

There are many studies, theories and reports on how the growth of polo as a sport can be promoted and encouraged. The main pillar is exposing the sport to a larger audience. Where, in the recent past, polo was played primarily by movie stars and royalty, nowadays it can be played by nearly anyone. The best thing we can do as aficionados and fans of the sport is to share it with everyone we can.

How do you think we can promote the sport of polo to a wider audience? What are some of the challenges polo will face in the future?



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