One of the world's oldest team sports, polo dates back 2,500 years, and its origins can be traced to Central Asia. The early version of the game was part sport and part military training exercise with as many as 100 men on each team. The sport of polo has come a long way since then.
The name 'polo' is believed to have originated from the Tibetan word 'pholo', meaning 'ballgame'. Early polo balls and mallets were made from willow trees; the balls were made from the root, while the latter were made from the branches. The material used to make balls has evolved over the centuries, from wood and leather to the modern-day polo ball made of hard white plastic. Today's polo mallets are made from a Manau cane (a rattan palm species), a hardwood head, and a leather grip.
Remarkably, the specifications of the polo field have endured unchanged since the sport's earliest days. One of the first fields was built at Ali Qapu palace in the ancient city of Isfahan, Iran in the early 16th century. This ancient field was the same measurements as a present-day regulation field: 300 by 160 yards. The field is now home to a public park, but the original stone goalposts (very unforgiving to players and ponies!) remain as a tribute to a past era. Modern-day goalposts are made from wood, foam, and vinyl and are meant to give way in the event of impact from a player or pony.
Polo's reputation as the "Sport of Kings" has strong roots in history. Largely played by rulers, nobility, and military men such as Darius, Genghis Khan, and Alexander the Great, the sport originally spread by way of colonization and military rule. In 1860, an early version of the modern game was organized in Manipur, a northeastern state of India. British officials witnessed the sport and immediately organized makeshift cavalry games outside of London. When it became apparent that game rules were required to regulate the ponies and players, the Hurlingham Club established a set of rules, many of which are still in use today
From England, the game spread like wildfire around the world, appearing in Argentina in 1872 and the United States in 1876. The United States Polo Association, the governing body of polo in the country, was founded in 1890. Due to the involvement of the military in the sport, polo was flourishing by the early 20th century. The highest proportion of the players remained the military until Hollywood stars like Bing Crosby and Walt Disney, as well as a new group of professional players began to emerge. Cecil Smith, one of the first American professional players, began playing in 1924 and was rated 10 goals from 1938 to 1962.
As the story goes, many wealthy players wanted him on their teams so they didn't have to play against him and began to compensate him. By the 1940s and '50s, a handful of American players had 10-goal handicaps, and the concept of polo professionals was the rule, not the exception.
Since its earliest days, polo has been an international sport. There are early written accounts of polo in Persian, Arabic, Byzantine, Chinese, and Japanese. The first account of an international match saw Chinese ambassadors face off against Japan on a team fielded by the Emperor. In the U.S., the first international match dates back to August 1886 in Newport, Rhode Island, when the Westchester Polo Club challenged the British. The tournament is still active today.
One of the most prominent international spokesmen for polo was Winston Churchill. An avid horseman and player who trained in England and India, Churchill promoted the virtues of polo throughout his life and term as Prime Minister: "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."
Polo was included as an Olympic sport in 1900, 1908, 1920, 1924, and 1936. However, it has since ceased to be included in the Olympics, mostly due to the cost of playing the game.
Established in 1982, the Federation of International Polo represents national polo associations in over 80 countries. It hosts and sponsors international tournaments that propagate the sport on an international level.
While many aspects of the sport have changed since its earliest iterations in Central Asia, including the rules, equipment, and makeup of teams, polo has indeed stood the test of time. Revivals in popularity following both World Wars and again in recent times with the new popularity amongst women players demonstrate the sport's resilience. There's no doubt that polo will continue to adapt and be enjoyed by players and fans alike for centuries to come.