While there are ancient paintings, tapestries and accounts of epic polo games, the written history of the sport is patchy. General consensus is that polo is the first team sport known to man and began in Persia more than 2,500 years ago. The name ‘polo’ was first coined in the 19th century when British soldiers Anglicized the Tibetan word pulu meaning “knot of wood”.
It is said that the Persian sport began as a form of warfare, played between two “armies” of hundreds of players at a time. In ancient Persia, like swords, horses were considered a weapon of war. That developed into a drill for war, and eventually into a game with rules used to heighten the abilities of the warriors. It often resulted in serious injuries and death of both horse and rider.
During the British occupation of India, the Calvary officers adopted the game as an excellent pastime that was thrilling, entertaining, and as a means of enhancing their horsemanship.
Polo was brought to the west by a man who never even saw a match. One day in 1869, Captain Edward “Chicken” Hartopp (1845-1882) read a news account in The Field of a game between local plantation owners and a Manipuri team in Northern India. It sounded like “a good game that they have in India” and it was Chicken, at age 24, who drew up the first rules of the game and began to play with a few of his fellow officers.
From its meager beginnings in England, it spread to Ireland in 1872, Australia in 1874, US and Argentina in 1876 and Canada in 1883. Through the last century, rules have developed and become more regulated, the handicapping system has allowed for more uniform play.