Pony Polo

Pony Polo is one of the four that uses animals, the other three being Elephant, Camel and Yak. Non-animal Polo games are Cycle, Golf Cart, Segway, Water, Snow, SUP (Stand-Up Paddle Surfing), Beach, Arena, Indoor and Paddock.

Sagol Kangjei or Pony Polo of Manipur

It is said that polo originated as sagol kangjei (sagol means pony and kangjei is a game of sticks) in Manipur in 3100 BC. The Manipuri style of playing is called pana whereas the international style is called polo.

However, it was Captain Robert Stewart, the Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Cachar (Assam under British rule) who discovered it and established the Silchar Polo club in March 1859. The Calcutta Polo Club, the oldest existing one in the world, was formed in 1862. Manipur used to have 60 Polo clubs, but by 2018 were down to 15.

The last head count in 2014 of Manipur ponies triggered an alarm because there were less than 600 left. They are considered to be descendants of Asian wild horses. In 2016 the government acquired 23 acres at Marjing, near Imphal, for a sanctuary for the dwindling number of these indigenous stray ponies, but they continue to roam the streets and in the last 2 years 38 colts died even though the breed is known for its ability to survive in harsh weather conditions. Since they are let loose to fend for themselves they are perpetually hungry and some land up eating plastic from garbage. They are rounded up and taken care of only when needed for polo tournaments or religious festivals.

With the aim to promote and preserve the Manipuri pony, after a break of 12 years the Sixth Manipur Polo International Tournament was organised in 2012 at Imphal by the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association with businessmen and politicians patronising the game. The association also owns a stud farm having 130 ponies.

Tournaments are now played on the Manipuri ponies famous for their stamina and speed. Foreign players do not bring their own horses. Countries that have participated are Germany, France, Thailand, Argentina, England, USA, Morocco and India.

In November 2017 the Eleventh Manipur Polo International Tournament was held on the Maphal Kangjeibung grounds as part of the Sangai Festival. Argentina, England, USA, Morocco, India-A and India-B participated. The champions were India-B (Manipur).

Interestingly, a film entitled Daughters of the Polo God stood out at the Fourth Edition of the North East Film Festival organised in 2019.

The Tata Trusts have begun supporting a three year long programme named the Grassroots Development of Women in Polo in Manipur that aims at popularizing polo among women in the state.

Polo in Ladakh

A week long annual Ladakh Polo Festival is held at Shagaran, Chushot Gongma (13 kms south of Leh) at the Indus Chushot Polo Club during which a round-robin tournament is played. It is followed by Ladakhi folk music and dancing, etc.

Here Polo is played on a small barren field so a lot of dust flies up. The original no holds barred version occurs. The non-stop, free-wheeling spectacle of snorting horses and thundering hooves as riders bear down on the ball, jostling opponents (termed riding off) and hooking sticks (ensnaring an opponent’s polo mallet) is definitely stressful for the small ponies although they are hardy.

Pony Polo elsewhere

The Indian Polo Association’s website covers a glorious and regal past beginning 1892! It claims that polo clubs exist in Ahmednagar, Bengaluru, Dehra Dun, Hyderabad, Imphal, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kolkata, Ladakh, Meerut, Mumbai, New Delhi, Patiala, Pune and Udaipur.

Although a fairly unknown “sport” in India, Polo using horses (called ponies!) continues to be played in India and is patronised by the Indian Army. Tournaments and trophies are commonly named after Army personnel; many others are in honour of the Maharajas who established the events decades ago. Clubs, equestrian institutions, and a few industries have privately owned polo teams. The most prestigious tournament is the Northern India Polo Open Championship.

Polo Clubs of North India from Delhi to Jodhpur to Jaipur continue to hold matches in winter and spring, but are no longer what they used to be. Few celebrities and corporate houses show interest like they did in polo tournaments and exhibition matches have done little to revive interest. It’s the foreign tourists and Maharajas of yore that want to patronise Polo and so rope in politicians, Army personnel and socialites.

In November 2017 Punjab spent Rs 50 lakh from the Livestock Development Board’s funds on the maintenance of the polo ground at Patiala where the Western Command of the Indian Army conducted the Polo Challenge Match. The last polo tournament had been held in 2006 so this one was projected as the sport returning after over a decade to the hometown of the Chief Minister who was a Patron of the Indian Polo Association.

The Gurgaon Polo and Equestrian Club founded on 300 acres along the Aravalli Range in 2015 was acquired by Sanjay Jindal’s Ess Jay Pegasus Sports Foundation in September 2018 and renamed La Pegasus Polo Center. It has collaborated with the Associacion Argentina de Polo for coaching Indian players and hosting international matches. The Center will eventually be turned into a polo and lifestyle hospitality destination where night riding and arena polo will take place. Riding and polo classes will also be held.

In years to come, there are plans for polo matches to be held in Gurugram, Noida, Delhi, Jaipur, Bengaluru and Mumbai.

The Jaipur Riding and Polo Club, a private body situated at Sirsi village on the outskirts of Jaipur, promotes “the revival of Jaipur’s golden age of equestrian glory”. It teaches novices how to play, whereas experienced riders practice under the aegis of their Polo Clinics.

Painful Performances for Ponies

Like race horses, Polo ponies are also pushed to perform beyond their endurance limits for which drugs are often administered illegally and unethically. The ponies are usually not bred specially for polo, but are retired race horses, or equines from the defence forces which makes Polo a second career for them. Abandonment or euthanasia readily occur if the animals do not learn and adjust, under-perform, get injured, or become too expensive to maintain.

It is physically and mentally painful for a Polo pony to learn (training – rather intimidation – extends up to 2 years) to suddenly stop and turn with minimal neck rein and leg cues and at the same time be able to run at 50 kms per hour in close proximity of other ponies with riders atop.

Use of the Pelhams bit is one of the worst animal abuses because it hurts and hardens the pony’s mouth far more than any other bit would even though all bits including a single jointed snaffle are painful because they hurt the soft pallet of the horse’s mouth.

So it is the bit, as well as the bridle, whip and spur that are repeatedly used to hurt and bring the ponies (horses are highly strung animals) under control so they learn to remain calm and responsive under pressure and do not get excited.

Moreover, the lives of all polo ponies are at stake, given the fact that within a span of a fortnight in September 2018 two polo ponies were found dead in the same stables at the Army Polo & Riding Club in New Delhi.

Dangerous for Players and Ponies

Players have described their horses as “equipment” even though they begin learning on wooden horses. Ponies can get accidentally hit by a mallet and are therefore made to wear bandages on their legs as protection. Their manes are shaved and their tails are braided and folded up with tape so that the players’ mallets and reins do not get entangled in them.


The game of kings is gravely dangerous for the mounts (as the ponies are referred to) and the players who cover themselves with protective gear such as helmets, face guards, shatter-proof eye protection lenses, riding shoes, wrist bands, elbow and knee pads.

Teams consisting of 3 or 4 riders on horseback play polo with the aim of scoring goals. After every chukker (a round of 7 minutes repeated 4, 6 or 8 times during a match) each player dismounts. After an interval of 3 minutes the player gets onto another horse becaue the animal is too exhausted to carry on playing. For example, a 6 chukker match will require a minimum of 50 horses: 2 teams x 4 players per team x 6 chukkers = 48 horses + 2 horses for the 2 umpires.

The equipment used consists of a ball made of bamboo, leather covered cork, hard rubber, willow root or of plastic these days, leather saddles, stirrups and shields. Whereas the mallet comprises of a manaucane shaft with a rubber-wrapped grip and a webbed thong called a sling for wrapping around the thumb and a wooden cigar shaped head.

The extreme stress and strain which starts during training often causes these ponies to get heart attacks during practice or to eventually collapse and die in-between or immediately after a match. For example, in 2013 at Jaipur 2 horses dropped dead during the HH Sawai Bhawani Singh Cup at the Ramabagh Polo Ground. The first one that belonged to an Indian team died just 4 minutes into the game, and the second horse from Argentina crashed to the ground during the 4th chukker.

Elsewhere another pony got a heart attack and died in 2014. Just as well that under India’s Import Policy, importing horses for Polo was “restricted” with effect from 11 July 2014.

Interestingly, polo is dangerous for birds too. For example, at the Cavalry Gold Cup 2017 in Delhi over a dozen birds were seen on the field during matches. Some that were flying low luckily escaped being hit by a mallet, ball, or even kicked by the horses.

Say NO to Pony Polo

It was unfortunate for ponies when in 2015 on a visit to Mahableshwar, the Governor of Maharashtra Shri C Vidyasagar Rao suggested the revival of the sport on the Polo ground that had not been used since the British left India. It meant de-reserving forest land and the Indian Polo Association together with The Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation was granted permission to use the ground in March 2016 for an exhibition game. However, the Forest Department made it clear that it would not allow any trees on the fringes to be cut to increase the area of the ground.

The glamour of polo and horse racing events have some how managed to effectively cover-up the exploitation poor horses undergo… a throwback to the British Raj which must be abolished sooner rather than later.

Page last updated on 21/07/20