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The World of UK Polo

by Vicky Fenner

Polo is believed to be the oldest team sport in the world and its origins lie in Persia (Iran) where the first recorded polo match is said to have taken place in 600 BC between the Persians and the Turkomans. The Moguls were largely responsible for the introduction of polo into India in the 13th Century, however this form of the sport was very different to the one many know and love today. The British tea planters and British Army cavalry regiments later discovered the game in the 1850s in Manipur, on the Burmese border with India and the first polo club was formed at Silchar in 1862. The Calcutta Polo Club was also founded in 1862 and is known today as the oldest polo club in the world. The British Army regiments adopted the sport and adapted the rules before importing it to the Western world.

It was in 1869 that Edward “Chicken” Hartopp of the 10th Hussars, first read an account of the sport in “The Field” magazine and organised the very first game in England with the help of some of his fellow officers who were stationed at Aldershot. This inaugural match took place between a team of officers from the 10th Hussars and another team from the 9th Lancers on a very hastily rolled Hounslow Heath. Then known as “hockey on horseback” and despite having very little knowledge of the rules of polo, others were quick to follow suit and the 1st Life Guards and the Royal Horse Guards also staged a polo match on grounds at Hounslow in Richmond Park. The officers were mounted on cavalry horses and used walking sticks and a cricket ball for their first attempts at the sport. Others are also believed to have used golf clubs and a billiard ball. It soon became evident that cavalry horses were not suited to polo, so Captain William Chaine of the 10th Hussars was sent to Ireland to buy more suitable ponies. He returned with seventeen ponies and the Hussars began to practice in earnest. A ground was rolled and marked and the 10th Hussars challenged the 9th Lancers to a second match, a challenge that was eagerly accepted. This resulted in the first properly organised polo match taking place on Hounslow Heath on 28th June 1870. 1872 saw the first polo club in England founded in Monmouthshire by Capt. Francis “Tip” Herbert of the 7th Lancers.

Three years after the game had been brought over to the UK, it was still known as “hockey on horseback” and was played mostly at a walk with a long hockey stick and various different types of balls, a cricket ball painted white being the most popular option. The equipment needed improving and eventually long handled sticks and wooden white balls the sizes of a cricket ball were introduced. Another prominent polo ground at the time could be found in the Lillie Bridge area in West Brompton. Here matches would take place between the Household Cavalry and the Light Cavalry. In 1874 the Hurlingham Club in Fulham, London began to cater for polo players and under the leadership of the Hon. Debonair John Monson it quickly became the central hub for the sport of polo. Oxford and Cambridge University also founded polo clubs in 1874 and 1873 respectively. The very first inter-university match (later known as the Varsity Match) took place in 1878, with Oxford securing the win.

The sport at this time was very much dominated by army officers, with the majority of cavalry regiments in Britain and India having their own polo clubs. After the success and popularity of the game in the UK, others followed suit such as Australia and the United States of America. In 1883 the Hurlingham Polo Committee made a very important decision to limit the number of players in a team to four a side, which greatly increased the speed of the game. Similar to the game of golf, which introduced handicaps in 1842, polo also used handicaps to reflect a player’s level of ability, but these were not introduced in India and England until 1910. Handicaps ranged from 0 to 10, 10 signalling the best players in the world. Polo ponies are known for being relatively small, but it wasn’t until 1919 when the height restriction rules on polo ponies were lifted.

The Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA)

The Hurlingham Polo Association, more commonly known as the HPA, is the governing body for the sport of polo in the UK, Ireland and a variety of other countries worldwide. The HPA is responsible for the rules and regulations of the sport and these are to be followed whenever polo is played. The ultimate aim of the HPA is to further the interests of polo and support the polo clubs and associations that they are affiliated to in any way that they can.

Hurlingham became the headquarters of polo in 1875. The Hurlingham Polo Committee also drew up the very first set of English rules for polo in that same year. In 1903, the committee was re-named The Hurlingham Club Polo Committee and expansion meant that representatives of the Services, the County Polo Association, the three London polo clubs – Hurlingham, Ranelagh and Roehampton, as well as associations throughout the Empire, were included on the Council. It wasn’t until 1925 that The Hurlingham Club Polo Committee became the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA), the name it still holds today. In 1949, the County Polo Association, which had been set up in 1898 to look after the interests of the country polo clubs and the running of the County Cup tournaments, was incorporated into the HPA.

The Second World War meant that polo once again came to a halt in England, with many of the pitches being used to help the war effort. It was not until 1952 that polo was officially restarted and the HPA worked from their new base at Cowdray. Since then the HPA has moved to Kirtlington in 1989 and to its current location of Little Coxwell, Farringdon near Cirencester in 2000. In 1999 David Woodd became Chief Executive of the HPA, taking over from Buff Crisp. The directors of the company are known as the Stewards and they form the executive committee, which usually meets four times throughout the year. The HPA is divided into sub committees in order to deal with the many different aspects of the sport.

An important part of the HPA’s work includes promoting the development of the sport amongst the next generation of polo players. As well as working with the Pony Club and running the Junior HPA Polo scheme, the HPA also runs a scholarship scheme that enables young polo players to travel abroad to improve their polo skills and knowledge and to help them learn to look after polo ponies. Today, the HPA consists of the following number of clubs and associations: 59 outdoor clubs in the UK, 7 outdoor clubs in Ireland, 28 arena clubs in the UK & Ireland, 6 associations in the UK & Ireland and 32 overseas clubs and associations.

Polo Clubs in the UK

Polo Clubs in the UK
All polo clubs in Great Britain at a glance. Please click on the picture for a bigger view. (© POLO+10)

Main Tournaments

With so many clubs across the UK offering polo, there are a huge variety of tournaments on offer to polo players every season and at all different levels of ability. However, the UK is known for its extremely prestigious high goal season, which for many starts with the Prince of Wales Trophy at The Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club at the end of May. Similarly to Argentina, England also has a British Triple Crown for Polo consisting of the Warwickshire Cup, The Queen’s Cup and The Gold Cup. Only one team has managed to win all three consecutively, Sam Vestey’s Stowell Park team, who achieved this feat in 1973 and again in 1978.

The Queen’s Cup was inaugurated in 1960 when Her Majesty The Queen presented the Cup to Guards Polo Club. Since then, it has become a tradition that The Queen attends Finals Day and presents the winning patron with the cup. Played annually in June at Guards, The Queen’s Cup is the first of the British Triple Crown Series and is played as a 22-goal tournament. Every year it attracts leading players and patrons from all over the world and has been sponsored by Cartier for the past three years.

The Warwickshire Cup is the oldest high goal trophy in England, with the cup itself dating back to 1894 when the trophy was presented to the newly founded Warwickshire Polo Club. The cup was played for here until 1913, when the club closed. The Warwickshire Cup then moved to Roehampton, one of the three major London clubs at that time, before that also closed in 1956. The HPA then decided to give the trophy to Cirencester Park Polo Club and it has remained there ever since. Initially played for as an exhibition match during the County Cup week, it later became a prize for a Gold Cup quarter final qualifier match until 1970. It was only after this that it became a high goal tournament in its own right and now has teams of handicaps of between 17 to 22 goals competing to win this historic trophy. Urs & Guy Schwarzenbach’s Black Bears team have been the most successful, winning the cup a total of six times between 1988 and 2005. The finals are traditionally played in June, but from 2009 onwards, they were moved to the beginning of August, causing the English high goal season to be extended by two weeks and meaning fewer teams entered as players chose to move on to play in Deauville or Sotogrande. 2012 saw Bledisloe House take over as the title sponsor of the tournament and in 2014 the finals returned to their original place in the fixture list, between the Queen’s Cup and the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup for the British Open Polo Championships is one of the most important tournaments of the British polo season and completes the British Triple Crown series. Since its creation in 1956, the tournament has gained in popularity and year by year it sees patrons and professional players from all over the world gather in Midhurst, West Sussex to compete for the coveted title of British Open Polo Champions. The tournament is played annually over a two-week period in July at Cowdray Park Polo Club with teams of 22 goals competing and has for the past twenty years been sponsored by the champagne company Veuve Clicquot. From 2015 onwards, Jaeger-LeCoultre will be the title sponsor of the tournament. The list of players and teams who have competed for this prestigious trophy over the years reads like a Who’s Who of polo and includes teams such as Black Bears, Lechuza Caracas, Zacara and Dubai. The 2014 edition of the tournament saw Rashid Albwardy’s Dubai team take on newcomers to the tournament, King Power, with Dubai securing their victory with a final score of 13-11.

The International Series, sponsored by Audi since 2012, comprises three international test matches during the course of the UK polo season. The first of these takes place at Beaufort Polo Club in June and this year saw England take on and win against the Goldin Hong Kong team. The second of the test matches is easily the most well known of the three, as it traditionally takes place the weekend after the Gold Cup final and is one of the highlights of the social calendar. Hosted at Guards Polo Club, England and its opponents traditionally play for the Coronation Cup. The Coronation Cup was first presented in 1911 on the coronation of King George V and was won by the Indian Polo Association in that year. 1951 marked the first year that the Coronation Cup was contested as an international match and it has continued as such since 1953. 2014’s International Day at Guards saw England face their toughest opponents, Argentina. Despite a fantastic effort from the England team, Argentina with the unstoppable combination of Adolfo Cambiaso and Facundo Pieres, managed to win the match and the Coronation Cup with a final score of 13-8. The third test match of the series took place at the beginning of September at Chester Racecourse Polo Club, with England securing their second win of the series against the Rest of the World team.

The County Cup is the second longest running polo trophy in the world and is the prize for England’s 15-goal Championships. The County Cup was inaugurated in 1885 as a tournament for provincial British teams. Records show that the Gloucestershire were the first team to ever win the County Cup. In its early years, the cup was rotated between various polo clubs, but since 1951 it has been played for at the Cirencester Park Polo Club. Today it forms a part of the Victor Ludorum – a league that is played nationally at all of the key levels in polo, 18, 15, 12, 8 and 6 goals. The County Cup is played for today as a qualifier in the 15-goal division and therefore promises a high and exciting level of polo.

The Westchester Cup is undoubtedly polo’s oldest and most prestigious international trophy. Also known as the International Polo Cup, it was created in 1886 when a team from the United States played against an English team to win the cup. Originally the match was played as a best of three games but it was later decided that it would be played for as a single match. It was also made into a continuing competition between the two countries and a total of 12 matches were played between 1886 and 1939. The tournament then saw a long break before being revived in 1992. The most recent match for the Westchester Cup was held at Guards Polo Club at the Audi International Day on 28th July 2013. This was the first UK staging of the cup in 16 years and saw the England side come out victorious. The US currently holds the record for the most wins since the cup’s inception with ten victories to England’s seven.

The Varsity Polo Match is an annual polo match played between Oxford University and Cambridge University. It counts as one of the oldest continuous polo fixtures and is also known as the Inter-University Challenge Cup. The teams are also known as the “Blues”, owing to the colours that they play in; Oxford in their dark blue shirts and Cambridge in their light blue shirts. The teams compete to win the Challenge Cup, a cup that was presented by the Hurlingham Club in 1920. Since 1994, the Varsity Match has taken place at the prestigious Guards Polo Club in early June, but prior to this it had been held in a number of different locations including the Hurlingham Club and Cowdray Park. A number of notable polo figures have taken part in this match over the years, including Prince Charles, Prince Harry and Claire Tomlinson.

Youth Development

Polo is continuously growing and developing as a sport and it is therefore of crucial importance that the next generation of players have access to the sport as well as support and coaching to develop them as players. The set up of youth polo in the UK is very good with a number of different options available to youngsters keen to give the sport a go.

Pony Club Polo: The first of these is the Pony Club, which has members ranging from as young as 4 or 5 years old all the way up to the age of 21. The Pony Club is an international voluntary youth organisation for young people who are interested in ponies and riding. Founded in 1929 in the UK, there are now around 345 branches, 600 centres and 50,000 members in the UK alone. The Pony Club also has a worldwide presence working in 27 different countries.

Pony Club Polo has been on offer since 1933 but it was not until 1959 when Brigadier Jack Gannon and Major Claude Davenport organised five branch teams to play at Mons Officer Cadet School, Aldershot, on 8th September, 1959 that the current form of Pony Club Polo was established. The aims of Pony Club Polo are to offer children an introduction to the sport and help them to understand the principles of polo whilst having fun and learning to work together as a team. It also aids in spotting the upcoming talents of the next generation of players and training them to make the most of their skills. Pony Club Polo provides a useful bridge to the adult game of polo and allows children to play with others their own age before going on to play with adults.

Pony Club Polo is available all year round, with an arena tournament at Easter as well as training courses throughout the UK in the Easter and summer holidays. The summer season is undoubtedly the busiest, starting off with the branch organised training sessions. These are followed by friendly tournaments and then the qualifying tournaments, which take place all over the UK in the month preceding the Championships. The Pony Club Polo Championships then take place at the beginning of August at Cowdray Park Polo Club, with the best teams in each section competing against each other, as they have done every year since 1977. Another highlight of the Pony Club Polo calendar is the annual pony club parade that takes place at the International Day in July at Guards Polo Club. The parade usually includes the winners at each level of the previous year, around 40 players and their ponies.

The incredible popularity of Pony Club Polo is clearly evident with the steadily increasing number of teams taking part every year, and with teams often coming all the way from Scotland and Ireland to participate. A staggering 77 teams from 30 different branches competed in the Championships in 2013, a large increase in the few years since 56 teams took part in the 50th Anniversary Championships in 2009. The Gannon section is the flagship competition of Pony Club Polo. The Pony Club has been the starting point for many of today’s well-known British polo players, highlighted by the fact that three of the four members of the England team that played in the Westchester Cup in 2013 had previously been participants of Pony Club Polo. Other well known Pony Club participants include George and Charlie Hanbury, Ollie Cudmore, Alastair Patterson and Matt Perry, who all started their polo careers with the Pony Club and have gone on to play professionally.

British Junior Polo: 2014 saw the introduction of the British Junior Polo Championships for the first time, a series of matches run in conjunction with the Pony Club Polo Championships and organised by the HPA. HPA-approved team managers enter teams for the three different sections of the championships. No player may play in more than one of the sections. These championships start at the beginning of July with the finals also taking place the weekend of the Pony Club Polo Championships. Players are also able to take part in the Pony Club Championships, as long as they are members of the Pony Club.

Under 21 Domestic: there are a variety of further matches run separately by the HPA that provide an opportunity to showcase up-and-coming talented young polo players. These teams are made up of players under the age of 21 who have been selected based on their individual performance and sportsmanship throughout a season playing in the HPA, Junior HPA or Pony Club.

SUPA – Schools and Universities Polo Association: the Schools and Universities Polo Association was founded in 1991 to promote the development and organisation of the sport of polo to many different teaching institutions throughout the UK. SUPA promotes and organises matches as well as promoting safety around horses and the importance of developing teamwork from a young age. It also lays the foundations for the future of polo as SUPA helps to bring on young and talented players who will become the next generation of polo players. SUPA has well over 2,000 members of varying ages and abilities and works with four different sectors; the first of these being the Junior Schools sector for children under the age of 13, which was inaugurated into SUPA in 1997. The next sector is Senior Schools, comprising of over 25 schools – both state and public. The Universities sector includes over 45 universities across the UK who regularly provide teams or players at matches and tournaments. The last of the four sectors is the Alumni sector. This is also known as SAPA (Schools Alumni Polo Association) and is an amateur polo association designed for those who have left full time education but wish to continue playing polo. SAPA also organises a range of tournaments and matches.

Many players start their polo careers with SUPA and this directly supports the UK polo industry through coaching, pony hire and umpiring. Schools with polo clubs nearby will often organise for groups of students to go down to the club and practice at least once a week. This will either be as an extra curricular activity or some schools even offer polo as part of the sports curriculum, allowing students to play at least twice a week. Universities also organise for groups to practice with weekly lessons or chukkas and an incredible 1,500 regularly attend these and make the most of the discounted prices. SUPA uses the HPA Coaching scheme to instruct players at all levels, from complete beginners to those who wish to improve their skills. The association has therefore accredited various coaches throughout the UK, who provide good instruction and management of teams and enable students to learn in a safe environment. SUPA is also beneficial to polo clubs as many students continue to play after they have left full time education, often coming back to the clubs they learnt to play at and becoming members there.

The association supports its members throughout the year by offering a range of tournaments and matches, both in the arena and outdoors on grass. All levels of experience are catered for with a packed fixture list in both winter and summer. SUPA also organises a number of other events throughout the summer season, which give SUPA the chance to showcase some of its best players. These are invitational matches and teams are chosen through the attendance of Trial Days. One player is selected by their coach from each school or university and attends a trial day where SUPA committee members select up to 16 players to form part of the national representative teams. These players will then be chosen to play in a number of exhibition matches throughout the season or at the International Festival, which takes place in July. Over the years, visiting teams have come from countries such as New Zealand, Kenya, Nigeria, UAE and ­Argentina.

Hurlingham Polo Association:

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