When polo was introduced to Britain from India in the 1860s, it became almost exclusively the preserve of the military and the sons of a handful of rich families. Most men did not start playing until their twenties, and there were few female players, but it quickly caught on among cavalry officers and was recognised as developing important qualities such as quickness, strength, endurance and good horsemanship, as well as sword skills.
Soldiers, ranchers and engineers posted or seeking their fortune abroad then introduced the game to Argentina, Australia, Chile, Egypt, New Zealand and South Africa, and it soon became popular across Europe. Americans who watched it being played in Britain were so enamoured of it, in turn, that they took it back to the United States. These multicultural formative years led to modern polo being pithily described as a game invented by the British, perfected by the Americans and dominated by the Argentinians.
The oldest polo tournament in the world, the British Inter-Regimental, was first held in 1878. That year also saw the first Oxford vs Cambridge match, which continues, highly contested, to this day. Tournaments were also played at the major London polo clubs between teams made up of the old boys of the country's leading public schools, and between members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The British Royals took a keen interest in the game from its inception, and the family's involvement has continued unbroken, with Princes William and Harry both being
Fast-forward to today and the predominantly adult-male culture that characterised
polo at the outset is long gone - it is now one of the few team sports in which some of the major cups are played for by teams of male and female members, and many younger players are swelling the ranks. At Cirencester and Cowdray Parks, much of the credit for the game becoming popular with a younger demographic is down to the efforts of the Pony Club. In 1959, five Pony Club branches held their first polo tournament. At that time, there were fewer than 500 people who played in Britain, of which around 100 were serving with the British Army on the Rhine. Today, there are more than 30 Pony Club branches that offer polo and about 1,000 young people who play via the Club or their school or university, as well as 3,000 professional or club-level players.
In recent years, around 60 Pony Club teams from across the country have qualified
to play in the championships, which culminate in the finals held at Cowdray Park. Some of the
talented players who learnt basic polo skills in the Pony Club have gone on to benefit from the
fast-track and Burlingham Polo Association overseas bursary schemes awarded each year.
In 1991, the Schools and Universities Polo Association was formed to promote polo among students and there are now more than 2,000 participants - 40 per cent of them girls - making it the largest youth polo programme in the world. One of Britain's most famous former players, HRH The Prince of Wales, writes on the website of Cambridge University Polo Club that support for polo at university is helping to ensLffe the game is 'open to all of those who have the spirit and determination to play'.
The impact of the success of the Pony Club in developing British polo talent over the past 50 years can be illustrated by comparing the backgrounds of Britain's top players 100 years ago with that of its current leading lights. The best in Britain in 1913 were Captain Leslie Cheape, Frederick Freake, twins Rivy and Captain Francis Grenfell, Captain John Harclress Lloyd, Pat Nickalls and Lord Wodehouse. All had played their first matches as part of their army training or had taken up the sport while at Oxford or Cambridge. In stark contrast, of the highest-handicapped players in Britain in 2013, the brothers Luke and Mark fomlinson, James Beim, Chris Hyde, Tom Morley, James Harper, Henry Brett, Satnam Dhillon and Nacho Gonzalez all started their polo-playing careers as members of their local Pony Club.
Alongside the thousands of children taking JP the game, there are enthusiastic adult new comers too, and almost every club in Britain nas a team of coaches that offer lessons for beginners. Even if they haven't yet taken part, an increasing number of people are watching the sport - the highlight of the polo year, the Audi International, held at Guards Polo Club, features Britain's best players in a match against another top polo-playing country such as America, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile or South Africa, and always draws in a crowd of at least 15,000. In keeping with efforts to 82 open it up to all and attract and entertain new audiences, polo's format has also been radically rethought: in recent years, it has been played indoors at the 02 Arena, on the beach at Poole Harbour in Dorset, and with new rules at Polo in the Park, at Hurlingham in London. Sylvester Stallone, who was a keen participant in the sport, said of polo that 'it's like trying to play golf during an earthquake'. It would appear that, for more and more British people, of all generations and from every walk of life, that is a very attractive challenge indeed.