Polo, one of the oldest of all equestrian sports, traces its origins to Iran. Estimates of when the game was first played range from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. The game represented a mock battle and was played with sides of up to 100 players each made up of the king’s guard and other troops. It was used as a form of military training.
Ancient Iran was known as Persia, and polo became Persia’s national sport, played only by the nobility. The game eventually spread to other parts of Central Asia. “Polo” is a word that comes from the Balti language, spoken by the Balti people of Tibetan ethnicity who live primarily in Northern India and Pakistan. It simply means “ball.” By the 10th century CE, polo had reached China and Japan.
Islamic conquerors brought polo to India in the 13th century. Europeans first witnessed the game of polo being played in the 17th century, but did not play the game themselves until India was part of the British Empire. British tea planters formed the first European polo club in India in 1859, and from then the sport became enormously popular in England.
The sport was well-established in England by 1875, brought home by military veterans returning from service in India. It continued to be popular with members of the military and also spread to the nobility and royalty as well as to universities.
Polo reached in the United States in 1876 through the English journalist James Gordon Bennett. The rules of the American game were standardized in 1890 by the United States Polo Association. An important early polo player in the U.S. was August Belmont, the German-born financier and thoroughbred horse breeder for whom the Belmont Stakes is named.
International polo competition began in 1886 when the U.S. challenged the English. The English won this first contest. The competition repeated intermittently until 1936 with the Americans coming away with the majority of wins.
Argentina saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of polo throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and the Cup of the Americas (Copa de las Americas) competition was first played between the United States and Argentina in 1928. The South American nation adopted polo as its national sport and was soon recognized as the undisputed international master of the sport. Argentina’s gaucho culture, based on raising cattle as an economic activity, contributed hearty polo ponies and sturdy equestrians to Argentina’s dominance of the sport.