Polo Week: The End of the Original Polo Pony?

The pastime of the royals, which originated in India’s North-east, is facing extinction in its birthplace. Unless urgent steps are taken to conserve Manipuri polo ponies, this magnificent breed of horses will be on its way to oblivion. Over the past few years, say sources in the state veterinary and animal husbandry department, the population of the Manipur pony breed has been dwindling. In the last livestock census done in 2007, the number had dropped to 1,037, a steep decline from the figure of 1,893 estimated during the 2003 census. A Food and Agriculture Organisation publication on the World Watch List on Domestic Animal Diversity has listed the breed as “an endangered animal.”

From the Hindustan Times. A history of polo in Manipur.

Polo Week: Luminous Balls and Bonds of Friendship

“Superficial observers regard the game as a mere amusement, and consider it mere play, but men of more exalted views see in it a means of learning promptitude and decision. Strong men learn, in playing the game, the art of riding, and the animals learn to perform feats of agility and to obey the reins. It tests the value of a man and strengthens bonds of friendship. Hence His Majesty is very fond of this game.”

From Abu I-Fazl Allami’s The Institutes of Akbar or Ain i Akbari (1590). Allami was adviser to the third Mughal emperor, Akbar, who used to play polo at night with luminous balls made of palas tree wood.

Quoted in “From Iran to All of Asia: The Origin and Diffusion of Polo,” by H E Chehabi and Allen Guttmann in Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 19, June–September 2002.

Polo Week: The Imperial Polo Ritual

An account of a polo ritual in China under the Sung dynasty (960 – 1279 aD). The somewhat reserved and “civilised” Sung dynasty followed the T’ang dynasty, which was far more keen on actually playing polo.

“The emperor arrived on horseback. … A eunuch opened a golden box, took out the vermillion-painted ball, and threw it in front of him. … The emperor struck the ball …. and then turned his horse around. The attending officials raised their wine cups to wish His Majesty longevity. Then they presented their respective gifts. The emperor graciously ordered that their cups be refilled and they came forward by rows to thank him, bowing. When the drinking ritual was concluded, everyone mounted. The emperor hit the ball a second time, and then ordered the players to start the game.”

Sung Shih, quoted and translated by James T C Liu in “Polo and Cultural Change: From T’ang to Sung China” in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. 45, no. 1, 1985.

Minus the eunuch, doesn’t sound like it would be out of place at a modern game.

Hopped up on Polo

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Polo at Hoppegarten, including some shots of the overgrown steeplechase course that time forgot. Beautiful beautiful Hoppegarten! I’m not a very good photographer and tried to snatch some shots by focusing on the spotty pony playing in the last chukka, with mixed results. The polo pony of the tournament is shown grazing in the last shot.

Whole Heap of Little Horse Links

Manmade Monsters and Chimeras

There are periodic mutterings about the discovery of a “speed gene” for Thoroughbreds, but on the whole, horse racing takes what is now a refreshingly old-fashioned approach to horse breeding: no artificial insemination, no embryo transfer and absolutely no cloning. The sire and dam actually have to meet in person, as it were, and the mares can only have one foal a year, and the stallions a restricted amount.

News that polo is breaking into cloning comes via the  Guardian:

Cambiaso, widely considered the world’s best player, has teamed up with a US laboratory, Crestview Genetics, to preserve and replicate the genes of renowned horses. A clone of Cuartetera, a mare, fetched $800,000 (£490,000) at a Buenos Aires auction last year.

“Throughout the sport everybody’s talking about what’s going to happen with cloning. There is a big internal debate,” Guillermo Buchanan, the president of the veterinary commission of the Argentinian Association of Polo Pony Breeders told BBC Mundo this week.

“We look at all ways to artificially reproduce and genetically improve. But in this case we are dealing with copying an animal and now we are looking at how to regulate that,” he added.

Top polo horses are routinely castrated and so cannot breed. The high price fetched by Cuartetara’s clone grabbed the attention of other players and breeders who see potential huge profits, and stellar performances, in replicated thoroughbreds.

Imagine a string of cloned polo ponies for a single team…

The clone of top showjumper Gem Twist is now a three-year-old, and I’m sure there are more clones on the way wherever money is thickest in the horse world, although I’m not convinced that mere genes alone create a top competitor. I also rather mourn the days when a horse like Pat Smythe’s Finality could sweep all before her, despite being the result of an unplanned liaison between the milkman’s mare and a passing stallion.

Horses do not clone themselves in nature, of course, but they do occasionally throw up a chimera: an animal with two DNA types. The brindle quarter horse stallion, Dunbar’s Gold, is one example. Read more about him here, or sign up to The Horse for a two-part detailed article.