By Lisa Dante
As much as horses are associated with Texas, I can tell you without a doubt that the game of polo did not originate here. No, not even close. Polo dates back to Persia in the 6th century BC. It was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or other elite troops. Warlike tribesmen also played it with as many as 100 to a side. Now fast forward a few centuries and you will find that modern polo was introduced to India by the Muslim conquerors in the 13th century.
The game as we know it today, is played on horseback between two teams of four players each. They use mallets with long flexible handles to drive a wooden ball down a grass field and between two goal posts. It’s certainly the oldest of equestrian sports.
So when exactly did the game arrive in Texas?
It’s hard to say. Research proves there’s a “gray area” when it comes to nailing down, exactly, where the first polo game was played in the United States. But, in the early 1870s a British Captain, William Michael Glynn Turquand retired to the area around Boerne, Texas. He knew that one of the best ways to prepare horses for the rigors of military life was to train them to become polo ponies. In 1883 Captain Turquand formed the Texas Polo Club and an exhibition game was held in San Antonio. This event is believed to be the first polo game played in Texas.
A Remarkable True Texas Tale Of Cowboy Polo Ponies And More
First of all, in case you didn’t know, a horse used in the game of polo is called a pony, but that is only a reference to their agile type rather than their size. Almost all polo ponies are “horse-sized.” Today, most polo ponies stand around 15 hands. Various breeds used include mountain ponies from the Himalayas, Manipur ponies, Arabians and the ever-popular Thoroughbreds.
Keeping all that in mind, the following is an excerpt from the book, “They Slept Upon Their Rifles,” written by Marshall E. Kuykendall. He is a rancher, author, historian and scion of one of the first families of Texas (the Old Three Hundred) and has documented the migration of his family into Texas in the 1800s.
“Bill Kuykendall , born in 1899 (was Marshall’s father) and became a very well known polo player in a very short time. He only played from 1930 to 1939. In one of the first tournaments he was in that was held in Arlington, Texas, his fledgling inexperienced team won the tournament!
He and his team of four, had only one groomsman, and only took two or three horses a piece to play in this major tournament. The horses were unroached, meaning long-manned and their tails were not tied up. The reason for both was so that your mallet didn’t get tangled up in the horse’s mane and tail.
A polo game is very grueling and has several periods called chukkers. (An Indian name from India, where modern polo was started.) The maximum duration of play in a match is eight chukkers of seven and a half minutes each with intervals of three minutes after each chukker. The horses are required to run full-out through one of these chukkers and all polo players had to bring enough horses to change at least one time per chukker, which meant they brought eight to ten horses per player.
Bill and his group took only about eight to ten horses total for ALL of them and they didn’t have a groomsman for each player. This was unheard of in the social circles of polo playing where everyone could afford a groomsman. How uncivilized!
The groomsman was the fellow who saddled the horses, got them ready to play and held them at the ready so when a player needed to rush over and mount another horse, the horse was saddled and ready to go at moment’s notice.
When Bill and his group arrived in Arlington, Texas, for the big shindig, the social group of polo folks there would have very little to do with these upstarts from the Hill Country of Texas. Remember that in 1932, the Army cavalry had big, well known polo teams.
Teams from Fort Sill Oklahoma and Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio were present. Fourteen teams were represented in that particular tournament which were some of the very best in the Southwest.
Polo players have handicaps just like in golf. They are handicapped from one goal to ten goals, meaning that’s how many goals each player could possibly make in any given game. Needless to say, Bill’s team was almost in the minus numbers, since they had so little experience. They were rated at about four or five goals total for their team. The other teams were so highly rated that they thought that would not be a problem.
The tournaments are structured in brackets where the winners advance and the losers drop out. For instance, if Bill’s team was scheduled to play, let’s say the team from Wichita Falls, Texas, when the game started, Bill’s team already had a five goal advantage. Then Bill’s team beat the other team on the “flats,” meaning they beat them seven to six actual goals. In other words, Bill’s team scored seven actual goals, and the other good, well- known team could score only six actual goals. The teams were stunned! Remember this is in the 1930s.
Bill’s team played the next team in line and beat them also. The players were so impressed with the ruffians from the Hill Country that they sent down their groomsman from the other teams, roached Bill’s horses manes and tied up their tails. It was a gallant thing to do. Bill’s team ended up winning the tournament and their names made the rounds as the newcomers to watch out for.
But How Did He Do It?
I asked Bill, my dad, how he did it. His answer was simple and interesting. There were plenty of top-notch horsemen among the cavalry and among the private teams. Men who knew how to ride well and could hit a polo ball. Dad and his teammates were top cowboys who road superb horses and could hit the polo ball fairly well too. The difference was in the horses and the horsemanship. Dad’s horses could outrun just about everybody on the field and the cowboys were better horsemen than the others on that particular day, by-and-large. So they simply out-horsed them and were able to steal the ball away enough to score enough goals to win the games.
Dad bought most of his horses from Roy Stubbs of Johnson City, Texas. There was a reason for that. Horses raised in real rough, rocky country will NEVER fall with you. Horses raised in blackland or sand, where most folks think they should be raised, will fall all the time when put to the test. Dad, bless his heart, was rough on horses and if one fell with him under any condition, he was gone from the ranch by sundown no questions asked. (Cattle ranching was a tough business back in those days.) You take Sutton Croft or Ralph Robinson, or dad, these men who rode horses every single day for their livelihood.
These men would run a horse across the slippery rocks in the bottom of the Pedernales River or the honeycomb rocks around Onion Creek and rope a big Brahma bull on a short 30 foot rope tied to their saddle and dare their horses to fall with them. These men were Texas Hill Country cowboys, and damn good ones.”
Today, Polo is played around the world, even in the snow! In January of 2024, St. Moritz turns into the world capital of polo. Snow polo premiered in 1985 and is the only high-goal tournament on snow.
And did you think that only horses are used while playing polo? Nope, how about elephants and camels. What an interesting game that must be!
If horses are your preference, (ha, ha) there are many reputable Polo clubs right here in Texas. Almost every major city in Texas has one with upcoming matches.
In the words of Will Rogers…
“After seeing kids play polo against big guys, it only shows that horses are the greatest equalizer in the world. No matter what you weigh, the little fellow is your equal on a horse.”