Winston Churchill, who played polo internationally, famously said ‘A polo handicap is a passport to the world’. Brennan Wells, who represented the United States at the 11th Manipur Polo International Invitational in Imphal, Manipur, India in November, knows firsthand how true that is.
Brennan, a senior at Hereford High School in Parkton, MD, and his sister Marissa are third generation polo players whose parents and grandfathers played the game. In 2013 the Wells family traveled to Zimbabwe where Kelly and Marissa played in a women’s tournament. In November Brennan and Kelly, who runs Marlan Farms in Freeland, MD, a polo school specializing in interscholastic polo, traveled to India, just days before Brennan’s 18th birthday.
Brennan had been spotted by Ed Armstrong, manager of the American International Polo Foundation, at the US Polo National Youth Tournament Series Finals in Santa Barbara, CA in early September. Armstrong needed a two-goal player for the team and was impressed with Brennan.
The Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association, which held the tournament, calls itself the ‘oldest living polo ground in the world’, and Wikipedia reports that polo has been played there since the seventh century. The British learned of polo during the 19th century while watching it played in that area, which borders Nepal and Mongolia.
Teams from the US, Argentina, Britain, Morocco, and two teams from India competed in the ten-goal tournament. Brennan, rated a two and the youngest player in the tournament—the player closest to his age was 23—was joined by professionals Jorge Vasquez (2), Nate Berube (2), Nick Johnson (3), and Kegan Walsh (3). (The numbers in parentheses are the players’ handicap ratings—the higher the number the better the player. Players’ handicaps are added together to get the team rating).
The polo club mounted the players on Manipuri ponies owned by local farmers in the region who “seem to rarely play polo” Brennan said. They are tended by teenaged grooms who help the players decide which pony to choose.
“I looked for ones that weren’t super energetic,” Brennan said. “At first. I was looking for ones that were energetic because I wanted one that would go. But after trial and error I found that some of the slower ones, ones that are more under control, were better than the ones that were fast and out of control.”
The ponies are small – 13 to 14 hands–and very hardy. “None are shod and the ground is very hard, they are just very hardy mountain ponies,” Kelly said. “The farmers don’t trailer them, instead they walk them from the farms though the streets to the polo grounds, where 150 ponies were housed for the week of the tournament.”
The field is smaller than an American regulation field, which changed the game quite a bit. “Normal sized horses are a lot faster,” Brennan said. On the small ponies “you can’t just get the ball and run. The game was more like soccer where you have to pass a lot. The play is choppy, there’s more bumping, it’s more a mosh pit. A lot of mallet to mallet, like indoor polo. I liked that aspect.
“I usually play with kids, not professionals,” Brennan, who is being recruited by Harvard, Cornell and the University of Virginia, said. “And I usually play the four position (defense and captain), not the one position, where the job is to score goals.”
Plans were for Brennan to be a substitute player, and his team was going to try to fit him in to give him some playing time. Those plans changed quickly. Accustomed to riding horses he’d never seen before, assigned at random, and to the shorter-field, scrappier indoor version of polo from interscholastic competition, he felt comfortable with the Indian game. The professionals, accustomed to their own finely tuned ponies and the larger outdoor field, did not make the transition as easily.
In the first match against India, USA was behind in the score after the first chukker. Brennan substituted and scored a goal. He stayed in the rest of the game, and went on to be the game’s high scorer, scoring two of the team’s three goals for a 3-2 win. After that Brennan played every chukker. The U.S. team went on to defeat defending champions England.
In their third match, which was broadcast live on prime time TV, USA tied with Argentina 4-4 (Brennan scored twice), qualifying both teams for the semifinals. In a nail-biting finish, India B defeated USA 7-6, advancing to the final and going on to win over Argentina.
In the last game, the USA coach was planning on playing the captain, Jorge Vasquez, four chukkers and the others three chukkers. “When it came for my turn to sit out, the coach was like no, you’re gonna stay in,” Brennan said.
Help with Ponies
It’s said that horses are the most important component in polo and Brennan got some help in that department. “The string manager, who oversaw all 150 ponies, knew Brennan, knew he could ride. He’s very quiet, not very bossy. Some of the players from the other teams were very aggressive and mean to the horses,” Kelly said. “You know you’re not going to get much out of these little ponies but they’re still whipping them. Brennan is a good horseman, and that guy ended up giving him the really nice horses. As the tournament progressed he kept saying ‘I’m going to hook you up. I’m going to make sure you have the good ones because you’re an asset to your team, you’re scoring a lot of goals, we want you on good horses and we see you’re not abusing them.’ Some of the other teams’ pros were angry, they wanted to win, and they were beating these little ponies. It really wasn’t cool. Brennan was fortunate and he gained the respect of the older players.”
The tournament was a big deal in the region, with daily pomp and circumstance, regional dignitaries, opening ceremonies, newspaper and tv coverage, and three to four thousand spectators a day. The players became local celebrities. “When we’d play our games, we’d have our own little crowd sitting up in the bleachers and they’d all scream,” Brennan said. “One of our group outings was to a fair, like the Maryland State Fair of the region. All the players got mobbed for photos, everyone was very nice and wanted to shake my hand and take a photo. I actually got a head cold from too many people shaking my hand.”
Rare Pony Breed
The tournament is held in part to draw attention to the rare Manipuri pony breed, which have been bred for centuries in the Manipur area of northeast India. Derived from ancient stock, the breed may stem from Tibetan ponies brought into India over a thousand years ago. Another source believes them to be a cross between the Mongolian wild horse and the Arabian, brought to India by invading Tatar tribes, who also brought the game of polo.
The population has dwindled, and estimates are that 1,000 to 2,300 ponies now remain. In 1977, the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association was established to promote the Manipuri pony breed and the game of polo. Population numbers continue to dwindle in part due to high numbers of ponies being smuggled into Myanmar, where the breed is in demand, after either having been purchased or stolen from their Indian owners. In 2005, a heritage park was begun by the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association with the goal of preventing the extinction of the breed and promoting it to tourists.
The rare breed is also under threat from flooding. A post on the club’s Facebook page in July stated, “The rising level of flood waters compounded by decreasing grazing fields will continue to be a permanent threat to the existence of the rare Manipuri Pony Breed.”
After the tournament, players took part in a game of traditional polo. No helmets, just turbans. No rules. No umpires. No shoes. “It’s the way they used to play polo in India,” Kelly said. “They dress in traditional garb, they’re supposed to play barefoot though Brennan opted to wear his shoes. They have basic mallets, just a stick on a stick. There are seven players to a side. They throw the ball up in the air to start the game rather than bowl it in, so you can catch it. The goal is just the end line. If you hit it over the end line it’s a goal and you start again.”
“It was the most fun part of the trip because it was no rules polo,” Brennan said.
Before leaving for India Brennan watched a YouTube video of the traditional game and saw players catching the ball in the lineup and running with it in hand. “The whole trip I wanted to do that,” Brennan said, and he did. “You can run with it in your hand as far as you want with everyone chasing you and trying to knock it out of your hand. but then you have to throw it in front of you and then hit it through the goal. Just to catch it is hard when you have a mallet in one hand and reins in the other. And the ponies are very squirrely, they’re all over the place, nothing like your awesomely trained polo ponies.
“(The trip) was a very amazing experience, especially for someone my age to travel outside of the country to a place like India,” Brennan said. “I think it was a life changing experience to go there and see what other peoples’ lives are like in comparison to ours. Looking back and reflecting on my own life, we’re very privileged with all the things we have here in America. Polo was fun, the tournament was fun, the people were very nice. I’ve really enjoyed riding the Manipur ponies and have had a great time meeting new people from all over the world.”