It’s strange that today, when we think of polo, we may picture Princes William and Harry, or possibly Zara Phillips. Super-elegant model Jodie Kidd may spring to mind, being the daughter of a famed former show-jumper, Johnny Kidd.
It’s all very English and upper class, with ties to the English aristocracy, but that’s not how it all started, and not what sparked my polo passion.
Polo actually originated far beyond the green hills of Surrey and Sussex in Persia — now modern day Iran — where it was played by nomadic warriors. In fact the game is so old it predates recorded history — the first games in recorded history date from 600 BC. The modern version we’d recognize in the west has its roots in northern India. This is where my love of polo really begins: with its rich, colorful and above all, long, history.
I’ve always been fascinated with polo because of my Pashtun heritage. My ancestors were part of the Pashtun Lodhi dynasty which ruled India before the Mughuls. The Pashtun people — an ancient ethnic group with roots in Pakistan and Afghanistan — were known for being lovers of poetry, music and of course, sport. They inherited polo from the Mongolians in the 13th century.
Some Pashtuns would play a somewhat unusual game called buzkashi — literally “goat-dragging” in Persian. It wasn’t a team sport, more an “every-man-for-himself” pursuit where men mounted on horseback dragged a headless goat or calf carcass behind them towards a goal. Far less disciplined than polo, it nevertheless paved the way for the game to take root.
And it could be vicious. When it had grown into a fully-fledged “sport of kings” among the Lodhis, polo was still known to be a brutal pastime. History tells of one match watched by the great Lodhi King Sikander, who stormed off back to his palace in disgust when two players took to clubbing each other round the head with their “mallets” instead of the ball.
Modern day Pakistan is the epicenter of “high” polo — literally. The Shandur Polo Festival has been held annually on the Shandur Top — the highest polo ground in the world standing tall at 3,800 meters. Located in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s mountainous northern territories, with its flat top, Shandur is sometimes known as the “Roof of the World”. It was first chosen as the location for this hotly-anticipated sporting event because it was thought to represent a ridge between heaven and hell.
At the heart of polo is its unlikely pairings; first and foremost being the linking together of human and horse, working in harmony. By all accounts the early versions of polo could be chaotic, using small ponies who trotted around rather freely. As the game evolved, it became slick and tight-knit, with the player being able to work in tandem with their horse in a relationship that relies as much on intuition as it does on formal training and signals between player and horse.
I’ve been a keen horsewoman since childhood — getting up at dawn and trudging through mud in my early formative years to care for the horses I rode. And I’ve handed my equestrian obsession down to my 10-year-old daughter, who’s also hopefully inherited some of that warrior spirit. She plays polo at Cowdray Park Polo Academy and she’s fast and fearless, quickly learning how to master that unique relationship between human and horse that has been honed over centuries of play, from Persia via Pakistan to the west.
And it has become deeply embedded in the west. Polo has in many ways experienced a diaspora to match that of the Pashtun people. There are an estimated 50 million Pashtuns, many of whom have moved on to the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia. Likewise the rest of the world, England included, has welcomed this exhilarating sport with open arms to the point where it often makes us think of English Princes rather than the Lodhis.
It’s a long trip from Persia to Hurlingham and Cowdray, and it’s testament to polo’s extraordinary ability to evolve. That evolution has propelled it forwards in all sorts of exciting ways. The sport that it is today is just as thrilling as it’s always been, albeit that it’s acquired a bit more decorum and a few more rules along the way — as you might expect over history spanning thousands of years.
It’s also been prepared to change the rules. Polo is one of the few sports where men and women can play side by side, as well as separately.
There are great opportunities for the new crop of female players to push themselves forward in this unparalleled sport, but they could do with some support — one respect in which polo hasn’t changed is its elite, rarefied status. It’s still, in many ways, “the sport of kings”. It takes resources to play polo to a high standard.
The Pashtuns were described by a New York Times writer as being “fiercely independent” — a trait that has certainly carried down through the generations to me. I’ve always been determined to tread my own path — this led me to set up my own business, which has flourished. Now, as a successful entrepreneur who’s been fortunate at overcoming hurdles of the non-equestrian variety in my life to build up that business, I’ve decided to sponsor a women’s polo team.
The Vardags team, who are set to play at the Royal Berkshire Polo Club’s Polo Festival on 16th August, will proudly wear my law firm’s name and logo when they take to the field.
In many ways it brings together the modern and the historical guises polo has worn down the centuries — tying them together with a bit of color. I think the Pashtuns would be proud.