A U.S. team, supported by the American International Polo Foundation (AIPF) and USPA, traveled to Imphal, Manipur, India, November 22-29 to compete in the 12th Manipur Polo International Invitational at the Mapal Kangjeibung, the oldest living polo ground in the world. Five teams competed over the week-long tournament including the hometown team of India B (Manipur), India A representing the Indian Polo Association, as well as England, Uruguay and the United States.
The U.S. sent a dynamic team of both veterans and newcomers to the distinctive style of Manipuri polo including returning competitors Kegan Walsh (2) and Pedro Lara* (2) alongside Chad Bowman (2) and Conner Deal* (1). Acclimating to many factors, such as the Manipuri ponies as well as each other, USA suffered a narrow loss to Uruguay in the opening match of the tournament 3-1. “Had we have played them later in the tournament I think we would have won for sure,” recounted Deal, “but it was the first game playing on Manipuri ponies and our first game playing together as a team.” Teammate and fellow first timer Bowman described the transition to riding the hardy native horse, “the Manipuri ponies are small, so your swing is a little different and their strides make hitting the ball a little harder. But once you figure it out, it’s like playing in the states!” Returning to the field with renewed energy, USA rebounded on day two defeating India A (Indian Polo Association) with a resounding score of 13-2. “Our game against India A went really well,” recounted Walsh, “We all really meshed and had some pivotal plays come together.”
Meanwhile, defending champions India B (Manipur) defeated all four of their opponents, including USA 7-2, to automatically secure a spot in the final. In the last match of qualifying play, USA needed to best England by three in order to cement their finalist position. After an intense battle a 3-3 draw dashed USA’s hopes. England scored quickly out of the gate in the first and maintained a one-goal lead at the half. USA rose to the occasion in the third, outscoring England 3-2 to equalize the score moving into the final chukker, however neither team was able to find the goal in the fourth. “We had all of the opportunities and plenty of shots on goal, so to say that the outcome was frustrating is an understatement,” said Lara. Unable to reach the championship match, American spirits remained high as they commented on the unique opportunity and trip abroad. “The overall experience is once in a lifetime and twice if you’re lucky,” said Walsh with a chuckle. “The culture is so rich and the people are beautiful. I met so many people last year that I was able to reconnect with and that was incredible,” he continued. Deal on his first trip to India echoed Walsh’s sentiments, “I didn’t really know what to expect but overall my experience was far better than I could have imagined. The people in Manipur are so welcoming and really care about the sport of polo and their polo history. It was inspiring to see how much they value their history and traditional roots in the sport while also eager to learn from outsiders to modernize the way they play the game to be competitive on a national level.”
Not solely focused on competition, all of the participants commented on the resilience of the Manipuri pony and the extensive efforts that have been made to preserve the endangered breed. A sacred part of Manipuri history, the annual invitational tournament has served as a platform to showcase the incredible athleticism of this overlooked equine. “What I learned about the Manipuri ponies, and how the Manipur Horse Riding & Polo Association are doing all they can to save them, is definitely the best experience about this trip,” recounted Lara, a return competitor from 2015. “Seeing the growth in their breeding programs and how much effort they have been putting towards this matter is amazing,” he continued.
Playing on their home turf, India B (Manipur) were able to defend their title in the championship match versus England. “The USA appreciates the invitation to participate in this important tournament at the birthplace of modern polo,” said Ed Armstrong, adviser-partner of Huntre! Equine and Secretary-Treasurer of AIPF. “Many players have participated and all have gained a better appreciation for the origins of our sport. We thank the USPA for their support and hope to continue to send teams in the future.”
*Pedro Lara and Conner Deal are members of Team USPA. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.
All photos courtesy of the Manipur Horse Riding & Polo Association.