How a polo tour in India is helping to protect a rare breed of ponies

But in the crisp January air, this   stadium returns to its roots — as the world’s oldest active polo ground. Cristina Fernandez, of the US team, says it was   a little “intimidating” as a “tall American” to ride these small ponies. Roy hopes the   international attention from the USPA   will   give the Manipuri pony a lifeline. The shrine overlooks a meadow that Roy   expects   will be a new grazing   area   for the ponies, keeping alive Marjing’s flock   as well as   an ancient piece of world polo heritage. The state of Manipur has pledged to create a sanctuary for the ancient breed whose numbers are dwindling. Red and white polo   mallets   hang in a corner, and there are pictures of horses on the wall. Since 2013, members of the United States Polo Association   have been coming to compete with Manipuris. Another   issue   for the Americans is the size of the Manipuri ponies. For much of the year, the Mapal Kangjeibung grounds in the center of Imphal are used for soccer. Communicating with local players is sometimes a challenge, says Tiamo Hudspeth, from Team USPA, who traveled to Manipur in   January 2016. A temple for Marjing   is shown here. The ponies are revered here — they were used for war and sacred ritual, not as pack animals. “I wanted to sort of wind it up and let it go.”

Manipuri ponies are grazing here. Manipur has a god of polo, Marjing, whose mount is the winged pony. But Roy, who’s worked as a film   curator in New York,   says when he returned to Manipur in 2000, he would see   abandoned ponies   wandering around the city, feeding on garbage   because people could not afford to take care of them, and their grazing   lands   were vanishing. But their numbers are dwindling. He says their numbers have fallen to fewer than 500. Somi Roy

These ponies are one of five indigenous Indian breeds, semiwild ponies, found just in this corner of India. Credit:

Courtesy of L. Credit:

Courtesy of L. “We have been promoting USPA here as part of our way of getting attention drawn to the Manipuri pony,” Roy says. Manipur’s historians say the earliest records of a polo match can be found in court chronicles that date back to the first century. The British discovered it there and brought   “hockey on horseback” to the West in the 19th   century. They look a little like windup toys, she says. Persia claims to be the birthplace of polo, but the modern version of the game comes from the small state of Manipur in northeastern India. It’s said that when the pony’s wings were clipped, it fell to Earth and became the Manipuri   pony. They’re only about 4 feet tall, from   shoulder to hoof. These days, the West is going back to Manipur to play polo. His interest in polo, he says, is really about the ponies. L. The 2017 USPA-Manipur games get underway next week in Manipur’s capital, Imphal. Marjing’s shrine on a hillside near Imphal   is strewn with small, white figurines of horses.  
Today, however, the game   is all about   women   power. The women   from Team USPA   come here   to play   alongside the   Manipuri   women, all under the watchful eyes of a Kangla-sha statue — a dragon with antlers. He’s worshiped in Manipur   as the deity who introduced polo to the world. Somi Roy

They might be looking for some divine assistance, as well. For instance, lingba for “strong.”   Nopa for “weak.” “We’d chant lingba, no nopa   before we played our game,” she says with a laugh. In 2013, the Manipur state government declared the ponies here an endangered breed. Still, she   picked up a few Manipuri words. Somi Roy, whose mother belonged to Manipuri royalty,   helps put together the USPA tour. In November 2016, the Manipuri state government announced plans for creating a sanctuary for the remaining ponies to help preserve the breed. At the polo grounds during the games in January last year, there was   a   banner with the words   “No pony No polo” — a reminder that if the ponies disappear, so would Manipur’s polo tradition.