Small But Mighty: The Manipuri Polo Pony
Guest post by Pamela Flanagan, an awesome polo player (winner of the US Women’s Polo Open Championship 2019 which you can read about here) horse rescuer (check out her Instagram page and the highlights about her horses) and friend <3. Pam wrote a guest post here on PPP about her trip to India to play for team USA in the 5th Manipuri Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament which you can read about here. This is part 2 about her trip.
While in Manipur I also took time to learn more about the magnificent Manipuri Pony. This tiny equine lays claim to be the world’s original polo pony. The modern game was said to be created by the British from the traditional game of sagol kangjei of Manipur.
A historic juncture marked by Polo150 of the UKAFPA designated this Manipur tournament as the official closing event of this celebration of 150 years of polo in England. Indeed, the convention of calling all polo-playing horses “ponies” comes from this polo heritage horse.
Somi Roy of Huntre! Equine, a social enterprise of sports and conservation, is a Manipuri Pony advocate. He briefed me on the subject, with a focus on the ponies’ current day plight, and his efforts to preserve the sacred pony. In Manipur, these former cavalry ponies are sacred, and as such, they are not used for work, nor slaughtered for their meat, but rather solely used for ritual and sport, more specifically polo.
In fact, there is even a pony shrine dedicated to these sacred animals. Manipur is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern-day polo. With such a rich history, it is important that these sacred horses are preserved for cultural and religious purposes. Just a couple of decades ago there were thousands of these ponies scattered throughout the state of Manipur. Today, there are only 500 and the number has continued to decline owing to the loss of their traditional pastures to urbanization.
During our stay, we visited the farm where some of these ponies are bred. Despite being in the city, the farm was tucked away down a rural road, sitting in a quiet little pocket at the base of the hills. The mares with foals were kept in the large paddocks, while the studs and other horses had already left for the hillsides’ lusher grazing land.
These ponies are effectively left wild except for the short period of time in which they are being ridden in polo matches or taken on religious processions. The people of the Manipur Horse Riding and Polo Association who run the farm were passionate about their ponies and proud of their preservation efforts.
I also found Deleep Hawaibam and his team to be open to suggestions, and willing to try new things to help their breeding program continue to succeed. During our visit we spoke about implementing new systems in order to track breeding and avoid inbreeding, and about the importance of intentionally breeding their most athletic, conformationally correct, and healthy horses to create balanced, athletic, healthy offspring.
While at the breeding farm we pulled tail hairs from the horses on the property. We took these samples back to the US and sent them to an equine geneticist at Texas A&M to have the DNA analyzed. Our hope is to establish a specific DNA genetic sequence for the Manipuri Pony. This would allow the State of Manipur to really know what makes their sacred ponies unique, to help establish parentage for breeding purposes, and to ensure the sacred breed is kept pure. These fundamental elements are important in creating a foundation for the main objective: to preserve the Manipuri pony.
Another fundamental component, and in my opinion the most important element required in the efforts to preserve the pony is Equine Welfare. After conversing with Somi, he explained that the two pillars for his pony preservation project thus far have focused on: (1) ponies and (2) polo.
If polo continues, the ponies will have a purpose, and thus be maintained, bred, and cared for. And if the ponies survive, polo will continue in Manipur. After our conversations, Somi was turned on to the idea of adding “welfare” as an essential third pillar. The ponies cannot prosper without proper care.
We have had several conversations regarding various ways to ensure pony welfare. We have discussed implementing a government-funded clinic that can help care for the ponies’ basic needs and treat injuries that may occur. We have also discussed organizing educational clinics, and fundraisers to provide new or used tack and supplies. I have created an “Amazon Wishlist” to help get some of these goals in motion (Click Here to View) and I will send these supplies to them once we have gathered some things.
The list includes much-needed supplies that will help improve the ponies’ health, comfort, and performance. My hope is that these ideas and conversations will turn into meaningful plans which result in a happy, healthy, thriving pony population. Preserving these incredible ponies will also preserve the unique and rich culture that these sacred creatures bring to Manipur.
The Manipuri ponies allow a part of history, both horse history, and polo history to live on. These ponies gave us polo, a sport that many of us love and cherish. It is only right that in this time of need we do our best to provide these ponies with kindness and support. It is important that we now do our part to ensure these living legacies continue to thrive.
Pamela Flanagan is a polo player with a 4-goal women’s handicap. She is an attorney, a member of the USPA Women’s Handicap Committee, representative of Hawaii Polo Life, a co-founder of the Women’s International Polo Network, and a passionate advocate for rescue horses. In 2019 Pamela won the Women’s US Open and was awarded the Clint Nagle Equine Welfare Award. She played on the US team at the 5th Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament held in Imphal from January 17-21, 2020.