Mar 02, 2020 6:30 PM


Story Courtesy of @CLICKPOLOUSA.

Pamela Flanagan in Manipur web
USPA Governor-at-Large Pamela Flanagan in Manipur, at the northeastern edge of India.

USPA Governor-at-Large Pamela Flanagan has played polo all over the world, including the United States, Mexico, Argentina, China, Guatemala, Canada and most recently at the fifth Manipur Statehood Day Women’s Polo Tournament in Imphal, Manipur, at the northeastern edge of India. “I must say my experience in Manipur was certainly unique. Like most international tournaments, we were able to meet incredible polo women from around the world,” says Flanagan. “The respective polo federations sent teams representing Argentina, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Indian Polo Association from New Delhi and a local Manipur team. Here I had the amazing experience of playing on what is arguably the descendants of the first polo ponies, the Manipuri Pony."

From an early age, Flanagan was drawn to horses and began riding at the age of four. "My mom loves horses, but no one in my immediate family had or rode horses, so I am not entirely sure where the fascination stemmed from. I rode multiple times a week throughout my childhood, and then I went on to boarding school at Culver Academies (Culver, Indiana). Culver has several very impressive horsemanship programs, one of which is polo. I picked up polo and never turned back.” Having played through the USPA Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) programs in high school, college and even law school, Flanagan wanted horses of her own after graduating, so she decided to rescue horses in need of a second chance and turned those horses into polo ponies. “Stella and Nala were my first two rescues."

Flanagan continues, "Working with them and watching their potential slowly emerge through their tattered exterior quickly turned me into a passionate advocate for rescue horses and horse welfare. Since that time, I have rescued, rehabilitated and re-purposed six horses of my own, and I have helped several other horse lovers do the same.” Just over two short years after rescuing Stella, Flanagan played her in the 2019 U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship™ and won. Click here to learn more about Pamela Flanagan’s rescue horse Stella.

Pamela Flanagan with a Manipuri pony.
Pamela Flanagan with a Manipuri pony.

The Manipuri Ponies played in India are different in that they are small to medium-sized ponies at about 12 hands or smaller. Every player used mallets between 45”- 47”. Despite their size, Flanagan shared that these ponies were tough. “At the end of the tournament, a prize was given to the Best Playing Pony and to the Naughtiest Pony. I was fortunate to have played on Thok-thak (“rascal” in Manipuri) the naughtiest pony, and I will say, it was a well-deserved award for this fiery chestnut pony.” The ponies are not exactly fine-tuned polo ponies, meaning they may not stop quickly or turn willingly. However, Flanagan said that they never did a pony kick, buck, rear or try to throw their rider. Ultimately, some may have been better trained than others, but they were all well-behaved on and off the field.

"The polo stadium at Mapal Kangjeibung [Imphal, India], located in the center of the city, has beautifully built rows of comfortable seats on one side and a speaker system fueled with lively commentary. On the other side of the field sat stables where the horses were kept for the duration of the tournament.” While in Manipur, Flanagan also took time to learn more about the Manipuri Pony, a tiny equine claiming 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.

Flanagan explained, "a historic juncture marked by Polo150 of the UK Armed Forces Polo Association (UKAFPA) designated this Manipur tournament as the official closing event of the 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 Huntré! 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."

Pamela Flanagan in Manipur 3 web

During her stay, Flanagan 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 are passionate about their ponies and proud of their preservation efforts. During her journey, Flanagan 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. “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 and healthy offspring."

While at the breeding farm, the team pulled tail hairs from the horses on the property to take back to an equine geneticist at Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas) to have the DNA analyzed. The 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 ponies and polo. If polo continues, the ponies will have a purpose and thus be maintained, bred and cared for. If the ponies survive, polo will continue in Manipur. After our conversations, Somi was open 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. Preserving these incredible ponies will also preserve the unique and rich culture that these sacred creatures bring to Manipur," says Flanagan.

The Manipuri ponies allow a part of history, both horse history and polo history to live on. These ponies gave us polo, a sport loved and cherished by many. It is vital to ensure these living legacies continue to thrive.

All photos courtesy of ©CLICKPOLOUSA.