The polo ponies of Manipur: Tracing a rare equine breed's battle against extinction

I’ve always considered myself a proud owner of the original Manipuri polo ponies. In fact, I owned four, including an extremely rare breed whom I lovingly named ‘Koiyang’. Polo players, who assumed their upkeep on the condition that my horses play only for their team, believed that there are only about four or five sagols like Koiyang. Sagol is the Meitei word for horse.

Subsequently, experts confirmed that Koiyang was indeed rare. He belonged to the breed that is fighting a losing battle against extinction. He had curly fur and was of a slightly smaller size but stoutly built and of good tenacity. They also confirmed that being tabiano in colorisation and curly, Koiyang belonged to the rarest breed of ponies that existed in the world today.

Manipur’s gift to the world, the indigenous Manipuri ponies

Manipur’s gift to the world, the indigenous Manipuri ponies

I bought Koiyang in 2013 when he was roughly one and a half year old and named him so, indicative of his curly fur and swiftness. ‘Koi’ means curly and ‘yang’ translates to swift. Naturally, I was very proud that he was mine.

Abung, who managed a local polo team, was probably happier than me for he was actually the one who got to rear him up, tame him, transform him into a full-fledged polo player and play the sport with him. For Abung, the prospect of Koiyang becoming one of the top polo playing horse of Manipur was such a surety that he took it for granted.

Koiyang did not disappoint him either. He exhibited versatility, swiftness as well as agility — the three cornerstone characteristics of a good polo pony. The pony was almost ready to take the field. While Abung was raring to ride him to victory, I kept postponing Koiyang's debut in the games. I had my reason. For a colt to be fully ready for polo, he had to go through a mandatory ritual that I was not ready for.

As far back as I could possibly stretch my childhood memory, I have had this magical fascination with horses. Unfortunately, I could never fulfill my childhood dream of galloping into the wilderness and experience the adrenaline rush of riding a semi-wild being, feeling the waves of cool, refreshing wind as I breezed through it, riding into the unknown.

This childish fascination would probably appear to be the logical explanation for my eagerness in acquiring ponies even when I’m in my midlife. But it cannot be the entire truth.

As a horse lover and being born in a civilisation that venerates the horse for its prominent role in propagating its glory, I feel I also have to do my bit in attempting to preserve and propagate this rare natural heritage. I also believed that the Manipuris have to reinstate Manipuri polo ponies to their old glory by way of reinvention.

The animal has done much for the erstwhile Asiatic kingdom that has a recorded history since 33 AD. If we don’t rescue it from its current predicament, history will not forgive this generation.

The Guinness Book of World Records recognises Manipur as the birthplace of modern polo where it survived for hundreds of years under royal patronage under its local name, ‘Sagol Kangjei’. Kanglei roughly translates to a hockey stick.

Among the many facets of Manipuri culture, none has had a more far-reaching extent on the world stage than Sagol Kangjei.

Among the many facets of Manipuri culture, none has had a more far-reaching extent on the world stage than Sagol Kangjei

Among the many facets of Manipuri culture, none has had a more far-reaching extent on the world stage than Sagol Kangjei. It is a part of the cultural inheritance of Manipur with its ancestry traced to the waves of people migrating from southern China in the prehistoric times. Due to historical exigencies, this indigenous game of Manipur became the progenitor of the modern game of polo. The game, which has a long history intertwined in myths and culture, was introduced to the British in the middle of the 19th century.

In 1859, a British officer Capt Robert Stewart along with some tea planters started the world’s first polo club at Silchar, Assam, after studying and playing Sagol Kangjei with Chandrakirti Singh, the Maharaj of Manipur and his soldiers, stationed at the time in Cachar. Capt Stewart is credited for starting what is known as the English Polo. Since then, Polo has become quite a popular sport across the globe.

Despite polo being Manipur’s gift to the world, the indigenous Manipuri ponies, on whose back the game originated, are rapidly being driven to the brink of extinction. Notwithstanding the Manipur government's decision to declare polo as the State Game and the formulation of the State’s Pony policy, the polo ponies of Manipur total up to just a few hundred. Once owned by almost every household in Manipur, the population of the pony has dwindled drastically.

Besides losing its social value, the depletion of grazing grounds have forced the surviving ponies to scavenge for food in garbage dumping grounds and many of them have died due to choking, swallowing polythene.

Many of them have died due to choking, swallowing polythene.

Many of them have died due to choking, swallowing polythene

Though small in size, the Manipuri pony is not only one of the well-known horse breeds of India but one of the purest and prestigious equine breeds of India. It is believed to be a descendant of the Mongolian wild horse, crossed with oriental and Arab stock. It is strong and hardy and has good adaptability to extreme geo-climatic conditions. They are found in Manipur and Assam, and are similar to the ponies of southeast Asia.

Manipuri ponies are 11-13 hands high with a good shoulder, short back, well-developed quarters and strong limbs. They are intelligent and extremely tough, and have tremendous endurance. All these qualities make them most suitable for the game of polo. The thought of losing this prestigious pony due to our obliviousness and apathy had motivated me, and as a first logical step, I bought Koiyang. Subsequently, I bought another one the following year, a mare this time.

From the time I bought Koiyang, I had to constantly coax Abung into postponing Koiyang’s debut, arguing that since Koiyang was of a rare breed, we must cross him with Arangbi, the mare. Despite his anxiety to take Koiyang to the polo ground, Abung understood my intentions and gave in to my scheme.

However, every time he would point out that we must make haste as Koiyang was becoming uncontrollable and there had been a lot of complaints of his trespassing agricultural fields and fighting with other horses. 'Once he has been gelded or castrated, he will grow to his full size and be controllable, particularly for polo. We must not delay his castration any further,’ Abung would say.

I knew the castration was bound to happen but I was hoping that Koiyang manages to produce others of his pure breed, curly and tobiano, before we finally get done with the final act that stands between him and the game of polo. I told Abung, 'After the monsoon passes, we shall do it.’

By 2015, two foals were added to my ‘cavalry’, and by 2017, they were shaping up well and I was thrilled. I thought it wouldn’t be long before I could kick-start my dream re-invention project for restoring the Manipuri pony’s due place in our society. All this while, I had been sensitising Abung and other fellow pony lovers about my idea to start a pony safari for tourists. I won’t be all that surprised if Abung and his gang of polo players thought I was crazy, but they gave me a patient hearing as long as I was adding ponies to their club. Thankfully, my five-year association with the polo players had earned me their respect even if they looked up at me in a weird way. And who was I to mind as long as things went according to plan?

The Safari endeavor means contributing to conserving and preserving the endangered ponies’ place under the sun.

The Safari endeavor means contributing to conserving and preserving the endangered ponies’ place under the sun.

My plan was to organise three to four groups of seven to twelve ponies each to launch the Manipur Pony Safaris. Imagine going on a five-day or even a week-long safari, touring the natural tourist spots and camping in tribal villages or even re-tracing the several World War II battlefield sites in Manipur.

For horse lovers, the idea of riding the original polo pony is sure to be a big hit. The added bonus is the fact that being part of the safari endeavor means contributing to conserving and preserving the endangered ponies’ place under the sun.

As things were going according to plan, an unthinkable incident occurred in the month of November 2017. A boy child died in a road accident involving a pony straying on the Imphal airport road. Apparently, the two-wheeler that the boy was riding pillion on moved in too close to a pack of ponies loitering on the road who, sensing trouble, instinctively kicked. The two-wheeler couldn’t absorb the impact and fell. The boy sitting behind without a helmet was killed on the spot. The fatal incident had raised the issue of the prevailing method of raring and nurturing the ponies.

It is said that the Manipuri ponies are semi-wild in nature and like to graze on marshy greens. While few pony owners keep them in well-managed stables, all of them do not practice this method of domestication. Most ponies are left to graze in wetland areas with long ropes around their necks. These ponies are pulled up for practice and for the games whenever required. On some occasions, like during the monsoon or under some developing hostile conditions, they are pulled in to makeshift stables. However, these animals pulled themselves out of their pegs and strayed into populated and busy roads in search of food. While they become a hazard on the road, they are also injured in road accidents and become diseased due to consumption of polythene and unhygienic food.

Most ponies are left to graze in certain marshy areas with long ropes around their necks

Most ponies are left to graze in certain marshy areas with long ropes around their necks

Fourteen days after the fatal road accident which resulted in the death of the boy, I was asked by Abung to come to the airport road on the double. Abung informed me on the phone that one of my female foals was hit by a speeding Maruti car and was rendered immobile. Apparently, her tender back was completely shattered. Doctors of the state veterinary department said there was no way she could be saved and suggested that we end her suffering. Despite hesitation, the doctor’s advice prevailed.

Again in the month of January in 2018, just as I was a little encouraged that the government of Manipur has gazetted the Manipuri Pony Conservation and Development Policy 2016, I had to deal with another massive blow. Abung called me up on 18 January and conveyed the shocker. Koiyang had fallen into a ditch and died. A horse destined to excel in polo died suddenly without even participating in a tournament. What a turn of events. What a shame. I was totally heartbroken. So was Abung, the polo player.

In quick succession, I lost two ponies. This indicates the predicament these rare animals find themselves in, and it is up to the people to either do something or do nothing.

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If we don’t rescue them from their current predicament, history will not forgive this generation

Fortunately, the State Pony Conservation and Development Policy, a comprehensive action plan, if implemented in action and spirit, could wrestle out the indigenous ponies from extinction. Currently, a head count conducted by the Manipuri Pony Society, a band of pony owners and pony lovers, records less than 600 ponies in the whole of Manipur.

What is worrying them is the fact that an outbreak of an epidemic could easily wipe out the surviving population instantly. A pony sanctuary of at least 500 acres, prevention and control of pony diseases, scientific breeding, incentivising pony owners and reinvention of utility are some of the immediate action plans that need to be carried out urgently before it is too late for the Manipuri pony.

All images by the author

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Updated Date: Aug 28, 2018 10:32:04 IST

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