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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
A Mustang at The Polo Club

Michael Barr

At first glance a West Texas mustang and a New York polo pony have about as much in common as the Hill Country with the Hamptons, and yet horses bred in the Texas counties north and west of San Antonio made important contributions to the game of polo.

Polo traveled to England from India in 1871 where the British cavalry developed the modern game. Many historians credit James Gordon Bennett, wealthy owner of the New York Herald, with bringing polo to the United States in 1876.

Englishmen living in Texas and cavalry units at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio brought polo to the Lone Star State, but the game retained a strong British flavor. A fancy dinner followed many American polo games where it was common, even in Texas, to toast the Queen of England as well as the President of the United States.

On July 7, 1883, San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio and the Texas Polo Club hosted one of the first civilian polo games in the state. The game began when the umpire, Capt. Michael Glynn Turquand of Boerne, placed the ball in the center of the field; then dropped his flag: a black and white banner of the Knights Templar. At that signal a rider from each team raced for the ball and "collided with such force that both riders and horses were thrown to the ground."

Polo was no game for the faint of heart.

At another early game in San Antonio a violent collision "unhorsed 2 players" and another animal "ran over 2 spectators." "No one was seriously injured," the Galveston Daily News reported, "that is to say no one was killed."

It is easy to see why Texans took to the game. A reporter offered the opinion that polo was more popular in San Antonio than poker which had "held sway in this city for over a century."

A polo player was only as good as his horse, but the earliest English polo ponies, native to the British Isles, were not well suited for the game. They tended to be overgrown and slow. East coast American horses were no better.

Then some genius saw the potential of Texas mustangs as polo ponies. The rugged mustangs of the Hill Country were athletic, agile and sure-footed. They could stop and start with amazing speed.

The mustangs were descendants of Andalusian and Arab stock and brought to Texas by the Spanish. They had been running wild on the Texas range for centuries. Their only problem was a tendency to buck.

Texas Memorial Museum Mustangs

The "Mustangs" statue in front of the Texas Memorial Museum.
Sculpted by Alexander Proctor, using wild mustangs as models.
Photo courtesy Alex Chen, 2008

San Antonio, the hub of Texas polo and the gateway to the Hill Country, was uniquely positioned to bring polo and the mustang together.

The San Antonio Daily Express reported that in the spring of 1875 a man identified as Mr. Blassen bought a string of West Texas horses in San Antonio. He shipped the animals to New York where polo players used them in one of the earliest games played on American soil.

In September 1876 James Gordon Bennett sent an agent to San Antonio to buy polo ponies for his polo club in New York. In September 1877 a man identified as Col. Peay of San Antonio shipped 2 carloads of West Texas horses to England for use as polo ponies. American businessman and polo enthusiast William H. Vanderbilt bought Hill Country horses in San Antonio. American financier August Belmont (the Belmont Stakes is named for him) bought polo ponies in the Alamo City.

Not all mustangs made good polo ponies, but the ones with an aptitude for the game were extraordinary. Trainers taught the horses to follow the ball and to maneuver in response to pressure from the riders' knees as much as a tug on the reins.

By 1885 San Antonio was a depot for polo ponies. Polo players and their representatives from both sides of the Atlantic converged on Narciso Leal's Livestock Exchange at 226 Dolorosa Street to buy Texas mustangs - many of them bred in Kendall, Gillespie, Llano, McCullough and San Saba Counties.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
August 15, 2017 Column


Sources:
"That Mustang Pole," Galveston Daily News, June 4, 1880.
"State Press," Galveston Daily News, August 5, 1883.
"Polo Dinner," San Antonio Light, October 24, 1883.
"Off for England," San Antonio Daily Express, September 1, 1877.
"Polo," San Antonio Daily Express, June 17, 1876.


"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • The Popularity of Polo 8-1-17
  • Spanish Pass 7-15-17
  • A Bitter Election in Blanco County 7-1-17
  • Mount Alamo -The City That Never Was 4-15-17
  • Waring 4-1-17

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  • Related Topics:
    Horses | People | Columns | Texas Hill Country

    "Hindsights" by Michael Barr

  • The Popularity of Polo 8-1-17
  • Spanish Pass 7-15-17
  • A Bitter Election in Blanco County 7-1-17
  • Mount Alamo -The City That Never Was 4-15-17
  • Waring 4-1-17

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