Persian royalty invented the game of polo thousands of years ago. Like chess, polo was a way for young men to train in the art of war. The polo pitch became a quasi-battlefield, and the points scored were material losses to the enemy. Polo was imported to the European upper crust, and is now shorthand for a faraway sense of the noble sportsmanship of the gentility. The depiction of the rarefied polo player now graces the breasts of the shirts of the middle class around the world.
But polo is just the tip of the ice berg when it comes to games involving the riding of animals. Many of these games are far more brutal than the comparatively gentle polo. You won’t see a knit shirt with the logo of a man holding a dead goat while riding a horse any time soon.
The game of Yak polo is unremarkable: it merely takes the sport of polo and and instead of horses, the riders use Yaks, the shaggy bovines of the Asian steppe. The history of the sport, however, is the strange thing about it.
Mongolians began playing polo on top of Yaks at the turn of the century to attract tourists. Yak polo gave westerners a quirky story to tell their friends when they come back from their Mongolia trip – You wouldn’t believe the crazy things those Mongolians do! It’s more of a novelty than a genuine sport, as the slow moving yak doesn’t seem like a suitable replacement for the agile horse.
But the sport eventually transcended its phony origins. Now, there is a Yak polo league, called the Mongolian Association of Sarlagan Polo. (Sarlagan is the Mongolian name for Yak.) In 2007, the Daily Mail reported that the sport was “taking off” in the economically depressed Asian country.
Gauchos in 17th Century Argentina began playing a sport called pato – Spanish for “duck” – on the grounds of their ranches. They took a very alive duck, placed it in a basket and used that duck-in-basket as the ball in a brutal competition. While on horseback, the goal was to grab the ball and gallop all the way back to your ranch house, all the while avoiding the other gauchos who were trying to take the ball from you and do the same.
Naturally due to the rough and tumble nature of gaucho culture, the games often devolved into violence. Men were trampled, horses had their legs broken, fights broke out between gauchos using their facóns and ducks most assuredly did not make it out alive. Throughout the sport’s history, it has been banned several times. An Argentine priest in the 18th Century declared that men who died playing pato were unfit for a Christian burial.
In the early 20th Century, the sport was reformed. Rules were regulated. Ducks were spared; a ball shaped basket with six handles was used instead. The sport began to resemble basketball, with riders throwing the ball through a vertically oriented hoop to score points. In 1953, the president of Argentina declared it the national game. (Although now, Pato is seen as outdated and elitist; most of the non horse owning Argentinians prefer soccer, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.)
Horseball was created in the 1930’s by a French show-jumper, taking the basics of Pato and tweaking the rules slightly. The sport is still played worldwide. The 2012 Horseball World Cup was won by France.
Polo’s fun to play with horses. Why not use elephants? So goes the the though process of some bored imaginary English colonialist as he invented the game of Elephant polo. Because, why not?
Riding elephant during a polo match presents difficulties that the riders of horses, camels and yaks don’t have. For instance, the distance from the top of an elephant to the ground is about ten feet, which makes it hard to accurately wield a mallet that long while steering a several ton animal. Elephant polo players get around this problem by having two riders per elephant — one to steer and one swing the mallet.
Elephants are also dangerous! Dangerous as in they sometime throw off their riders and destroy minibuses, which is what happened at an elephant polo match in 2007. (Players ride only female elephants, because males are too unruly to control.)
Aside from giving people entertainment from playing and watching, elephant polo has helped out the movement to protect elephants. Check out this heartwarming story from the BBC about the good that elephant polo has brought to this world.
If we’re betting on what would be the world’s strangest sport, Buzkashi is even money to win. Like polo, participants ride horses and compete for the possession of a ball. Except that ball is the decapitated carcass of a goat — hence “buzkashi”, Dari (the lingua franca of Afghanistan) for “goat grabbing”. While a rider has control of the carcass, other riders are free to whip him, bump him with their horse or pull him off his saddle.
Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan. Afghans don’t grow up dreaming of being the next Ronaldo; they want to be the next Aziz Ahmad, the world’s best Buzkashi player who lives in a big house surrounded by a country of economic depression. The Taliban banned Buzkashi during its reign because of religious reasons. But the ouster of the Taliban during the Afghanistan war brought sport back with a vengeance.
There are two types of Buzkashi:
a) Tudabari, which resemble keep away, except with a dead goat. The carcass is placed in the middle of the pitch, towards which the players gallop at the beginning of the match. The rider who gains control of the carcass rides away from the other riders, in any direction. He wins once he is clear of other players.
b) Qarajai, which requires two teams to try and maintain control of the carcass while riding toward one end of the field and back.
It sounds simple, but the game requires a great deal of skill. Horses must train for over five years before they are able to deal with the rigors of the game, and the chopendoz, the riders, must train for many years more before they become competitive players.
If you want to know more about the sport, please read this Wall Street Journal article. A parade of absurdities reveal that PETA shockingly disapproves of the game, and that often times at the end of the match, the spectators eat the goat or calf — which by that time is a tatter of blood, dirt and viscera.