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A Pony Lover Ruminates on Ways to Save Manipuri Polo Ponies as This Unique Breed Battles Extinction

I’ve always considered myself a proud owner of the original Manipuri Polo Ponies. I owned four, including an extremely rare breed, whom I lovingly named, ‘Koiyang’. Polo players, who assumed their upkeeps on the condition that my horses play only for their team, say there are only about 4-5 Sagols like Koiyang. Sagol is the Meitei word for horse.

I confirmed from equine experts that Koiyang is indeed rare. He belongs to the breed that is fighting a losing battle against extinction. He has curly furs and is of slightly smaller size but stoutly built and famous for tenacity. Experts also confirmed that being tabiano in colorization and curly, Koiyang belongs to the rarest breed of Pony, existing in the world today. I bought him in 2013 when he was around one and half year old and I named him Koiyang indicative of his curly furs and swiftness. ‘Koi’ means curly and ‘yang’ translates as swift. Naturally, I was super proud that he is mine.

As grazing grounds disappear, ponies left to forage city garbage

Abung who manages a local polo team was probably happier than me for he was actually the one who gets to rear him up, tame him and transform him into a full-fledged polo player and play polo with him. For Abung, the prospect of Koiyang becoming one of the top polo playing horse of Manipur was 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. Even as Koiyang was ready to take to the fields and Abung, raring to ride him to victory, I kept postponing Koiyang debuting in the game. 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 possibility stretch my childhood memory, I’ve this magical fascination for horses. Unfortunately I couldn’t fulfill my childhood dream of galloping into the wilderness and experience the adrenal of riding a semi-wild being, known for its strong bonding with its master, feeling the waves of cool, refreshing wind as I breeze through it riding into the unknown. Probably this childish fascination would appear to be the logical explanation for my eagerness of 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 civilization that venerate 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 feel Manipuri have to reinstate Manipuri polo ponies to its old glory by way of reinvention. The animal has done so much for the erstwhile Asiatic kingdom that had a recorded history since 33 AD. If we don’t rescue it for its current predicament, I’m convinced, history will not forgive this generation.

Born free but now condmned by disappearing habitat

The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes 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 translate as hockey stick. Among the many facets of Manipuri culture, none has had a far more 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 middle part of 19th Century A.D. 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 a very popular sport across the globe.

Despite Polo being Manipur’s gift to the world, the indigenous Manipuri ponies, on whose back the game originated, is rapidly being pushed on the brink of extinction. Notwithstanding, Manipur government declaring polo as the State Game and a State’s Pony policy formulated, the polo ponies of Manipur are less than 1000 heads. Once owned by almost every household in Manipur, the population of the Pony has dwindled drastically. Besides losing its social value, depletion of grazing grounds have forced the few surviving ponies to scavenge for food in garbage, dumping grounds and many of them have died due to choking, swallowing polythene or plastic.

Though small in size, Manipuri pony is not only one of the well-known horse breeds of India but one of the purest and prestigious breeds of equines of India. It is believed to be a descendant of the Mongolian wild horse, crossed with oriental and Arab stock. It is a strong and hardy and has very good adaptability to extreme geo-climatic conditions. They are found in Manipur and Assam, and are similar to the ponies of southeast Asian. Manipuri ponies are of 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. Perhaps all these qualities made them most suitable for the game of polo.

The thought of losing this prestigious pony due to our oblivious and apathy had awakened me. As the first, logical step, I bought Koiyang. The following year, I, got another to my cavalry, a mare or female pony this time.

A pony grazing ground being used as city garbage dumping site

From the time I bought Koiyang, I constantly had to coaxed Abung into postponing Koiyang’s debut, saying, ‘since Koiyang is rare, we must cross him as much as we could with Arangbi, the name of the mare.’  Naturally, despite his anxiety to take Koiyang to the pologround, Abung fortunately understood my intention and gave in to my scheme. However, every time he would add, ‘we must hurry because Koiyang is becoming uncontrollable and there has been a lot of complains 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 will be controllable, particularly for Polo. We must not delay his castration any further.’

I know castration is bound to happen but I was hoping that I get fortunate and Koiyang manages to produce other of his pure breed, curly and tobiano, before I finally get done with the final act that stands between Koiyang and the game of Polo. I told Abung,’after the monsoon passes, we shall do it.’

By 2015, two foals were added to my ‘stable’ and by 2017 they were shaping up well and I was thrilled. I thought it wouldn’t be long to kick-start my dream ‘re-invention project’ of Manipuri Ponies. All this while, I had been sensitizing Abung and other fellow Pony lovers on my idea of initiating a pony safari for tourists. I won’t be all that surprise if Abung and the gang of polo players thought I was crazy but they gave me patience hearing as long as I was adding ponies to their club.  Thankfully, my five year association with the polo players earned me respect in their amidst even if they looked up to me in a weird way and who was I to mind as long as things went according to plan.

My plan was to organize 3 to 4 groups of 7-12 ponies each to launch the Manipur Pony Safaris. Imagine going on a 5 days or even a week long safari, touring the natural tourist spots and camping in tribal villages or even re-tracing the several Second World War battlefield sites in Manipur, riding the original polo ponies! For horse lovers, the idea of riding the original polo pony is sure to be a big hit. The added bonus being the fact that the proceeds will go to fund conservational and preservation activities of the endangered ponies.

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

It is said 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, this method of domestication is not practiced by all. Most ponies are left to graze in certain marshy areas with long ropes around their necks.  These ponies are pulled up for practice and for the polo games whether 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 maimed, injured in road accidents and become diseased due to consumption of plastic and unhygienic food.

The writer with his favourite steed Koiyang.

Fourteen days after the fatal road accident killing 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 mine female foal (eight months old) was hit by a speeding maruti car and is rendered immobile. Apparently her tender back was completely shattered. Doctors of the state veterinary said there is no way she can be saved and suggested that we kill it injecting some fatal substance. Despite hesitation, the doctor’s advice prevailed and from four, I now have only three ponies.

Just as I was a little encouraged by the fact that the Government of Manipur was toying with the idea of formulating a Pony policy for the state and indicated incentivizing pony owners, I had to deal with a shocker in the month of January 2018. Abung called and conveyed the news.

Koiyang fell in a ditch and died. A horse destined to excel in the game of polo died suddenly without even participating a tournament. What a turn of event, what a shame! I was totally heart broken. So was Abung. In quick succession, I lost two of my ponies. Neglect has killed my ponies.

A glimmer of hope for the ponies is the State Pony Conservation and Development Policy. It is a comprehensive action place and if implemented, in action and spirit, it 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 the Pony lovers is the fact that unless the government and other stakeholders join hands to ensure the implementation of the Pony policy, an outbreak of an epidemic would easily wipe out the surviving pony population instantly.  A Pony sanctuary of at least 500 acres, prevention and control of pony diseases, scientific breeding, incentivizing pony owners and reinventing utility are some of immediate action plan that need to be carried out urgently before it is too late of the Manipuri Ponies.

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