JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas —
In the early 20th century, a polo match would’ve been a common sight on Army bases. For the second year in a row, polo returns to Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
The U.S. Polo Association Southwest Circuit will play a match at 11 a.m. March 30 at the parade field between cross streets of Henry T. Allen and Schofield Roads. The match is free and open to anyone who can access the post.
Historically, polo was known as the “sport of kings” and was a popular and significant sport to the military. Practically, it helped improve the riding skills of cavalrymen, but many Army leaders realized it also taught leadership, teamwork and strategy.
Notable advocates and players included Gen. John Pershing, Gen. George Patton Jr., and Medal of Honor recipient Col. Gordon Johnston. The USPA created the Col. Gordon Johnston Sportsmanship Award in his honor.
In the upcoming match, the “Col. Gordon Johnston Sportsmanship Award” will be awarded to the player who demonstrates the greatest courage and sportsmanship in the match. This will be the first presentation of the award, which was adopted by USPA as a national award this year.
Johnston, who was stationed at Fort Sam Houston as the Chief of Staff for the Second Division, died from his injuries when his horse tripped, rolled over and crushed him in the midwinter polo tournament March 8, 1934. Johnston was 59 years old.
During his career, Johnston was called “the most decorated man in the United States Army.” He was awarded every medal the nation was authorized to confer and seven additional foreign awards.
Along with the Medal of Honor, Johnston’s awards include the Distinguished Service Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. He also wore three silver stars for his actions in the Philippine Insurrection and the Spanish American War.
While in the 82nd Infantry Division, and he took part of the successful rescue effort for Maj. Charles Whittlesey’s Lost Battalion of World War I; and he was an early founder of the American Veterans Association, known today as AMVETS.
According to the USPA, the sport of polo is traced back more than 2,500 years ago to Central Asia where an early version of the game was played that was part sport and part combat training.
The modern version originated in Manipur, India, and spread typically through military channels, appearing in Malta, England, Ireland, Argentina, Australia and finally the United States
Arriving to Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1896, more than 17 Army installations would host polo programs by 1914, including Fort Sam Houston. After the end of World War II, polo would decline across the Army, especially as horsemanship skills were less in demand.
While the link between polo and the Army degraded after World War II, a growing movement to connect horses with wounded warriors has renewed interest; bringing the sport back on Army installations.
“As appreciation for equine therapy has grown, polo has seen an increased interest and a reconnection with the military. It’s a fun game and anybody, no matter their age or background, can pick it up and enjoy it,” said Karl Hilberg, South Texas Regional Director for USPA’s Armed Forces committee and a retired Navy captain.
This year marks the second year U.S. Army North and USPA have worked together to share this bygone sport at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston.
“Last year, we had an event on post and it was our chance to celebrate San Antonio’s tricentennial and the long shared history of the military in the city,” said Army North Commanding General Lt. Gen. Jeff Buchanan. “So, it was a natural fit to invite the regional Armed Forces Committee to play a demonstration match and celebrate it as part of the military history of the Army and Fort Sam Houston. It was also just a fun experience, the game was great and we thought it was worth doing again this year.”
This year’s match will be similar to last year’s with players who have some association with the military. Seating is limited, so spectators are encouraged to bring their own lawn chairs, picnic baskets or coolers and enjoy the action.
Those interested who don’t have a Common Access Card to get on JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, are able to access the installation by requesting a pass at the located at the Walters Gate Visitor Center.