When you play the game of elephant polo, as one does, rules must be followed, particularly on the side of the elephants. No elephant can sit down in front of its goal in order to defend it. That’s a foul. No more than two elephants from the same team can be on one half of the field at one time. Foul. And an elephant cannot use its trunk to pick up the ball.
They do anyway. “They'll lob it. They'll pick it up and kind of throw it, and it's funny. You get a good reaction from the crowd,” says David Partridge ’13EMBA. Since 2014, he has been an elephant polo player at the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Thailand; this past March he played for the Benihana of Tokyo team.
When the sport was invented, a soccer ball was the target of the mallets, but the elephants soon learned that there is great fun to be had by stepping on those to cause an explosion. Since then the game has been played with regular polo balls, which are more difficult to hit from high up with a 90-inch long mallet.
“It's not like getting on a horse where you hop up,” says Partridge. “You're 8 feet in the air, so they built a scaffolding with a staircase. So you climb up the scaffolding, and they pull the elephant into a stall with a rope hanging right over him, and you swing out and mount your elephant and you strap in, you've got the stirrups, and then you taxi out of that mounting gate area.”
The spectacle is more than an exhibition of how to take a game to a new level. The real significance is in the tournament proceeds, which are donated to elephant-related work. One of the beneficiaries is the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which rescues elephants from the streets, protects their habitats and helps mahouts build financial independence.
Mahouts are the people who train, work with and ride elephants. Many of them live in northern Thailand, and a few dozen bring elephants to the polo site. Mahouts take part in the games, too, sitting just behind the elephant’s head. Driving.
“The mahout sits right in front of me, and on the back of his shirt are all the commands, translated from English to Thai,” Partridge says. Sai noi: Left a little. Dee mak: Good work. “It's just a great time. The elephants love it. They're so intelligent.”
Elephantastic intelligence is part of why a chunk of the King’s Cup money goes to a project that pairs the animals with autistic children. “It probably spilled over from the equestrian thing with autistic children, because that's been well-known and practiced, at least here in the United States, if not the rest of the world, for a long time,” Partridge says. “And I think they found that the elephants are as good, if not better, in their interaction with these kids,” who pet, feed, bathe and play with the friendly beasts. Through the 15 years that the King’s Cup has existed, money has also supported the building of an elephant hospital where malnourished, sick and injured animals can receive help. Some money has even gone toward an elephant ambulance.
Protesters claim that partaking in polo games can be enough to put an elephant in need of a doctor, if not for injuries then for mistreatment. “But usually those people have not been to see it unfold before their eyes and actually see the elephants and see the sport,” Partridge says. “So my answer to that would be: Come out next year and witness this thing, witness the caretaking with the elephants, the enjoyment on the part of the elephants, the mahouts and the players. Come see for yourself before you make any judgments of maltreatment or exploitation.”
Playing with these animals that usually weigh a couple of tons or more means the safety of both players and spectators also is a concern. However, Partridge says, “I don't think in the 15 years there's ever been anything, a runaway elephant or a rogue elephant.”
The perceived risk might be enough to make some back off from playing such a game, but the 54-year-old Partridge is no newcomer to danger. An airline pilot until 9/11, when several thousand pilots, himself included, were furloughed, he didn’t wait around for air traffic to pick up.
“I immediately picked up the phone and talked to some folks in South America, where I'd worked prior to working for the airlines, and there was an opening doing defense work.” That included, he says, “Colombia — Bogotá — in the drug war for seven years, flying our guys around in the jungle. And then that led into Africa for the last seven years, flying in Burkina Faso and Niger. . . . You've got al-Qaida, ISIS and Boko Haram, all vying for space for training and trying to push their agenda. So what the U.S. and some of our allies are doing is trying to help these host nations help themselves, defend themselves.”
Obviously this job entails danger, but, says Partridge, “The beauty of it, and what really keeps me doing it versus going back to flying for the airlines, is I work two months on and I have two months off. And I've gotten used to that lifestyle now.”
When in the U.S., the native Hoosier splits his time between Indiana and Florida. And it was during a vacation in Thailand 2013 that he was introduced to elephant polo.
“I went down for it and was just blown away. I played some equestrian polo at Texas A&M, so I was familiar with the sport and the rules, so when I was down there it was really a neat thing.”
So neat, in fact, that he accepted a job as equipment manager for team Mehkong, sponsored by a Thai whisky distillery. The role allowed Partridge to learn the differences between elephant polo and the game he was used to. The chukkers or periods of play are longer, for instance, but there fewer of them. Although elephants are obviously larger than horses, their playing area is about the size of a football field, much smaller than an equestrian pitch. As in many other sports, the size of a player, in this case the animal, plays a role, too. “Your defense is usually the bigger elephant,” he says. “More mass out there to make the block.”
In 2014, he was invited to play for the team to which he had brought Gatorade and backup mallets. His transfer this year to Benihana of Tokyo failed to win him any silverware, however, as the Thai royal family handed the 2017 winner’s trophy to Mehkong, Partridge’s squad of old.
Rasmus Schmidt Jorgensen, a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism who is studying at Notre Dame, was an intern at this magazine; email firstname.lastname@example.org.