History: The first recorded polo match took place in 600 BC, making this the world’s oldest ball game. The game was played for the first time in the UK on Hounslow Heath in 1869 and in Argentina in 1875 – Argentina has enjoyed unchallenged supremacy in polo in recent years. Restrictions on the height of horses for polo were abolished after World War I. Prior to this, only animals below 14.2 hands were permitted, hence the appellation, “polo ponies.” Polo featured in the Olympics from 1900 until 1939.
Polo Today: The sport is played in 77 countries. Player numbers in Britain are around 2,500, spread amongst 68 outdoor and 20 arena polo clubs in the UK and Ireland. The highest concentration of polo clubs is in South-East England, but clubs are well established from Scotland to the West Country. Excepting 10 or so annual women’s polo tournaments, teams are mixed.
Season: In the Northern hemisphere, competitive grass polo is played from April until the end of September. Arena polo is played throughout the winter months, but reduced numbers of players participate. Many professional players also ‘follow the sun’ and play grass polo in the southern hemisphere from October until March.
Equipment: Players wear helmets of different design to normal riding hats, and some also wear protective faceguards. White jeans are worn with brown leather boots, kneepads and gloves. Players use mallets or sticks just over four feet in length, with mallet heads of around nine by two inches in size. Polo balls are three-and-a-half inches in diameter and are made of hard plastic. Polo saddles are flat and close-contact, to enable the player to be highly mobile. Bridles carry four reins, and are of stronger leather than normal.
The Pitch: The outdoor polo field is 300 yards long by 220 wide, making it the largest field in organized sport. Goal posts at each end are 24 feet apart and a minimum 10 feet in height. Penalty lines are marked at 30 yards from the goal, 40 yards, 60 yards, and at midfield.
Chukkas: A match is split into periods of play or chukkas, of seven-and-a-half minutes in length. Matches comprise four, five or six chukkas, depending on the standard of play.
Players: Four players make up a grass polo team. Numbers 1 and 2 are attackers, Number 3 is normally the Captain’s position and he or she is known as the “pivot” or “playmaker” while Number 4 is the “Back” or defender.
Handicap: A polo player is rated from ‘S’ for starter up to 10 goals, with the latter handicap being applied to the world’s greatest. Handicaps do not refer to the number of goals usually scored by an individual, but to their perceived value to the team.
Umpires: A match is “policed” by two mounted umpires. The Referee or Third Man watches from the sidelines and will be called upon to arbitrate if the two umpires find they cannot agree.
Rules: The rules of polo are mainly concerned with ensuring horse and rider safety. The most fundamental rules are based around the Line of the Ball and the Right of Way. A player travelling along hitting the ball forwards on his right has the same priority as a driver on the left hand side of the road, and forcing him to brake by cutting in front of him constitutes a foul. On occasion, opposing players may meet right hand to right hand on opposite sides of the “road”: for this reason, all players may only carry their mallets in their right hands.
Passionate about Polo
Ask any of the members how they got started in polo and the replies generally fall into one of two categories: Either they were given a voucher for an introduction to polo or they saw a polo match and were inspired to give it a go. The sheer passion of many polo players is epitomised by a famous verse inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, Pakistan: “Let others play at other things. The King of Games is still the game of kings.” (Anon)
Polo is arguably the oldest recorded team sport in known history, with the first matches being played in Persia over 2500 years ago. Initially thought to have been created by competing tribes of Central Asia, and related to hockey, it was quickly taken up as a training method for the King’s elite cavalry.
The first recorded polo tournament was in 600 BC when the Turkomans beat the Persians in a public match. In the Middle Ages, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan – Tamerlane’s polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand.
As mounted armies swept back and forth across this part of the world, conquering and re-conquering, polo was adopted as the most noble of pastimes by the Kings and Emperors, Shahs and Sultans, Khans and Caliphs of the ancient Persians, Arabs, Mughals, Mongols and Chinese. It was for this reason it became known across the lands as, “the Game of Kings,” although today it is one of the fastest growing sports for people from all walks of life.
One of the best ways to describe the unique game of polo would be to use the analogy of combining “rugby, hockey and chess at 40 miles an hour’”. It is a true team sport where men and women, old and young, professional and amateurs, can all participate against each other. The combination of this and the sheer adrenaline rush is the reason why players are so passionate about the sport. Polo represents the pinnacle of equestrian sport because of the special bond between horse and rider.