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Polo - Game of Kings

by Unknown

Polo is not just a sport it is a way of life
 "A polo handicap is your passport to the world"
by Winston Churchill

Polo is one of the world's oldest sports and remains to this day a highly competitive activity that allies the skill of the rider with the speed and power of his mount. Although it demands both strength and stamina, polo differs from many other sports in its spirit, a spirit reflected in the dignified bearing of the players and their scrupulous respect for the rules. In this sense polo is not just a sport, but a lifestyle.

Traditionally a royal sport, polo is now played in 48 countries and across five continents. Governed by extremely strict rules, polo places the highest demands on players in terms both of physical endurance and honourable behaviour. Hinging on the interaction between horse and rider and combining high speed action with strategic subtlety, polo is an excellent preparation for life.


Possibly the oldest team sport, polo's genesis is lost in the mists of time. An Asiatic game, polo was probably first played on a barren campground by nomadic warriors over two thousand years ago. Polo probably originated in Persia, more than 600 B.C.

Valuable for training Cavalry, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings, Tamerlane's polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand.

British tea planters in India witnessed the game in the early 1800's but it was not until the 1850's that the British Cavalry drew up the earliest rules and by the 1869's the game was well established in England. James Gordon Bennett, a noted American publisher; balloonist, and adventurer, was captivated by the sport and brought it to New York in 1876 where it caught on immediately.

By the 1930's polo was in the midst of a Golden Age - it was an Olympic sport and crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international matches at Meadow Brook Polo Club on Long Island.

Polo is an international sport. During the summer season at Hurlingham, England, the fall season at Palermo in Buenos Aires, and the winter season at Palm Beach or Palm Desert, 30 to 40 teams will be manned by players from the United States, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, Mexico, France, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain, and a dozen other polo playing countries. For over 30 years, the Argentines have been prominent in the sport but explosive growth in players and the availability of good horses is honing the competitive abilities of challengers from many countries, including the United States.

The Game of Polo

A Polo match lasts about one and one-half hours and is divided into six 7 minute periods or chukkers. Since a horse in fast polo can cover two and one-half to three miles per period, he'll be too tired to play a second one right away. After resting for two or three periods, some horses can return to the game. Still, in Championship polo, a player will come to the field with at least six horses. The mounts are horses, mostly thoroughbreds, not ponies.

The object of the game is to score as many goals as possible. There are four players on a team and each assumes a specific position - either offensive or defensive. However, given the enormous size of the playing field (160 x 300 yards), the momentum of the galloping horses and the ball's unexpected changes of direction, the game is very fluid, hence positions continuously change. There are few set plays in polo, and good anticipation necessitates almost a sixth sense.

With thousand pound animals running at speed there is a pre-eminent necessity for a right of way rule. The central concept in the rules of polo is the line of the ball, a right-of-way established by the path of the traveling ball. Like the rules of the road, there are dos and don'ts governing access to this right-of-way and crossing it. Within these limitations, a player can hook an opponent's mallet, push him off the line, bump him with his horse or steal the ball from him.

Penalties are awarded as free hits. The more severe, the shorter the distance to the goal mouth. The closer hits are almost certain goals. After every goal is scored, the teams change sides in order to compensate for field and wind conditions. A typical score would be 10-7.

Polo games are played on the flat or the handicap. Every registered player is awarded a skill rating from C (-2, the lowest) to 10 (the highest). Only a handful of U.S. players are rated above 6. When a match is played on the handicap basis, the sum total rating of the players on the team is subtracted from that of the opposition. Any difference is then awarded to the lower rated side in goals on the scoreboard.

Two mounted umpires on the field and a referee in the stands officiate the games.

Team Play

The four players on each team are assigned positions, designated with numbers from one to four and worn on the team jerseys. Number 1 is the forward, an offensive player. Number 4 is the back and his responsibility is defense. Numbers 2 and 3 are usually the highest rated and most experienced with number 3 being the quarterback or field captain, and number 2 being responsible to push the play both on offense and defense at all times. In defense, each player is assigned a man to cover; number 1 usually covering the opposing number 4 and number 2 covering the opposing number 3.

Play is kaleidoscopic, resembling hockey in the continuous shifts from offense to defense. The team with the ball is quick to attack by sending lead passes to players up the field. The team on defense is attempting to ride off or check their opponents so as to break up the play and turn and go on the offensive.

Players will attempt to sense the location of every other player on the field, know where the ball is, where it is going, and what his opponent is doing at all times. Anticipation is as rare in polo as in any other sport. It is a skill that only comes with experience and is one of the reasons that players don't reach their peak until in their late 20's.

As in most ball sports, the broken play is common. All other things being equal, the team that persists in its teamwork and is quick to capitalize on its opponents' mistakes will win.

Polo, played by the best players with the best horses, is a spectacle unequaled in sport.

How To Watch A Polo Match

Polo is an intensely, physical endeavour which from across the field can resemble a ballet, but up close, the sweat and dirt on the players, shouted commands and curses, the heaving, blowing horses, tell the story of a rough and arduous game played in hot blood and demanding the ultimate in skill, fitness and strength from all of the participants. Polo is an equine team sport. There are four men to a side but eight athletes. It is not possible to become an intelligent observer of the game without developing an eye for the athleticism of the ponies, as well as the players.

The players are products of endless hours in the saddle, honing their riding skills, training their horses, together with many hours of "stick and balling", the equivalent of "hitting" in tennis. Great players display the anticipation and recklessness of a race car driver in beating the opponent to the ball, with the sensitivity of the billiard champion in controlling the ball, and the hands of the jockey in handling their high strung mounts.

Ponies are products of long rigorous training, designed to develop stamina, handling, mouth and to produce that mind set that will allow a hot blooded thoroughbred to run 100 yards at 35 miles an hour, while bumping a 1,000 pound opponent and then stop suddenly, turn and come back in the opposite direction, calmly and with alacrity. Great ponies combine speed and "I'll die before I quit heart" with the controlled intensity and agility of a Michael Jordan or Barry Sanders.


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