"IF WISHES WERE HORSES I WOULD BE KING"
by Uday More
"THE OLDEST TEAM GAME IN THE WORLD, THE ONE TIME GAME OF KHANS, CALIPHS, MOGHULS AND MAHARAJAS IS NOW NOT ONLY A QUESTION OF MONEY, STATUS AND BACKGROUND - IT IS ALSO A GAME FOR TOUGH MEN WHO HAVE TO BE FIRST CLASS RIDERS"
The game of polo takes its name from the Tibetan word for ball "pulu", Tibet being one of the countries where polo was first played. Polo is probably the fastest game in the world with a devoted and enthusiastic following. It was included as part of the Olympic games at various times in the first 30 years of the last century. Presently it is Argentina who has achieved prominence in the game with most of Europe's mounts being bred there and Argentina producing three times as many polo players as any other country.
Polo has been played in various different forms in Asia for the past 2000 years namely in Persia, Tibet and Mongolia. The game has always been regarded as the pleasure of the aristocracy and it was a great favorite of the Mogul empire. The great empire with its artistic and cultural achievements spread from Mongolia to invade India, where it founded an empire in 1526.
Persian manuscripts and Chinese water colours testify to the popularity of this game elsewhere in Asia. A traveler to Persia in early 17th century noted "The King of Persia and his nobles take exercise by playing pall-mall on horse back, their horses were so well trained to do this that they ran after the ball like cats." The game spread to Europe from India through the British tea planters and army officers who discovered the game in the 1850s. The team sprit, discipline and the fighting element of the game all had natural appeal and when those army officers returned to England they took the game back with them.
Two teams of four men - two forwards, a halfback and a back - with mallets that have long flexible handles play the game. The idea is to drive the ball down the field through the goal posts. The game is normally played under handicap from 0-10, the team's handicap being calculated by the sum of its member's handicap. A match comprises of four of six chukkars (depending on the place where the game is played, the trophy played for and of course availability of horse power) each of 7.5 minutes with intervals in which the ponies are changed. A pony hardly plays more than two chukkars since the speed of the game, the swinging and fast turns are considered to be highly exhausting.
The game starts with the half back or center half initiating the attack on the opposing team goal. He has to hit long and hard and as the forwards take up the ball, defend from the rear. As the forwards gallop into action they have to get the ball into the goal avoiding a skirmish with the opposing forwards. Stringent rules apply to polo in order to reduce the possibility of accidents. A player must not ride right across an opponent at a full gallop nor must he zigzag. Even in full excitement of the game players must remember not to hook the opponents mallet unless the ball is between him and is opponent nor must he pass the mallet between the horse's legs or over the croup.
Important matches use three umpires to ensure fair play. |Two of the umpires follow the game on the field and the third is positioned on the stands to act as a referee in an event of dispute. This immensely fast game requires ideally a horse with a perfect balance, a light mouth and ability to go straight into a gallop. Above all it needs to be responsive, very agile, fast and calm. The player needs a good eye and anticipation with a positive gift for timing - and all this on horseback. Stirrups are often shortened to allow the players maximum mobility without losing his seat. The horses are usually referred to as ponies as was accurate in the 19th century when the supreme polo pony was the Manipur at 11-13 hands.
The English tea planters rode Manipur ponies that were said to be quick footed and alert. British officers in Burma used the Burma or Shan pony at about 13 hands. South Africa's Basuto pony at 14 hands was an enduring favorite, with its fearlessness and terrific stamina. Today's polo pony however is not strictly speaking a pony as it stands about 15 hands and most of the world's ponies now have thoroughbred blood. What is demanded is good long neck, sturdy shoulders, a short back, powerful sloping hindquarters and well let down hocks. Today the game has no place for timid ponies so certain liveliness and courage are sought in the ideal mounts.
Thoroughbred stock has been introduced repeatedly to displace even the United State's supremacy. Today Argentina is recognized as the world's foremost polo playing nation whereas in Europe, the game has been dominated by the aristocracy - and it certainly is an expensive game - in Argentina the rich, the land owners and the cattle workers alike take part. In India the game is very much dominated by the Army even as the rich and famous royalties are making their presence felt. Professional sponsors too have taken a liking to this game bringing in an up market image to corporate houses.
Because in important matches ponies complete no more than two chukkars and there are four or six chukkars to a match, each player has to have several ponies at his disposal and this accounts for major part for the expense of the game. Also the ponies have to be rigorously trained for a long period of time to bring them up to the required standard. Above all it is the player's natural eye for the ball, his skills, experience of the game and his handling of his mount, which is most crucial.
To wind up Charles Cheveniex Trench - noted horsemen and historian has written - "A good polo player must of course be a reasonably good rider but there are some first class polo players who are not first class horsemen and some first class horsemen who are indifferent polo players. It is important to have the eye and aggressive instinct of a game player, to be able to hit that ball hard and accurately and above all to have the gift of anticipation to estimate, in an instant where the ball and other players are to go next, and to place oneself accordingly. The man without this essential game sense however good a horsemen will too often find himself galloping madly in the wrong direction.
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