An introduction to the equine discipline of Polo and its history
Polo; an equestrian discipline played on horseback between two teams of four players who have mallets with long flexible handles to hit a solid-wooden ball between two goal posts. It is thought to be the oldest equestrian sport.
The History of Polo
Polo was first documented in central Asia in Persia (now Iran) and dates back to the the 6th century. First thought to be a version of training for cavalry units and the king’s guard, early records shows games between over a 100 horses and almost treated as a mini-battle!
As time moved on polo became a national sport of Persia and was extensively played by noble men and the military but also allowed women riders to take part with references in history to the Queen and her ladies being involved in the 6th century.
From Persia, news traveled fast with the horseback game then popping up in communities across Arabia and then into Tibet, China and Japan.
The word “polo” actually comes from the Tibetan word “pulu” meaning of the word ‘ball’.
In 910 the emperor of China, A-pao-chi, is said to have lost a beloved family member in a polo match accident. He ordered the beheading of all surviving polo players - quickly putting a stop to its growing popularity across China! The polo stick however appears on Chinese royal coats of arms and the game was especially a part of court life in ancient Chinese culture.
Buzkashi, known also as Kokpar, is a traditional Central Asian sport dating back over 5000 years in which horse-mounted players attempt to place a goat or calf carcass in a goal - clearly based on the sport we now call polo.
Polo was thought to be introduced to India by the muslim conquerors in the 13t century and as such introduced to Europeans via the tea plantation industry.
The first ever recorded Polo club was setup in 1859 at Silchar shortly followed by the Calcutta Polo Club in 1860.
Matches were displayed to the British military and as such the sport gathered pace as soldiers looked towards the sport as an activity of fun as well as for training. It was introduced to England in 1875 as an exhibition match at Richmond Park between Richmond and Hurlingham - which attracted more than 10,000 spectators. At the time teams were eight men a side and there were almost no rules!
The following year, 1876, the sport was introduced to the United States where the game became truly global. As clubs begun to pop up across the world the sizes of polo teams were reduced to five and then shortly after to four. In 1888 the first handicap-system was implemented to equalise tournament play and in 1890 the first ever ‘standardised rules book’ was produced by the newly created ‘Polo Association’ which still exists as the main governing body of the sports rules and regulations within the USA today. Outside of the USA the governing body of the sport remains the Hurlingham Polo Association, dating back to that very first polo match in 1875.
In 1909 the style of Polo changed from a relatively slow-paced sport to a far quicker and fast-paced discipline by the introduction of long-handled mallets and a new style of riding where riders deployed wide-open stances to hit the ball harder - these changes revolutionised the sport.
Between 1909 and 1950 the USA became world leaders in the sport of polo and subsequently through the 1920’s and 1930’s the sport developed a popular following in South America and in particular in Argentina. In 1928 the first ever Copa de las Americas (Cup of America) took place between the Argentinian and United States national polo teams.
Since then, Argentina has become dominant on the international stage and are now widely known as ‘the masters’ of the sport. Classified as their national sport top-level games in Argentina can gather crowds of over 60,000.
Polo is now a globally recognised equine discipline.
The Game Itself
The game of polo is an outside equestrian sport which is played on a grass field which is 300 yards long by 160 yards wide. In the centre of each end of the field are two goalposts which must be 8 yards apart. Indoor polo, referred to as ‘Arena Polo’, is now played in some parts of the world allowing the game to be played in the winter months and uses a smaller field of 100 yards long and 50 yards wide and has just three-players per team.
The purpose of the game is to score more goals than the other team before the final whistle.
Two teams line up facing each other in the middle of the field. One of the referees (there are two pony-mounted umpires on the field at one time and one standing on the sideline) throws the ball between the two teams and the game begins!
Each game consists of separated time periods known as chukkers. Each Chukker is 7.5 minutes long and the amount of chukkers played in game depends on where the game is being played. In Argentina most games are 8-chukkers long, in the UK it is more common to play 4-chukkers.
Polo Ponies used in the sport
Several breeds of ponies are used within the sport of polo, and although they are referred to as ‘ponies’ they are in fact full-sized horses.
The animals must be agile, strong, quick-on-their-feet and have high levels of intelligence and endurance. Polo ponies are true ‘sports horses’.
Ponies who reach a good level in the sport have generally had a training period of around two years and in most cases will have reached their full peak at the age of 9 to 10 but will play on into their twenties.
The players and riders
When someone joins a team they are issued a certain position which as with most team sports brings with it certain responsibilities. Positions on the polo field are numbered and not given names.
Number One is responsible for scoring the goals and neutralising the opposite teams defensive player. The position needs high level of anticipation and self-control.
Number Two is often referred to as the ‘hustler’ or ‘scrambler’ and has a responsibility to get stuck in and scrap to win back the ball. It is normally number two who has the slightly fastest animal as their role involves many high speed turns, acceleration and and aggressive nature.
Number Three is the playmaker of the team and is normally the most naturally gifted at hitting the ball accurately and hard - a tactical leader on the field.
Finally, Number Four is generally the more defensive player who is responsible for preventing the other team from scoring.
The handicap in polo is based on each rider being given an individual score with a maximum possible score of 10. The maximum team score is therefor 40. Team handicap scores represents the level of the competition with the most prestigious competitions around the world attracting the top-handicapped players.
Equipment required for polo
It obviously goes without saying that the most important piece of equipment you need to take part in polo is a suitable pony. Taking part in polo, from a horses perspective, is a strenuous activity - so ensure the pony is in good health, sound and has no historic injuries you need to be aware of.
It can take up to tow two-years training for a pony to ‘get to grips’ with all the nuances of the sport so be prepared to train hard before you ever take the field.
Next on your shopping list should be a suitable saddle which fits the horse perfectly. A poor fitting saddle can lead to serious health complications.
The sport is extremely fast-paced and with a solid-ball flying around at high speeds protection for both the rider and their pony is vital. Face guards, knee pads, gloves and helmets are all next on your shopping list with a whole plethora of options available - which are controlled by safety standard regulations.
As well as supporting the riders head and face polo horses require wrapping of their tendons and ligaments before a game. Polo wraps are designed to provide support to the horses legs both from an impact perspective and to provide support to the ligaments and tendons.
As polo ponies are sports horses it is vital that they are cared for and maintained accordingly. Joint supplements are commonly used to provide ongoing support. Polo wraps are slightly different to standard bandages as they are often made from fleece or thicker material to provide that added level of protection. They contain a layer of velcro running through the middle of the wrap which provides the connection when being wrapped around the horses legs. It is important to cover the tendons and the fetlock with the same wrap and to provide equal pressure across the length of wrap.
And finally, it is important to address the need to provide your polo pony with ongoing healthcare and support. Their recovery process is no different to an elite athlete. Many riders now use a variety of technologies developed within their tack - such as the highly acclaimed EQU StreamZ Advanced Magnetic Bands which support the horses recovery process and wellbeing and can be used 24x7.
The most prestigious Polo competitions in the world
The Cowdray Park Gold Cup offers the highest level of competition in the UK, dating back to 1956 and represents the end of the UK championship season. The Queens Cup is played at The Guards Polo Club and is widely resected as the second most prestigious polo tournament in the UK and attracts teams and riders from all over the world, played in the amazing setting of Windsor Great Park.
Every year the international series between Great Britain and the United States drives the sport of polo forward and takes place in the UK. Dating back to its conception in 1886, The Westchester Cup unites everything polo represents: history, international tradition and fierce competition.
Outside of the UK and other prestigious competitions include the Campeonato Abierto de Tortugas (The Tortugas Open-Argentina) - the first leg of the Argentine polo Triple Crown. The tournament attracts the very best riders in the world and in 2009 attracted two 40-goal teams for the first time in history.
Campeonato Abierto de Hurlingham (Hurlingham Open of Argentina) is the second leg in the triple crown with the final leg representing the most prestigious coveted trophy in the game of polo today - The Argentine Open.
The Argentine Open is played on the world famous grounds at Palermo in Buenos Aires which attracts crowds in excess of 40,000 to watch the high-level handicap competition in world polo.
In the United States the U.S. Open Polo Championship is considered to be the most prestigious event held in the US and is the culmination of twenty-six goal polo tournaments that are held throughout the winter season. Polo fans from all over the world attend this event which also attracts some of the finest players and ponies in the sport.
There are many other tournaments held across the world which also provide high level competitions. With Women’s Polo growing across the globe events such as the British Ladies Polo Championships are set to grow the sport even further.
Some fun facts about Polo
- Polo fields are the largest sized professional pitches used in any sport, almost 5 hectares per field or the equivalent to 9 football pitches!
- Polo is thought to be the first ever competed team sport - not just equestrian discipline.
- Polo is a unisex sport where the riders are individually handicapped depending on their skill level, regardless of their gender.
- Left handed players are only allowed to use their right hands. This provides a level of safety to both the riders and the ponies.
- Polo was an Olympic discipline sport between 1900 and 1936. It was decided to be removed as an olympic discipline as it was felt that the pitches were too large and the sport itself was not able to attract a diverse amount of people due to its prohibitive costs.
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