Polo (Persian: چوگان chogān) is a team sport played on horseback. The objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Players score by driving a small white plastic or wooden ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet.
Mounted nomads in Central Asia already played a version of polo that was part sport and part training for war, with as many as 200 men together. The game followed the nomads’ migration to Persia some time between 600 B.C. and 100 A.D. In Persia, polo became a national sport and was played by the nobility and military men. The game was later formalised and spread west to Constantinople, Tibet, China, Japan and India. Modern polo originated in Manipur, a northeastern state of India when Silchar Polo Club was founded in 1850s by British military officers and tea planters. From India, polo spread quickly, appearing in Malta and England in 1860s and in Ireland, Argentina and Australia in 1870s. Today, upwards of 84 countries play polo.
There are from three to four types of polo: field polo which is played using a solid plastic sphere ball, arena polo which is played with a small air-filled ball, similar to a soccer ball and snow polo. The latest form is beach polo which demands less maintenance & watering and is therefore more ecological. The traditional sport of polo is played on a grass field up to 300 by 160 yards (270 by 150 m) and is played by 2 teams with 4 players in each. In arena polo, only three players are required per team and the game usually involves more maneuvering and shorter plays at lower speeds due to space limitations of arenas.
A game usually consists of 6 chukkas/chukkers, a period of 7 1/2 minutes so there is altogether 45 minutes of play time. The modern game lasts roughly two hours with breaks. Players usually change horse for each chukka so at the end of each chukka, each player dismounts and gets on a new horse. Professionals switch horses every 3-4 minutes in important competitions to keep the fresh horse advantage. If a 6-chukka grass polo match is played on a standard 300 x 160 yard field, that game includes at least fifty horses.
Unlike in many other horse sports, the quality of horses is not that crucial. On international level competitions, designated experts choose horses for teams in order to make sure both sides have similar quality horses. This brings the skills of the player to the core of the game, not horses. However, even though teams cannot always necessarily use their premium horses, breeders still work hard to ameliorate the quality of polo horses. Breeding is important to the sport, not that much for individual teams.
Today, most polo ponies stand around 15 hands, although it is not unusual to see a horse over 16 hands. In the U.S., thoroughbreds are bred with quarter horses in order to get the best qualities of each. Argentines cross thoroughbreds with their own Criollo horses. Argentina is one of the most important breeding countries exporting not only horses but sperm and frozen embryos of polo ponies. In fact, Argentina has one of South America’s most advanced biotechnology sectors, enhancing the breeding business.
Another types of horse can be used as well, for example polo horses in Australia are completely locally bred, due to prohibition of importation. For enthusiasts playing snow polo on quite heavy built Finnhorses in Finland is an exotic experience.
Riders’ polo gear is rather simple: riders have a mallet, helmet, boots and knee pads. Horses are geared up: they have polo saddles with an extra grith, bridles with pelham or gag bit & double reins and martingale. Polo horse’s mains are roached to avoid tangling with reins and tail is braided to not to distract players. Legs are wrapped with fleece bandages and hooves covered with paddings.
- Cut shot: when the player hits the ball to the right whilst riding forward
- Neck shot: when the player hits the ball under the horse’s neck
- Open backhand: defensive shot that goes away from the horse
- Tail backhand: defensive shot played between the tail of the horse
- Near side : used when the player has to hit on the left side of the horse
- Forehand : first shot you learn as a player, the most simple shot and the mist used shot in polo
‘Back’ The number 4 in a polo team is invariable referred to as the ‘Back’ rather than by player’s number
‘Boludo’, means that player has big balls and are therefore a bit stupid. Poor players might get called boludos
‘Hired Assassin’ A professional player
‘Queasy’, the feelings a polo player has just before a fall
‘Type’ is an expression that polo world uses for the body shape of the horse. ‘That’s a typey horse’ means it’s a nice, compact size polo horse
There are celebrity players such as Prince Charles and Tommy Lee Jones.