Scholars believe polo originated in China or Persia as many as 2,000 years ago, and the game was originally used for training cavalry. The first recorded polo match was played between the Turkomans and the Persians (the Turkomans won), and the game was played from Constantinople to Japan in the Middle Ages. Then, thanks to the Persians and the Monguls of India, polo spread across the eastern world by the 16th century.
The modern age of polo began when the British discovered the game in Manipur on the border of India and Burma and founded the world’s first polo club at Silchar. Many other clubs followed and today the Calcutta Club, which was founded in 1862, is the world’s oldest. British soldiers and tea planters in India quickly took up the sport, prompting its spread to the West, and today the oldest clubs outside of India include The Malta Polo Club, the All Ireland Polo Club in Dublin, England’s Monmouthshire Polo Club and the Meadowbrook Polo Club on Long Island in New York. From there, the sport headed south to Argentina and around the globe to Australia, making polo the international sport that it is today.
To get the most out of polo, it helps to understand the ins and outs of the game.
The field: The polo field is 300 yards long by 160 yards wide (the area of nine football fields). The goalposts are eight yards apart. The boundaries of the field can either be “boarded” with 12-inch boards or marked with white lines.
Two teams of four compete on the field. While each player plays both defense and offense throughout the game, each player’s number indicates his or her actual role or position. Number 1 is a forward player responsible for offense, Number 2 plays offense and supports Number 1 in addition to playing defense, Number 3 tries to take possession of the ball, passes and hits the ball downfield, and Number 4 defends the goal and returns the ball to teammates.
Similar to soccer, the objective of polo is to drive the ball (which is made of white plastic and weighs 4.5 ounces with a 3.5-inch diameter) downfield and between the opponent’s goalposts. The game is divided into six seven-and-a-half-minute play periods called “chukkers.” The “line of the ball” is the imaginary path the ball travels on, and it represents a right-of-way for the last player striking the ball. (Crossing “the line” is the most frequent foul in the game.) When the ball is hit between the goalposts, a point is scored and the teams switch ends of the field.
Both the players and the ponies are outfitted with the tools they need to win the game.
• Bandages: The ponies’ legs are wrapped in order to prevent contact with the polo ball.
• Breeches: The rules state players’ breeches (pants) must be white, and they are double-seated to provide a cushion from rough riding.
• Bridle: This headgear is comprised of a collection of straps and supports that allow the player to steer the pony.
• Draw reins: Made of strong yet supple leather, the reins provide an effective method for controlling the pony and making fast turns and stops.
• Helmet: Covered in linen, the helmet protects the player from oncoming balls that can travel up to 100 mph. Some players wear helmets with metal face guards.
• Mallet: Made of bamboo or cane with a hardwood head, polo mallets range in length from 49 to 53 inches to accommodate the player’s swing and the size of the pony. As a rule, the mallet is always held in the player’s right hand.
• Martingale: This reinforced strap steadies the pony’s head.
• Riding gloves: Leather gloves give the player a better grip on the reins and the mallet.
• Saddle: The polo saddle is an English saddle with a wide, deep seat and a cantle (rear portion) designed for easy movement.
All players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10, with 10 being the best. This rating is based on the player’s ability and has nothing to do with the number of goals scored. There are many factors that determine a player’s handicap, including his or her horsemanship, hitting, quality of horse, team play, game sense and sportsmanship. The team handicap is the sum of the players’ handicaps. In handicap matches, the team with the lower handicap is awarded the difference in goals at the beginning of the match.
• -2 to -1: Beginner
• 0: Average
• 1 to 3: Good
• 4 to 8: Very good
• 9 to 10: Elite
The Polo Glossary
Brush up on the polo jargon so you’re sure not to miss a second of the action.
Appealing: Players express their desire for a foul by raising their mallets overhead, with or without a helicopter motion. Overzealous appealing is frowned upon.
Backshot: This backhand swing is one of the basic strokes that sends the ball in the opposite direction to change the flow of play.
Bowl in: When the umpire starts or resumes play by rolling the ball down a lineup of the players. (Also known as a throw in.)
Bump: When a player rides into another to disrupt his shot or remove him from play.
Check and turn: To slow the pony and turn safely.
Hook: When a player catches an opponent’s mallet in swing below the level of the pony’s back to turn or leave the ball for a teammate.
Knock in: If a team hits the ball across their opponent’s backline, the defending team gets a free shot from the backline.
Line of the ball: The imaginary path the ball travels on after it is hit.
Made pony: A seasoned, well-trained polo pony.
Near shot: Shot from the left side of the pony.
Neckshot: Shot made by hitting the ball under the pony’s neck.
Off shot: Shot from the right side of the pony.
Penalty: Numbered from one to ten, a penalty awards a free shot to the fouled player from a set distance determined by the severity of the foul.
Pony goal: When a pony causes the ball to go through the goal posts.
Ride off: When two riders make contact and attempt to push each other off the line of the ball to prevent the opponent from striking the ball.
Safety: When a defending player hits the ball across his own backline. Also known as Penalty 6.
Stick and ball: Personal practice time.
Sudden death: Overtime play where the first team to score a goal wins.
Tack: All of the equipment used on the pony.
Tailshot: Shot made by hitting the ball across the pony’s tail.