Polo is a team sport played on horseback in which the objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Sometimes called, “The Sport of Kings”, it was highly popularised by the British. Players score by driving a small white plastic or wooden ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet. The traditional sport of polo is played at speed on a large grass field up to 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, and each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts.
Field polo is played with a solid plastic ball, which has replaced the wooden ball in much of the sport. In arena polo, only three players are required per team and the game usually involves more manoeuvring and shorter plays at lower speeds due to space limitations of the arena. Arena polo is played with a small air-filled ball, similar to a small soccer ball.
The modern game lasts roughly two hours and is divided into periods called chukkers. Polo is played professionally in 16 countries. It was formerly, but is not currently, an Olympic sport.
The Origins of Polo
The origins of Polo goes back to Persia. The game first played in Persia at dates given from the 5th century BC. or much earlier, to the 1st century AD and originated there, polo was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king’s guard or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen, who played it with as many as 100 to a side, it was a miniature battle.
In time, polo became an Iranian national sport played normally by the nobility. Women as well as men played the game, as indicated by references to the queen and her ladies engaging King Khosrow II Parviz and his courtiers in the 6th century AD.
Persian literature and art give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity. Ferdowsi, the famed Iranian poet-historian, gives a number of accounts of royal polo tournaments in his 9th century epic, Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). In the earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticises an international match between Turanian force and the followers of Siyâvash, a legendary Iranian prince from the earliest centuries of the Empire; the poet is eloquent in his praise of Siyâvash’s skills on the polo field.
Sultan Qutb-ud-din Aibak, the Turkic Emperor of North India, ruled as an emperor for only four years, from 1206 to 1210 but died accidentally in 1210 playing polo. While he was playing a game of polo on horseback (also called chougan in Persia), his horse fell and Aibak was impaled on the pommel of his saddle. He was buried near the Anarkali bazaar in Lahore. Aibak’s son Aram, died in 1211 CE, so Shams-ud-din Iltutmish, another ex-slave of Turkic ancestry who was married to Aibak’s daughter, succeeded him as Sultan of Delhi.
From Persia, in medieval times polo spread to the Byzantines (who called it tzykanion), and after the Muslim conquests to the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties of Egypt and the Levant, whose elites favoured it above all other sports. Notable sultans such as Saladin and Baybars were known to play it and encourage it in their court. Polo sticks were features on the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.
Later on, Polo was passed from Persia to other parts of Asia including the Indian subcontinent and China, where it was very popular during the Tang Dynasty and frequently depicted in paintings and statues. 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. The name polo is said to have been derived from the Tibetan word “pulu”, meaning ball.
The Rules of Polo
The rules of polo are written and used to provide for the safety of both players and horses. The rules are enforced in the game by the umpires who blow whistles when a penalty occurs. Strategic plays in polo are based on the “line of the ball”, an imaginary line created by the ball as it travels down the field. This line traces the ball’s path and extends past the ball along that trajectory.
The line of the ball defines rules for players to approach the ball safely. These rules are created and enforced to ensure the welfare of players and their horses. The “line of the ball” changes each time the ball changes direction. The player who hit the ball generally has the right of way, and other players cannot cross the line of the ball in front of that player. As players approach the ball, they ride on either side of the line of the ball giving each access to the ball.
A player can cross the line of the ball when it does not create a dangerous situation. Most fouls and penalty shots are related to players improperly crossing the line of the ball or the right of way. When a player has the line of the ball on his right, he has the right of way. A “ride-off” is when a player moves another player off the line of the ball by making shoulder-to-shoulder contact with the other players’ horses.
The defending player has a variety of opportunities for his or her team to gain possession of the ball. He/she can push the opponent off the line or steal the ball from the opponent. Another common defensive play is called “hooking.” While a player is taking a swing at the ball, his/her opponent can block the swing by using his/her mallet to hook the mallet of the player swinging at the ball.
A player may hook only if is he/she is on the side where the swing is being made or directly in front or behind an opponent. A player may not purposely touch another player, his/her tack or pony with his/her mallet. Unsafe hooking is a foul that will result in a penalty shot being awarded. For example, it is a foul for a player to reach over an opponent’s mount in an attempt to hook.
The other basic defensive play is called the bump or ride-off. It’s similar to a body check in hockey. In a ride-off, a player rides his pony alongside an opponent’s mount in order to move an opponent away from the ball or to take him out of a play. It must be executed properly so that it does not endanger the horses or the players. The angle of contact must be safe and can not knock the horses off balance, or harm the horses in any way. Two players following the line of the ball and riding one another off have the right of way over a single man coming from any direction.
Like in hockey or basketball, fouls are potentially dangerous plays that infringe on the rules of the game. To the novice spectator, fouls may be difficult to discern. There are degrees of dangerous and unfair play and penalty shots are awarded depending based on the severity of the foul and where the foul was committed on the polo field. White lines on the polo field indicate where the mid-field, sixty, forty and thirty yard penalties are taken.
The basic dress of a player is a protective equestrian helmet (usually of a distinctive colour, to be distinguished at the considerable distance from which onlookers are watching the game), riding boots to just below the knees, white trousers (often ordinary denim jeans), and a coloured shirt bearing the number of the player’s position. Optional equipment includes one or two gloves, wristbands, knee-pads (mandatory in some clubs), spurs, face mask, and a whip. The only piece of equipment required by the United States Polo Association (USPA) rules is the helmet or cap with a chin strap.
The outdoor polo ball is made of a high-impact plastic, but was formerly made of either bamboo or willow root. The indoor polo ball is leather-covered and inflated, and is about 4½ inches (11.4 cm) in diameter. The outdoor ball is about 3¼ inches (8.3 cm) in diameter and weighs about four ounces (113.4 g). The polo mallet has a rubber-wrapped grip and a webbed thong, called a sling, for wrapping around the thumb.
The shaft is made of manau-cane (not bamboo because it is hollowed) although a small number of mallets today are made from Composite materials. Composite materials are not preferred by top players, because the shaft of composite mallets can’t absorb vibrations as well as traditional cane mallets. The heads of the mallet are generally a cigar shape made from a hardwood called tipa, approximately 9¼” inches long.
The mallet head weighs from 160 grams to 240 grams, depending on player preference and the type of wood used, and the shaft can vary in weight and flexibility depending on the player’s preference. The weight of the mallet head is of important consideration for the more seasoned players. Female players often use lighter mallets than male players.
For some polo players, the length of the polo mallet depends on the size of the horse: the taller the horse, the longer the mallet. However, some players prefer to use a single length of mallet regardless of the height of the horse. Either way, playing horses of differing heights requires some adjustment by the rider. Variable sizes of the mallet typically range from 50 inches to 53 inches. The ball is struck with the longer sides of the mallet head rather than its round and flat tips.
Polo saddles are English-style, close contact, similar to jumping saddles although most polo saddles lack a flap under the billets, having instead a saddle blanket. Some players omit the saddle blanket. A breastplate is added, usually attached to the front billet. A tie-down (standing Martingale) may be used: if so, for safety a breastplate is a necessity. Usually the tie-down is supported by a neck strap.
An over-girth may be used. The stirrup irons are heavier than most, and the stirrup leathers are wider and thicker, for added safety when the player stands in the stirrups. The legs of the pony are wrapped with polo wraps from below the knee to the fetlock to prevent injury. Jumping (open front) or gallop boots are sometimes used along with the polo wraps for added protection. Often, these wraps match the team colours. The pony’s mane is roached (hogged), and its tail is braided so that it will not snag the rider’s mallet.
The bit frequently is a gag bit or Pelham bit. If a gag bit, there will be a drop nose-band in addition to the cavesson supporting the tie-down. There frequently will be two sets of reins, and one set of reins frequently will be a draw rein.
Polo is now an active sport in 77 countries, and although its tenure as an Olympic sport was limited to 1900–1939, in 1998 the International Olympic Committee recognised it as a sport with an international governing body, the Federation of International Polo. The World Polo Championship is held every three years by the Federation of International Polo.
Polo is, however, played professionally in only a few countries, notably Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Iran, India, New Zealand, Mexico, Pakistan, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely hire and play alongside the sport’s top professionals. The most important tournaments of the world, in a clubs level, are Abierto de Tortugas, Abierto de Hurlingham and Abierto Argentino de Polo, all of them in Argentina (la Triple Corona).
The United States Polo Association (USPA) is the governing body for polo in the U.S. The U.S. is the only country that has separate women’s polo, run by the United States Women’s Polo Federation.
The modern sport has had difficulty grappling with the traditional social and economic exclusivity associated with a game that is inevitably expensive when played at a serious level.
Many polo players genuinely desire to broaden public participation in the sport, both as an end in itself and to increase the standard of play, while others value and seek to preserve the social and economic exclusivity of the sport. The popularity of polo has grown steadily since the 1980s.
Arena (or indoor) polo is an affordable option for many who wish to play the sport, and the rules are similar. The sport is played in a 300 feet by 150 feet enclosed arena, much like those used for other equestrian sports; the minimum size is 150 feet by 75 feet. There are many arena clubs in the United States, and most major polo clubs, including the Santa Barbara Polo & Raquet Club, have active arena programs.
The major differences between the outdoor and indoor games are: speed (outdoor being faster), physicality/roughness (indoor/arena is more physical), ball size (indoor is larger), goal size (because the arena is smaller the goal is smaller), and some penalties. In the United States and Canada, collegiate polo is arena polo; in the UK, collegiate polo is both.