History of Polo
Polo is a team sport played on horseback in which the objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Riders 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 in length, and each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts.
A modern variant is called arena polo which is played indoors or more commonly outdoors on an enclosed all-weather surface (the field of play is much smaller, rarely exceeding 100 yards in length). In arena polo there are only three players on each team and a small inflatable leather ball is used instead. Arena polo matches usually consist of four 6 minute periods (called chukkas or chukkers), as opposed to field polo matches which consist of between four and eight 7 minute chukkas (depending on the level being played).
Another modern variant is snow polo, which is played on compacted snow on flat ground or a frozen lake. The format of snow polo varies depending on the space available. Each team generally consists of three players and a bright colored light plastic ball is preferred. Other variants include camel polo, elephant polo, bike polo, Segway polo and beach polo. These sports are considered as separate sports because of the differences in the composition of teams, equipment, rules, game facilities etc.
History of Polo
A game first played in Tibet at dates given from the 6th 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 extensively 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. Certainly 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 romanticizes 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. Ferdowsi also tells of Emperor Shapur II of the Sassanid dynasty of the 4th century who learned to play polo when he was only seven years old.
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 modern game of polo, though formalized and popularized by the British, is derived from Manipur (now a state in India) who played the game known as 'Sagol Kangjei','Kanjai-bazee', or 'Pulu'. It was the anglicized form of the latter, referring to the wooden ball which was used, that was adopted by the sport in its slow spread to the west. The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in Assam, India, in 1834.
The origins of the game in Manipur are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (called Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (called Mukna Kangjei). Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports. These may indicate an origin prior to the historical records of Manipur, which go back to the 1st Century A.D.
In Manipur, polo is traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands high. There are no goal posts and a player scored simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players were also permitted to carry the ball, though that allowed opponents to physically tackle players when they do so. The sticks were made of cane and the balls were made from the roots of bamboo. Colorful cloth pom-poms dangle at sensitive and vulnerable spots around the anatomy of the ponies in order to protect them. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.
In Manipur, the game was not merely a "rich" game but was played even by commoners who owned a pony. The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort. Here they played Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, "Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally "Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.
In 1862, the first polo club, Calcutta Polo Club was established by two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Shearer. Later they spread the game to their peers in England. The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Military officers imported the game to Britain in the 1860s. The establishment of polo clubs throughout England and Western Europe followed after the formal codification of rules. The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England in 1869. The game's governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.
This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. From the 1800s to the 1910s, a host of teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.
Polo found popularity in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Pakistan and the United States of America. James Gordon Bennett, Jr. organized the first polo match in the United States at Dickel's Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. During the early part of the 20th century, under the leadership of Harry Payne Whitney, polo changed to become a high-speed sport in the United States, differing from the game in England, where it involved short passes to move the ball toward the opposition's goal. Whitney and his teammates used the fast break, sending long passes downfield to riders who had broken away from the pack at a full gallop.
The oldest polo ground in the world is the Imphal Polo Ground in Manipur State established by the British in India. The history of this polo ground is contained in the royal chronicle "Cheitharol Kumbaba" starting from AD 33. Lieutenant Sherer, the father of modern polo visited the state and played on this polo ground in the 1850s. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India visited the state in 1901 and measured the polo ground as 225 yards long and 110 yards wide. The oldest royal polo square is the 16th century Gilgit Polo Field, Pakistan, while the highest polo ground in the world, Shandur, located in district Chitral, Pakistan at 4307 meters (14,000 ft).A traditional polo tournament between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit takes place every year in July. Maj Cobb from British Raj was a polo fan and he used to come to Shandur for playing polo on the invitation of Mehtar Chitral in moon light. The oldest polo club in the world still in existence is the Calcutta Polo Club (1862).
The Game of Polo
Field polo requires two teams of 4 players. A full-size field is 300 yards long, and either 200 yards or 160 yards wide if there are side boards—these are generally 6" high. There are tall collapsible goalposts at each end of the field spread 8 yards apart. The object of the game is to score the most goals by hitting the ball through the goal. Ends are changed after a goal is scored.
In arena polo, which is popular in the United States and England, the size of the field is ideally 100 yards long by 50 yards wide. The size of arena fields in the United States, where arena polo was first played, is often more variable where indoor armories and riding academies are still occasionally used. The playing boundary is marked by high wooden walls (usually at least 6 feet high). Arena polo requires teams of three riders, and goals are scored by passing the ball into a 10-foot-wide by 12-foot-high goal recessed into the end walls. In arena polo, ends are changed at the end of each 6-minute period (chukka or chukker) and not after a goal is scored. Arena polo uses a small leather ball between 12.5 and 15 inches in circumference and looks like a miniature soccer ball.
In Pakistan Shandur invites visitors to experience a traditional polo tournament between the teams of Chitral and Gilgit in every year of July. The tournament is held on Shandur Pass, the highest polo ground in the world at 3,700 meters. The festival also includes Folk music , dancing and a camping village is set up.
Gilgit, Chitral and Skardu have always played the game of polo closest to its original form. In the past, local Khans, Mirs and Mehtars were the patrons of the game. At times, more than 50% of the annual budget of their principalities would be spent on supporting the game.
A polo game has periods of play, known as chukkas (also chukkers). This term originated in 1898 and is derived from Hindi chakkar from Sanskrit chakra "circle, wheel" (compare chakka). Depending on the rules of the particular tournament or league, a game may have 4, 6 or 8 chukkas; 6 chukkas are most common. Usually, each chukka is 7 minutes long, but some games are played in shorter chukkas. Between chukkas, the players switch to fresh ponies. In less competitive polo leagues, players may play only two ponies, alternating between them. For more competitive leagues, and in United States intercollegiate polo, each pony is played in at most two chukkas.
Games are often played with a handicap in which the sum of the individual players' respective handicaps are compared. The team with the lower handicap is given the difference in handicaps as goals before the start of the game.
The game begins with the two teams of four lined up each team in line forming two rows with the players in order 1, 2, 3, 4 facing the umpire in the center of the playing field. There are two mounted umpires on the field and a referee standing on the sidelines. At the beginning of a game, one of the umpires bowls the ball in hard between the two teams. Teams change goals on ends of the field/arena after each score or chukker for indoor to minimize any wind advantage which may exist. Switching sides also allows each team equal opportunity to start off with the ball on their right side, as all players must hit right-handed.
The mounts used are called 'polo ponies', although the term pony is purely traditional and the mount is actually a full-sized horse. They range from 14.2 to 16 hands high at the withers (one hand equals four inches or 10.16cm), and weigh between 900-1100 lbs. The polo pony is selected carefully for quick bursts of speed, stamina, agility and maneuverability. Temperament is critical; the horse must remain responsive under pressure and not become excited or difficult to control. Many are Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred crosses. They are trained to be handled with one hand on the reins, and to be responsive to the rider's leg and weight cues for moving forward, turning and stopping. A well trained horse will carry his rider smoothly and swiftly to the ball and can account for 60 to 75 percent of the player's skill and net worth to his team.
Polo training generally begins at age three and lasts from about six months to two years. Most horses reach full physical maturity at about age five, and ponies are at their peak of athleticism and training at around age 6 or 7. However, without any accidents, polo ponies may have the ability to play until they are 18 to 20 years of age.
More than one pony per player is needed in order to allow tired mounts to be changed for fresh mounts between or even during chukkas. There are typically between 4 to 8 ponies per player. The group of ponies for a given player is commonly referred to as a "string of polo ponies", with a minimum of 2 or 3 ponies in Low Goal matches (with ponies being rested for at least a chukker before reuse), 4 or more ponies for Medium Goal matches (at least one per chukker), many more for the highest levels of competition.
Each team consists of four mounted players, which can be mixed teams of both men and women.
Each position assigned to a player has certain responsibilities:
- Number One is the most offensive position on the field. The number one position generally covers the opposing team's number four.
- Number Two has an important offensive role of either running through and scoring themself, or passing to the number one and getting in behind them. Defensively they will cover the opposing team's number three--generally the other team's best player. Given the difficulty of this position, it is not uncommon for the best player on the team to play number two so long as another strong player is available to play three.
- Number Three is the tactical leader and must be a long powerful hitter to feed balls to Number Two and Number One as well as maintaining a solid defense. The best player on the team is usually the Number Three player (Usually wielding the highest handicap).
- Number Four is the primary defense player and though they can move anywhere on the field, they often try to prevent scoring. The excessive defense of the number four allows the number three to commit to more offensive plays knowing they will be covered if they lose the ball.
Polo must be played right-handed. Left-handed play was ruled out in 1975 for safety reasons. To date, only 3 players on the world circuit are left-handed.
The basic dress of a player is a protective helmet (usually of a distinctive color, 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 colored shirt bearing the number of the player's position. Optional equipment includes one or two gloves, wristbands, kneepads (mandatory in some clubs), spurs, face mask, and a whip.
Polo player wearing kneepads, "riding off" an opponent
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 thumb sling, for wrapping around the hand. The shaft is made of manau-cane (not bamboo because it is hollowed) with a hardwood head from tipa wood approximately 9½ inches in length. 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 (also called "cigar") is of important consideration for the more seasoned players. Female players almost always use lighter mallets and cigars 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 48 inches to 54 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, 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 overgirth 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. Often, these wraps match the team colors. 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 noseband 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.
The playing field is 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, the approximate area of nine American football fields. The playing field is carefully maintained with closely mowed turf providing a safe, fast playing surface. Goals are posts which are set eight yards apart, centered at each end of the field. The surface of a polo field requires careful and constant grounds maintenance to keep the surface in good playing condition. During half-time of a match, spectators are invited to go onto the field to participate in a polo tradition called "divot stamping", which has developed to not only help replace the mounds of earth (divots) that are torn up by the horses' hooves, but to afford spectators the opportunity to walk about and socialize.
The game consists of six 7 minute chukkas, between or during which players change mounts. At the end of each 7 minute chukka, play continues for an additional 30 seconds or until a stoppage in play, whichever comes first. There is a four minute interval between chukkas and a ten minute halftime. Play is continuous and is only stopped for penalties, broken tack (equipment) or injury to horse or player. The object is to score goals by hitting the ball between the goal posts, no matter how high in the air. If the ball goes wide of the goal, the defending team is allowed a free 'knock-in' from the place where the ball crossed the goal line, thus getting the ball back into play.
There are minor variations between the US and British rules of arena polo. The game consists of four periods also called chukkas (six and a half minute chukkas are currently played under British arena rules), between which players change mounts. An individual horse may not play two successive chukkas. Play is continuous and is only stopped for penalties, broken equipment that may be dangerous, or injury to horse or player. The object is to score goals by hitting the ball against the back wall of the recessed goalmouths at each end of the arena. Ends change at the end of each chukka not after goals are scored as in field polo. High wooden boundary walls, which are usually 5-6 feet high, and netting above the walls aim to prevent the ball from going out of bounds. If the ball goes out it is considered a dead ball and the game is restarted (under current British arena rules free hits are awarded against the team that hit the ball out). Although the smaller playing area in arena polo prevents the horses from galloping at the speeds reached in field polo, the game is arguably quicker with non-stop end-to-end action.
The Contemporary Sport of Polo
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 recognized it as a sport with a bona fide international governing body, the Federation of International Polo.
Polo is, however, played professionally in only a few countries, notably Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, India, 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 United States Polo Association (USPA) is the governing body for polo in the U.S. However, the U.S. is unique in that it possesses a professional women's polo league and a men's professional polo league: the United States Women's Polo Federation and the United States Men's Polo Federation, founded in 2000. The 32-team league plays across the country.
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 athletes genuinely desire to broaden public participation in the sport, both as an end in itself and to increase the standard of play. The popularity of polo has grown steadily since the 1980s, and its future appears to have been greatly strengthened by its return as a varsity sport at universities across the world.
The World Polo Championship is held every three years by the Federation of International Polo. 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.
Polo in Southeast Asia
After an 18 year absence, polo gained Olympic recognition when it was played at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games. Nations that competed in the tournament were Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines. The tournament's gold medal was won by the Malaysian team, followed by Singapore with silver and Thailand with bronze.
The recent surge of excitement in south-east Asia around the game has resulted in its popularity in cities such as Pattaya, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. In Pattaya alone, there are 3 active polo clubs (Polo Escape, Siam Polo Park and Thai Polo and Equestrian Club. Indonesia, a country without royal ruling, has a polo club (Nusantara Polo Club). A South East Asian Polo Federation was formed with initial meeting in March 2008 that involves Royal Malaysian Polo Association, Thailand Polo Association, Indonesian Polo Association, Singapore Polo Association, Royal Brunai Polo Association and The Philippines Polo Association. More recently, Janek Gazecki and Ruki Baillieu have organized polo matches in parks "around metropolitan Australia, backed by wealthy sponsors."
A new Chinese Equestrian Association has been formed and two new clubs have been formed in China itself: the Beijing Sunny Time Polo Club, founded by Xia Yang in 2004 and the Nine Dragons Hill Polo Club in Shanghai, founded in 2005.
Notable Polo Players
Below is a list of notable contemporary Polo Players from around the world:
- Pete Bostwick
- Henry Brett
- Adolfo Cambiaso
- Mariano Aguerre
- Bartolome Castagnola
- John-Paul Clarkin
- Paul Clarkin
- Dennis Coleridge Boles
- Gabriel Donoso
- Prince Charles
- Robert L. Gerry, Jr
- Carlos Gracida
- Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.
- Walter Jones
- Gonzalo Pieres
- Facundo Pieres
- Robert Skene
- Porfirio Rubirosa
- Luke Tomlinson
- Harry Payne Whitney