Polo is an intense and prestigious game played on horseback in countries around the world. The game is fact-paced and exciting. Both horses and riders must be incredibly athletic to compete at national and international levels.
In the sport of polo, four players compete on each team. The teams play 4 to 6 chukkers which are similar to periods. Chukkers are seven and a half minutes long each. Umpires blow a warning whistle at seven minutes in which teams are allowed to continue to try to score for thirty more seconds. In addition to the eight players on horseback, two umpires are also riding alongside to referee the game. A third umpire watches the game from the ground.
The four players on each team hold specific positions, denoted by their player numbers. Player 1 holds an offensive role, similar to a forward in football. Player 1 must wait near the front of the field until the ball is passed forward to avoid breaking formation. Player 1 either scores the goals and therefore must be an accurate shot, or must block the opposing player 4 in order to clear the way for his teammates hoping to score.
Players 2 and 3 play a midfield position. These players are typically the most athletic and player 3 is generally the captain. Player 2 plays a little more offense and is the is main support to the player 1 position. Player 3 generally plays in between players 2 and 4. Player 3 pushes the ball forward and must have a strong ability to pass downfield.
Player number 4 holds a primarily defensive position. In a man-to-man defensive coordination, players mark their opposites on the field. This player must be powerful and strong. Player 4’s main objective is to block shots and reverse the direction of the ball. Player 4 also blocks and defends the opposing player 1.
The object of polo is to score the most goals in the allotted time. Using the long side of mallet, players hit a ball across the field. The goal is marked by two posts and if the ball goes between the posts, a goal is scored.
The sport of polo has been around since at least 5th century BC in Persia (modern Middle East). The calvary troops played the sport as a kind of training. The sport was also played by royalty, both male and female, as an elite diversion. As the influence of the Muslim world began to spread, polo spread with it. It became very popular in India, from where it then spread to Britain and was westernized.
In India, Manipur developed its own variety of early polo. This sport, derived from traditional field hockey sports, featured seven players per side. This early edition had slightly altered rules and sticks made of cane. The horses used were traditional Manipur ponies that stood 13hh, which is where the traditional “polo ponies” derived from.
In modern game play, the horses are still called “polo ponies” though most polo games are played on full-sized horses. Thoroughbreds make excellent polo ponies because of their explosive speed and endurance. Another popular polo pony is a cross breed from Argentina. Argentina has long dominated international professional polo and their Criollo horses are one of the toughest breeds around.
Another important quality of polo pony is the temperament. The horse must be supple, obedient and able to be controlled with just one hand on the reins. The ability to turn and take off quickly make polo ponies, in some ways, faster than race horses. Horses that play polo can play for many years if they are well-trained and well cared for.
Each polo player has a handicap. The ratings are on a scale from negative two to ten, with ten being the highest. A ranking of ten is very rare and only a few players worldwide hold it. These handicapped are sometimes used to award points to the weaker team to make for a closer game. These points are not awarded in an open tournament. In other tournaments, however, the team handicap is calculated by totaling each player handicap and is measured against the opposing team’s handicap. The difference in points is then awarded to the weaker team.
One component to gameplay in polo is fouls. Polo rules, much like those of lacrosse or field hockey, are designed to keep players and ponies safe. Fouls occur when players do something unsafe. Most fouls are called when players improperly cross the line of the ball. The line of the ball is in imaginary line that traces the ball and its forward trajectory based upon the direction the ball is is traveling. Players are not allowed to cross the line unless it is safe for all players. Game strategy generally involves players riding alongside of the line of the ball in order to send the ball on a different trajectory. As the player who hit the ball has the right of way, much care must be taken when defenders attempt to take the ball away.
In an offensive strategy speed is paramount. If an offensive player has great speed than the other players, that player can continue to hit the ball forward until he/she reaches the goal. If the player is not quite as quick as the others, it is best to have a great deal of control over the ball and the ability to pass accurately.
One popular defensive strategy is called hooking. In hooking, the defensive player hooks the opponent’s mallet with her/her mallet before the opponent has the opportunity to hit the ball. If the hook occurs with the mallet down, a slashing violation can be called. The hooking player should be positioned with the horse’s head near the opponent’s saddle.
Polo is a sport that is enjoyable for spectators as well as players. Often called “the king of sports,” polo has generally been reserved for the upper class. Traditions associated with polo matches are tailgating and divot stomping. Unlike the pints of beer and hotdogs associated with football tailgating, polo tailgating is a bit more reformed. From decor to menu, polo tailgating can be as upperclass as the players. The tailgating parties occur in the parking area before the match begins.
Divot stomping is a long-standing polo tradition. As a way of involving spectators, guests are invited to stomp the divots during half-time. The dirt and grass clumps kicked up during the first half of the match are put back in place and spectators have a chance to get on the field. Usually this tradition is more for socializing than repairing the field, but it does serve both purposes well.
From the spectators to the players to the horses, polo is a fast-paced and exciting game for all participants. The sport is slowly becoming more accessible to further reaches of the population and through different countries across the world.