You fan yourself against the heat and sip a gin and tonic. A blazing sun beats down from an azure sky. Hooves thunder across a verdant plain and a roar goes up into the sky. This is not a cavalry charge. You are a spectator to the game of kings.
Polo originated in Persia approximately 2000 years ago. Polo served to train cavalry soldiers, usually those elite units attached to the King’s household. In those days, competitions included as many as 100 equestrians per side. Women played as well as men in the earlier days of the game. Persian literature refers to King Khosrow II Parvaz and his courtiers competing against his queen and her ladies fifteen centuries ago.
By the Middle Ages, polo spread from Constantinople to Japan. The word polo derives from the Tibetan word pulu, meaning ball. The British popularized the sport and modernized the rules. The modern version is, however, a derivative of the games as played by the princes of Manipur.
Polo is played by a team of four men mounted on polo ponies. The term ponies is figurative as the mounts are usually thoroughbreds 14-16 hands high. Training for a polo pony takes six months to two years, and the pony must be controllable with only one hand on the reins. A string of horses is required even for low scoring matches and as many as eight can be required for the highest scoring matches.
The field in polo is 300 yards long by 200 yards wide and 160 yards wide if sideboards are used. In arena polo, the field is 100 yards by 50 yards.
The game is divided into periods called chukkars, which last seven minutes. Depending on the league, there may be 4, 6, or 8 chukkars although six is the most common. The ball is made of plastic but in former days, willow root or bamboo was used. The ball is compact, about 3” in diameter and four ounces in weight. The mallet has a bamboo handle and a hardwood head. The weight of the head also known as a “cigar” can vary and the handle will vary in length and flexibility according to the player’s preference
Teams consist of four players and the teams may be made up of both men and women. The number 1 player is usually the least experienced player. He is expected to be an offensive player and make goals. Number 2 is also an offensive player but is more aggressive than the number one player as he or she must also break up the opposing team’s defensive plays. Player number 3 makes long shots and penalty shots. He is known as the pivot man he is the equivalent of the quarterback in American football. Number 4, the back is the defensive player and keeps the opposition from scoring goals.
Players wear a helmet and polo jersey with their position number emblazoned on it. White trousers and riding boots complete the ensemble. Many players will also wear protective kneepads and some polo clubs require them. The horse’s mane will be hogged and the tail braided so they do not interfere with the mallet. All players must hit right-handed and teams switch sides after each score to minimize any advantage from the wind. In indoor polo, sides are switched after each chukkar. Each team tries to score by hitting the ball through lightweight goal posts set 8 yards apart and centered at either end of the field. Should a team miss a goal, the defending team is allowed a free “knock-in” to bring the ball back into play.
Though 77 countries field teams for the Olympic Games, polo is played professionally in a handful of countries. Among them are Argentina, Canada, India, Pakistan, England, and the United States. The United States is unique in that it fields the only woman’s professional league in polo; the United States Women’s Polo Federation. Polo is the only sport where amateurs, often team patrons, play alongside professional players. The United States Men’s Polo Federation consists of 32 teams that play throughout the nation.
Polo once thought of as a sport only for the elite is growing in popularity due largely to its return to college campuses as a varsity sport. The Courage Cup is a charitable event held the third Saturday in June at Sheila Johnson Field at the Great Meadow in the Fields, Virginia near Washington D.C. the event raises money for Work to Ride, a community-based prevention program to give disadvantaged urban youth through constructive activities focused on horsemanship, equine sports and education.
America’s Polo Cup is the world’s only invitational polo sporting event held on an international level.
Variants on polo include water polo, elephant polo, and golf cart polo. Buzkashi, the national game of Afghanistan involves two teams of horsemen, few rules and a dead goat. The game may be the precursor to polo teams carry the goat carcass and attempt to throw it into a scoring circle known as the “Circle of Justice” Buzkashi matches can last for days and any force short of tipping over an opponent’s horse may be used. The game originated in the steppes of Central Asia.