Nicknamed the Sport of Kings due to its popularity with royalty past & present, the fast-paced equine sport of polo is played all over the world, from the green fields of England and emerald pitches of Palm Beach, to beneath the soaring high rises of Buenos Aires.
A variation of polo has been played for the past 2,500 years. It is thought that the original game was endorsed by nomadic tribesmen on the Steppes of Central Asia as a way of crafting their horsemanship and honing the skills they later used in battle. History tells us that the sport was played in Persia during the reign of King Darius I in 522 BCE before it spread along trade routes to China, Tibet, and India.
In 1863, the Calcutta Polo Club – still active to this day – saw British officers take to the field where they were quickly hooked on a game of speed and bravery. Within a decade, the Hurlingham Polo Committee in London had drawn up the official rules of the modern game, and its popularity grew throughout the country's high society. In 1876, American publisher, James Gordon Bennet Jr. introduced the sport to the States, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ok, the basics. Each team has four players; players number one and two are typically in attack, player number three is the pivot, and four is defense or the back to defend the goal and drive the ball up to the opposing end. A player is given a rating or ‘handicap’ from -2 to 10, with the latter being the best, the Brady or LeBron of the sport.
The aim is to score as many goals as possible by hitting the ball with the mallet or 'stick' through the goal posts at either end of the 300 x 160 yards field. Each time a goal is scored, the teams switch ends. Each match is split into 7-minute sections or ‘chukkers’; the lower or medium levels tend to play four, with the upper echelons of the sport playing six or even eight.
The main rule to keep an eye on, is the ‘line of the ball’. When a player hits the ball, they create an imaginary line that cannot be crossed. If an opposing player does so, it’s a foul and the penalty will depend on the severity. You will notice the players and horses ‘bumping’ against each other in what is called a ‘ride off’ where essentially the player is trying to push the opponent off the line and take the ball for themselves. Think of it like a car joining the highway. Listen out for the whistle blown by either of the two umpires on the field and watch out for the players lifting their sticks in the air when they feel a foul has been made.
Polo has been described as hockey on horseback or as actor, Sylvester Stallone pronounces: "…like trying to play golf during an earthquake." – aka it is not for the faint-hearted. Understandably the players need to be agile and fearless with excellent hand-eye-ball coordination, but most will tribute the real athleticism to their horses, the true heroes of the sport.
What else do you need to know? At half-time, get ready to take to the field and tread in the divots – it’s a time-honored tradition that is your contribution to this ancient game.