Hose polo has been around for centuries. It is fast and furious, and great fun! It requires a lot of athleticism from the horses, and stamina, as well as the ability to turn very quickly, think on their feet and run very fast. It is also a test of the rider; they need to be able to make split second decisions, react quickly, get into tight spaces and manage to keep an eye on the ball all at the same time. It can be a very tricky game! Let’s have a look at the history and rules of this well known sport.
Short History Of Horse Polo
Polo is one of the oldest known team sports; it was first played in Persia from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE. It was originally used as a training game for cavalry units, either the King’s Guard or other elite troops, because to play the game well requires skill on the part of both horse and rider, and it is an excellent way of developing speed, strength and stamina. There was no elitism at this time in the sport however, and anyone who had a horse could join in.
Polo as we know it today was popularised by the British in India, and it is derived from Manipur, India, where the name “Polo” arose – it was the Anglicised form of the word “Pulu” which refers to the wooden ball that was used.
Horse polo is now an incredibly popular spectator sport, which is played professionally in 16 countries, and it was even an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936. Polo became a massively popular sport in many countries, and its fame in England grew to such an extent that matches attracted more than 10,000 spectators by 1875.
It remained a favorite of the military, but also spread to universities, the nobility and royalty – Winston Churchill played, and waxed lyrical about his favorite sport. Today, Princes William and Harry and other members of the royal family are well known players of the game.
Polo made it to the US, and it then became an international competition, with the first match between the UK and the US taking place in 1886. England maintained their grip on the Westchester Cup that year, but from 1909 to 1950 the US reigned supreme in polo.
Polo spread to Argentina in the 1920s and 30s, and since then Argentina has become the undisputed master of international polo – partly because their horses are well suited to the type of riding and physical characteristics required.
Unusually for many sports, polo has been since its first origins a game for both men and women. Both kings and queens used to play when it was first invented, and nowadays a woman sometimes plays as the fourth member of an all male team. There are also women-only polo matches as well as those solely for men.
Equestrian sports are one of the very few sports where men and women compete equally, because it is not a test of bodies but of riding ability, and both sexes can be equally proficient.
The game is played by two teams, each with four mounted riders. Each player has responsibilities:
- Number One is usually the most inexperienced of the team, and is theoretically responsible for scoring goals and neutralising the opposition.
- Number Two is a “hustler” or “scrambler”, always chasing the ball and trying to prevent the opposition from getting hold of it.
- Number Three is the equivalent of a quarterback, who is tactically the leader and is charge of feeding balls to One and Two, and who also maintains the defence.
- Number Four is a defensive player, mainly taking care of preventing the other team from scoring, though he may move anywhere on the pitch.
The objective of the game is to hit a small hard ball into the opposing team’s net, using a long handled wooden mallet. A match usually lasts one to two hours, and is divided into time periods of seven minutes, called “chukkas”, of which there are eight in a game.
Indoor polo, also known as Arena Polo, is played inside, with three players to a side, and the chukkas last seven and a half minutes.
In the top levels of the game, players swap horses at the end of every chukka, because the horses have to gallop continuously and can tire out.
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In the first days of the game, polo ponies really were ponies – there was even an attempt to limit the height to 14 hands, raised to 14.2 in 1895. These restrictions were completely removed after WW1, and nowadays it is not unusual to see a polo horse standing over 16 hands.
Smaller ponies do have an advantage in that they can turn tighter and nip into smaller spaces, but any horse can be trained to be agile enough to excel in a polo match.
The best polo mounts are speedy, possess great stamina and agility, and have a calm disposition that allows them to focus their energy on the game. The pony is judged to be 60-75% of the player’s ability – after all, without the horse it would be a very different game!
In the early days of the game only Thoroughbreds were used, but these days mixed breed horses are very common, and some do even better than their Thoroughbred counterparts. Their peak performance is usually reached around 9 or 10, but a pony can continue to play until 18 or 20, barring any accidents.
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It can be a dangerous game, because of the speed with which it is played, so a good approved riding helmet is a must. Riding boots that come just below the knee are worn, on both the horse and the rider – the horse’s boots are to protect his legs from injury from a stray mallet or a flying hoof. The saddles are generally English-style, with deep seats like a jumping saddle, to allow the rider to sit the horse well.
Polo ponies tend to have their manes clipped and their tails plaited, to prevent the hair interfering with the swing of the mallet.
Horse polo is great fun to play, and it makes for a fun an exciting spectator sport too.