Polo is one of the oldest games played on horseback. As early as 600 B.C., it was developed in Persia, and from there it spread to Turkey in the west, and Central Asia in the east. The Tibetan word for ball, “pulu,” gave the sport its name. From the high steppes of Central Asia and the hill country of the Himalayas, it spread to China, and during the reign of the Mogul emperors, it was introduced to India. English officers stationed in India took up the sport, and brought it to Britain. In the late 1800’s, polo arrived in the Americas.
Over the centuries, and from country to country, the rules have varied greatly. The modern version of the sport has a standard unboarded outdoor polo field of 300 yards (274 m) long and 200 yards (182 m) wide, while the boarded field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, with a safety zone of 10 yards on each side and 30 yards on each end. The boards are no higher than 11 inches. The goal posts are 8 yards (7.3 m) apart, and at least 10 feet high. The posts are designed to flex easily if crashed into by a horse or rider. The penalty lines are marked 30, 40 and 60 yards from each goal or back line, and a centre line is also marked.
The ball weighs 4 1/2 ounces, and is made of willow or bamboo root, or sometimes plastic. It is no more than 3 1/4 inches in diameter. The mallet is made of cane, and is 48 to 52 inches long, with a narrow wooden head attached at a slight angle. Helmets and chin straps are compulsory, as are brown polo boots. The ponies must wear bandages or boots for protection.
A team has four players, numbered 1 and 2 (the forwards), 3 (the pivot) and 4 (the back). The positions are flexible, and if #4 has an opportunity to dash forward and possibly score, he can. One of the teammates will fill his position until he returns to it. Left handed players are not permitted for safety reasons.
The object of the game is to hit the ball between the opponent’s goal posts. The game is divided into periods called chukkas, and each chukka is 7 minutes. There is a rest interval lasting 4 minutes after each chukka. There are 4, 5 or 6 chukkas per game, depending on the level of the competition. Ends are changed only when a goal is scored. A pony may play two chukkas, but must be rested for at least one chukka in between. A player can get by with three ponies.
The game has two mounted umpires on the field, plus a referee in the stands to whom appeal may be made in the event of a disagreement.
Each player has a rating from minus 2 to plus 10 according to his worth in goals to his team, and this rating is assigned by a handicapping committee. The beginning polo player would rate the minus 2 while a very able player would rate a much higher number. The handicap of a team is the total of the individual ratings. Usually, the team with the lower handicap is allowed the number of goals between their aggregate handicaps and those of the opposing team. This system allows beginners to play with experienced players, and weaker teams to compete against top teams.
Polo is played at a fast pace, and collisions are frequent. Many of the rules of the game deal with dangerous riding and right-of-way. The safety of the ponies and riders depends upon the strict enforcement of the rules. Forcing a rider away from the ball and off his course is called riding off, and this action is not only acceptable, but it a necessary strategy of the game. Even so, it must be done in a way that there is a minimum of risk of causing the pony to fall by swerving in front of it or colliding with it. Entangling the pony’s legs with a mallet is forbidden.
Right-of-way is determined by the line of the ball, or if the ball has stopped, by the line on which it last moved. A player has the right-of-way when riding on, or closest to, this line. If another player crosses this line in a way that he might cause a collision, then he has committed a foul.
A player is allowed to ride off another player by placing his horse against the opponent, as long as the horse is ridden at a safe angle. A player may bump his opponent at right angles if the pace is slow, but not more than 40 to 45 degrees if the pace is fast. At the moment of impact, the shoulders of the bumping player’s mount cannot be in front of those of his opponent’s horse, or else a foul would be called.
When two players right to meet head-on, they must give way to the left and play the ball on the right side.
A player is allowed to hook his opponent’s mallet, if the player is on the same side of his opponent as the ball. Hooking over or under the opponent’s mount is foul.
Penalties for committing a foul involve the opponents getting free hits at the goal from specified distances.
The game begins with the umpire bowling the ball underhand between the two teams. Each team is on its own side of the centre line to begin with. The ball is put into play the same way after each goal. If the ball is knocked over the sidelines, the umpire bowls it back into the field at the same point where it crossed the line.
Indoor polo is played with three-player teams. The arena measures 300 feet by 150 feet, with goal posts usually placed 10 feet apart, and never less than 8 feet apart in a small arena. The ball is soft, about 4 1/4 inches in diameter, and weighs six ounces minimum. The games are comprised of four seven-minute periods, with four-minute intervals, and a ten-minute interval at half-time.
Finding suitable mounts for the sport is a challenge. The polo pony must be very intelligent, and be physically able to swerve and dodge while travelling at full speed. He must be able to turn on a dime, follow the ball, and have the instinct to put his rider in a good position to hit the ball. He must be unfazed by the rough and tumble of the play, and by the noises from the stands. Last, but not least, the polo pony must not fear the physical contact with other horses that is integral to the sport.