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A game of polo.

Polo is a team sport played outdoor on horseback in which the objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Riders score by driving a white wooden or plastic ball (size 3-3,5 inches, weight 4,25-4,75 ounces) into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. Goals are only valid if the scoring rider is mounted. The traditional sport of polo is played outdoors, and each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts. Play occurs in seven-minute periods, called chukkas. Six chukkas is the normal length of play; however, depending on league rules, matches can also have four or eight chukkas.

The modern indoor variant is called arena polo, and another modern variant is snow polo, which is played either outdoor or indoor on snow on a frozen ground or ice. Each team generally consists of 3 players and also the equipment differ from the sport of polo. Other variants include elephant polo and bike polo. These sports are considered as separate sports because of the differences in the composition of teams, equipment, rules, game facilities etc.



Polo game image in Persia from illustrated poem Guy u Chawgan.

Polo was first played in Persia (what is now modern Iran) at dates given from the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD.<ref name="Britannica"> polo. (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved April 26, 2007, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.</ref> Polo was at first a training game for cavalry units, usually the king's guard or other elite troops. To the warlike tribesmen, who played it with as many as 100 to a side, it was a miniature battle.<ref name="Britannica" /> In time polo became a Persian national sport played extensively by the nobility. Women as well as men played the game, as indicated by references to the queen and her ladies engaging King Khosrow II Parviz and his courtiers in the 6th century AD.<ref name="scottishpolo">Template:Citeweb</ref> Certainly Persian literature and art give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity. Ferdowsi, the famed Iranian poet-historian, gives a number of accounts of royal polo tournaments in his 9th century epic, Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). In the earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticizes an international match between Turanian force and the followers of Siyâvash, a legendary Persian prince from the earliest centuries of the Empire; the poet is eloquent in his praise of Siyâvash's skills on the polo field. Ferdowsi also tells of Emperor Shapur II of the Sassanid dynasty of the 4th century who learned to play polo when he was only seven years old.<ref name="cais"> Naqsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan is in fact a polo field which was built by king Abbas I in 17th century.

Valuable for training Cavalry, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings.<ref name="scottishpolo" /> The name polo is said to have been derived from the Tibetan word "pulu", meaning ball.<ref name=Crego>Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Robert Crego. page 25. Published 2003. Greenwood Press. Sports & Recreation. 296 pages ISBN 0313316104</ref>

The modern game of polo, though formalized and popularized by the British, is derived from the princes of the Tibeto-Burman kingdom of Manipur (India) (now a state in India) in the Southeastern Himalaya play the game while they were in exile in India sometime between 1819 and 1826. The princes were on the run from the Burmese who had overrun their kingdom during what was called the Seven Years' Devastation. The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in Assam, India, in 1834.

The origins of the game in Manipur, are traced to early precursors of Sagol Kangjei. <ref>The Guinness Book of Records. 1991 edition (page 288)</ref> This was one of three forms of hockey in Manipur, the other ones being field hockey (called Khong Kangjei) and wrestling-hockey (called Mukna Kangjei). Local rituals such as those connected to the Marjing, the Winged-Pony God of Polo and the creation-ritual episodes of the Lai Haraoba festival enacting the life of his son, Khori-Phaba, the polo-playing god of sports. These may indicate an origin prior to the historical records of Manipur, which go back to the 1st Century A.D.

In Manipur, polo is traditionally played with seven players to a side. The players are mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands high. There are no goal posts and a player scored simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players were also permitted to carry the ball, though that allowed opponents to physically tackle players when they do so. The sticks were made of cane and the balls were made from the roots of bamboo. Colorful cloth pom-poms dangle at sensitive and vulnerable spots around the anatomy of the ponies in order to protect them. Players protected their legs by attaching leather shields to their saddles and girths.<ref name=Crego2>Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Robert Crego. Page 26. Published 2003. Greenwood Press. Sports & Recreation. 296 pages. ISBN 0313316104</ref>

In Manipur, the game was not merely a "rich" game but was played even by commoners who owned a pony.<ref name=Crego/> The kings of Manipur had a royal polo ground within the ramparts of their Kangla Fort. Here they played Manung Kangjei Bung (literally, "Inner Polo Ground”). Public games were held, as they are still today, at the Mapan Kangjei Bung (literally "Outer Polo Ground”), a polo ground just outside the Kangla. Weekly games called Hapta Kangjei (Weekly Polo) were also played in a polo ground outside the current Palace.

The British are credited with spreading polo worldwide in the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Military officers imported the game to England in the 1860s. The establishment of polo clubs throughout England and western Europe followed after the formal codification of rules.<ref name=Crego2/> The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England in 1869. The game's governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.

This version of polo played in the 19th century was different from the faster form that was played in Manipur. The game was slow and methodical, with little passing between players and few set plays that required specific movements by participants without the ball. Neither players nor horses were trained to play a fast, nonstop game. This form of polo lacked the aggressive methods and equestrian skills to play. From the 1800s to the 1910s, a host of teams representing Indian principalities dominated the international polo scene.<ref name=Crego2/>

Polo found popularity in Argentina and the United States of America.<ref name=Crego3>Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries by Robert Crego. Page 26 - 27. Published 2003. Greenwood Press. Sports & Recreation. 296 pages ISBN 0313316104</ref>

James Gordon Bennett, Jr. organized the first polo match in the United States at Dickel's Riding Academy at 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City. During the early part of the 20th century, under the leadership of Harry Payne Whitney, polo changed to become a high-speed sport in the United States, differing from the game in England, where it involved short passes to move the ball toward the opposition's goal. Whitney and his teammates used the fast break, sending long passes downfield to riders who had broken away from the pack at a full gallop.-----


Polo match in Jaipur

Polo has been termed the 'sport of kings', or sometimes the 'king of sports'. However, one does not have to be a king to be able to afford to play this game which in recent years has again grown in popularity. The enjoyment of playing can be achieved by owning only one horse or by having a whole string of polo ponies. The challenge of the game is to combine highly skilled athletic ability and horsemanship with the efforts of super trained mounts. Game tactics have many similarities to those of soccer, hockey and football. Yet, it is the terrific speed combined with body contact and dart like turns of the horses which gives polo its appeal to spectators and players alike.

The game

Polo in Pakistan

Field polo requires two teams of 4 players each mounted on horseback to play the game. The field is 300 yards long, and either 160 yards or 150 yards wide if there are side boards—these are genereraly 12" high. There are lightweight goalposts on each side of the field spread 8 yards apart. The object of the game is to score the most goals by hitting the ball through the goal.

In arena polo, played mainly in the United States in large arenas such as armories and riding academies, the size of the field varies due to the size of the floor space, but 100 yards long by 50 yards wide is ideal. Arena polo requires teams of three riders, and goals are scored by passing the ball into a 10' goal receded back from the sideboards. Arena polo uses a ball between 12.5" and 15" inches in circumference and looks like a miniature soccer ball.

A game is divided into periods, called chukkas—since 1898, from Hindi chakkar from Sanskrit cakra "circle, wheel", compare chakka—of 7 minutes, and depending on the rules of the particular tournament or league, a game may have 4, 6 or 8 chukkas; 6 chukkas are most common. Games are often played with a handicap in which the sum of the individual players' respective handicaps are compared. The team with the larger handicap is given free points before the start of the game.

The game begins with the two teams of four lined up each team in line forming two rows with the players in order 1, 2, 3, 4 facing the umpire in the center of the playing field. There are two mounted umpires on the field and a referee standing on the sidelines. At the beginning of a game, one of the umpires bowls the ball in hard between the two teams. Teams change goals on ends of the field/arena after each score or chukker for indoor to minimize any wind advantage which may exist. Switching sides also allows each team equal opportunity to start off with the ball on their right side, as all players must hit right handed.

Player positions

Each position assigned to a player has certain responsibilities:

  • Number One is the most difficult to play. Number One's job is to score goals as well as neutralize the opponents Number Four (defensive) player.
  • Number Two needs a fast pony, a keen eye, and high maneuverability as his job is to get hold of the ball, many times after Number One has lost it to the defensive maneuvers of the other team's Number Four, including the very risky and unpredictable ride-offs.
  • Number Three is the tactical leader and must be a long powerful hitter to feed balls to Number Two and Number One as well as maintaining a solid defense. The best player on the team is usually the Number Three player.
  • Number Four is the primary defense player and though he can move anywhere on the field, he often tries to prevent scoring. Usually, most of Number Four's strokes are backhand ones on either side of the mount, trying to drive the ball away from his own goal and towards his own teammates.

Polo ponies

Polo ponies waiting for the start

The term pony is purely traditional and the mount is actually a full-sized horse. A good pony should have docility, speed, and endurance. It is said that the pony is 60 to 75 percent of the player's skill. Thoroughbreds were originally the only breeds used, but in the contemporary sport mixed breeds are common. Many of the best polo ponies are bred in Argentina and United States. Polo training begins at age four and lasts from about six months to two years. Ponies reach their peak at around age 10; but without any accidents, polo ponies may have the ability to play until they are 18 to 20 years of age.


The basic dress of a player is a protective helmet (usually of a distinctive color, to be distinguished at the considerable distance from which onlookers are watching the game), riding boots to just below the knees, white pants (often ordinary denim jeans), and a colored shirt bearing the number of the player's position. Optional equipment includes one or two gloves, wristbands, knee pads (mandatory in some clubs), spurs, face mask, and a whip. The outdoor polo ball is made of a high compact plastic, but was formerly made of either bamboo or willow root. The indoor polo ball is leather-covered and inflated and is about 4½ inches (11.4 cm) in diameter. The outdoor ball is about 3¼ inches (8.3 cm) in diameter and weighs about four ounces (113.4 g). The polo mallet has a rubber-wrapped grip and a webbed thong, called thumb sling, for wrapping around the hand. The shaft is made of bamboo-cane with a hardwood head approximately 9½ inches in length. The mallet head weighs from 160 grams to 240 grams, depending on player preference and the type of wood used, and the shaft can vary in weight and flexibility depending on the player’s preference. The weight of the mallet head (also called "cigar") is of important consideration for the more seasoned players. Female players almost always use lighter mallets and cigars than male players. For some polo players, the length of the polo mallet depends on the size of the horse: the taller the horse, the longer the mallet. However, some players prefer to use a single length of mallet regardless of the height of the horse. Either way, playing horses of differing heights requires some adjustment by the rider. Variable sizes of the mallet range from 48 inches to 53 inches. The ball is struck with the longer sides of the mallet head rather than its round and flat tips.

Polo saddles are English-style similar to jumping saddles. A breastplate is added, usually attached to the front billet. A tie-down (standing Martingale) may be used: if so, for safety a breastplate is a necessity. An overgirth may be used. The stirrup irons are heavier than most, and the stirrup leathers are wider and thicker, for added safety when the player stands in the stirrups. The legs of the pony are wrapped with polo wraps from below the knee to the ankle to prevent injury. Often, these wraps match the team colors. The pony's mane is roached (hogged), and its tail is braided so that it will not snag the rider's mallet.

Outdoor polo

The game consists of six 7 minute chukkers, between which players change mounts. Each chukker used to last 7 1/2 minutes but it was changed to 7 to reduce strain on the horse. There is a four minute interval between chukkers and a ten minute halftime. Play is continuous and is only stopped for penalties, broken tack (equipment) or injury to horse or player. The object is to score goals by hitting the ball between the goal posts, no matter how high in the air. If the ball goes wide of the goal, the defending team is allowed a free 'knock-in' from the place where the ball crossed the goal line, thus getting the ball back into play.

Indoor polo

The game consists of four 7 and a half minute periods also called chukkers, during which players may change mounts. Play is continuous and is only stopped for penalties, broken tack (equipment) or injury to horse or player. The object is to score goals by hitting the ball between the goal posts (which is usually a door with motion sensors). Balls cannot go out of bounds unless the arena played in doesn't have nets or anything to stop the ball going over the 4.5' wall. If the ball goes over it is considered a dead ball and is then bowled in. The arena is smaller than the field that polo is played on outside. Because of the small size of the arena, indoor polo play is slower than outdoor, but much more physical.

The field

The playing field is 300 yards long by 160 yards wide, the approximate area of nine football fields. The playing field is carefully maintained with closely mowed turf providing a safe, fast playing surface. Goals are posts which are set eight yards apart, centered at each end of the field.

The mount (horse)

The mounts are called 'polo ponies', although they are horses ranging from 14.2 to 16 hands high at the wither (one hand equals four inches), and weighing 900-1000 lbs. The polo pony is selected carefully for great speed and stamina, similar to the thoroughbreds at race tracks, as well as agility and maneuverability, similar to the cow pony used on ranches. When riding, by simply moving your hands forward, the horse will move into a swift canter. A well trained horse will carry his rider smoothly and swiftly to the ball and can account for anywhere from 70-80% of a player's ability and net worth to his team.

The player

Edhec polo team players

Each team consists of four mounted players, which can be mixed teams of both men and women. The Number 1 is expected to score the goals and carry out an offensive position. He is usually the least experienced. The Number 2 is also an offensive player but has to be more aggressive since his objective is also to break up the defensive plays of the opposition. The Number 3 is the pivot man, similar to a quarterback in football, and he is usually the long ball hitter and play maker for the team. He usually hits the penalty shots and knock-ins. The Number 4, or back, is the defensive player. He is usually the most conservative player and his job is to guard the goal and keep the opposition from scoring.

The contemporary sport

Polo played as a part of the Olympic games (1900)

Polo is now an active sport in 77 countries, and although its tenure as an Olympic sport was limited to 19001939, in 1998 the International Olympic Committee recognised it as a sport with a bona fide international governing body, the Federation of International Polo.

Polo is, however, played professionally in only a few countries, notably Argentina, England, Pakistan, India, Australia, Spain and the United States. Polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely hire and play alongside the sport's top professionals.

Argentina dominates the professional sport, as its polo team has been the uninterrupted world champion since 1949 and is today the source of most of the world's 10-goal (i.e., top-rated) players. In the world of polo, Argentina's Heguy family are to polo what the Barrymore family is to acting or the Khan family to squash. The Campeonato Argentino Abierto de Polo tournament—over 100 years old and still going strong—remains one of the most important polo competitions in the world.

The U.S. is unique in possessing a professional women's polo league and a men's professional polo league: the United States Women's Polo Federation and the United States Men's Polo Federation, founded in 2000. The 32-team league plays across the country.

The modern sport has had difficulty grappling with the traditional social and economic exclusivity associated with a game that is inevitably expensive when played at a serious level. Many polo athletes genuinely desire to broaden public participation in the sport, both as an end in itself and to increase the standard of play. The popularity of polo has grown steadily since the 1980s, and its future appears to have been greatly strengthened by its return as a varsity sport at universities across the world.

Arena (or indoor) polo is an affordable option for many who wish to play the sport, and the rules are similar. The sport is played in a 300 feet by 150 feet enclosed arena, much like those used for other equestrian sports; the minimum size is 150 feet by 75 feet. There are many arena clubs in the United States, where real estate is at a premium, and most major polo clubs, including the Santa Barbara Polo & Raquet Club, have active arena programs. The major differences between the outdoor and indoor games are: speed (outdoor being faster), physicality/roughness (indoor/arena is more physical), ball size (indoor is larger), goal size (because the arena is smaller the goal is smaller), and some penalties. In the United States and Canada, collegiate polo is arena polo; in the UK, collegiate polo is both.

Notable past and present international polo players

Other facts about polo

  • The oldest royal polo square is the 16th century Maidan-Shah in Isfahan, Iran (Post revolutionary name is: Naghsh-i Jahan Square).
  • The oldest polo club in the world still in existence is the Calcutta Polo Club (1862).
  • The highest polo ground in the world is on the deosai Plateau Baltistan, Pakistan at 4307 meters (14,000 ft).
  • Polo must be played right handed. Left handed play was ruled out in 1975 for safety reasons. To date, only 3 players on the world circuit are left-handed.
  • Argentina has been the uninterrupted world champion since 1949 and is today the source of most of the world's 10 goal (i.e., top-rated) players.
  • Each player in high goal (top level professional) tournaments uses a fresh pony for each chukka because the game is played at a very fast pace, with the horses galloping much of the time. In club games, ponies may play 2 chukkas in a match.

Related sports

  • Buzkashi involves two teams of horsemen, a dead goat and few rules. It is the national game of Afghanistan and a possible precursor of polo.
  • Horseball is a game played on horseback where a ball is handled and points are scored by shooting it through a high net. The sport is a combination of polo, rugby, and basketball.
  • Kokpar is a Kazakh game similar to Buzkashi.
  • Polocrosse is another game played on horseback, a cross between polo and lacrosse.
  • Pato was played in Argentina for centuries, but is much different than modern polo. No mallets are used, and it is not played on grass.

Polo variants

Polo is not played exclusively on horseback. Such polo variants are mostly played for recreational or touristic purposes; they include cowboy polo, water polo, canoe polo, cycle polo, camel polo, elephant polo, golfcart polo, Segway polo, BMX polo, and yak polo.

Charitable polo matches in the United States

  • The Courage Cup is an annual event held on the third Saturday in June in the Greater Washington, DC area at Sheila C. Johnson Field at Great Meadow in The Plains, Virginia. The Courage Cup, is a non-profit corporation which hosts this polo fund raiser to raise funds for Work to Ride, a community-based prevention program that aids disadvantaged urban youth through constructive activities centered on horsemanship, equine sports and education.


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