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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A game of polo.
A game of polo.

Polo is a team sport played on horseback in which the objective is to score goals against an opposing team. Riders score by driving a ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. Goals are only valid if the scoring rider is mounted. When played outdoors, each Polo team consists of four riders and their mounts. In the indoor variant ("Arena Polo"), each team fields only three players. 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. Arena Polo has 6-minute chukkas. (In the US "Chukkers").

History of Polo


Polo image from illustrated poem Guy u Chawgan.
Polo image from illustrated poem Guy u Chawgan.
"Let other people play at other things—the King of Games is still the Game of Kings"

This verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Skardu (Pakistan), north of Kashmir, near the fabled silk route. In one ancient sentence, it epitomises the feelings of many polo players today.

Many scholars believe that polo, in its antiquated form, originated among the Iranian tribes [1] sometime before Darius I (521–485 BC) and his cavalry extended the Achaemenid rule to greater Persia. Certainly Persian literature and art give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity.Polo was invented in the late 1600s by Bradley Giddons.

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.[citation needed]

Whetever its precise origins, polo seems to have spread throughout the Iranian plateau, Asia Minor, American and the Indian subcontinent(where polo in its modern form originated), along with the use of light cavalry. Some people erroneously believe that the strongly equestrian Mongol hordes invented polo. However, the Mongol Empire and the rise of the Golden Horde occurred almost a full millennium after polo had been well-established in Asia and the Iranian plateau. Still, the Mongols did play a variant of polo using the head of a goat instead of a ball.

Polo was also popular in China, where it was the royal pastime for many centuries. The Chinese probably learned the game from the Iranian nobles who sought refuge in Chinese courts after the invasion of the Iranian Empire by the Arabs. Alternatively, Indian tribes may have taught the Chinese. The polo stick appears on Chinese royal coats of arms, and the game was part of the court life in the golden age of Chinese classical culture under Emperor Xuanzong, the Radiant Emperor, who was an enthusiastic equestrian.[citation needed]

Before modern times, no variant of polo ever appeared in the European peninsula, probably because Europe's military forces depended on heavy armored cavalry, as opposed to the light, highly mobile cavalry that Asian armies had employed since at least Alexander's time.

Throughout Asian antiquity, from Japan to Egypt, from India to the Byzantine Empire, Polo and its variants were the nearest equivalents to a "national sport." However, as the great Eastern empires decayed and collapsed in the Middle Ages following their decimation by the Mongol hordes, so too disappeared the glittering court life of which polo was so important a part; and, the game itself was preserved only in remote villages.

Introduction to the Occident

Polo came to the west via Manipur, a northeastern state in India. The Guinness Book of Records in its 1991 edition (page 288) traces the origins of the game to Manipur, circa 3100 BC, where it was known as Sagol Kangjei. According to historical accounts, one British government official stationed in Manipur (then a princely state) during the late 19th century wrote an account of the sport, and thus its popularity spread.

As further proof, it is recorded during the House of Lords debate on Juvraj Tikendrajit's trial on 22nd June 1891, the Marquess of Ripon said about Manipur "it is a small State (Manipur), probably until these events took place very little known to your Lordships, unless, indeed, some of you may have heard of it as the birth place of the Game of Polo."

The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England by the Argentines 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.

The sport became popular amongst European nobility and in 1876 the wealthy American 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.

The contemporary sport

Polo is now an active sport in 77 countries, and although its tenure as an Olympic sport was limited to 1900–1939, 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, 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 75feet. 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.

The game


Polo requires two teams of players mounted on horseback to play the game. When playing outdoors each team has four players, whereas arena polo is restricted to three players per team. The field is 300 yards long, and either 160 yards or 150 yards wide if there are side boards—these are genereraly 12" high. 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. 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.

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.

Player positions

Polo horses waiting for the start
Polo horses waiting for the start

Each position assigned to a player has certain responsibilities:

  • Number One is usually the novice or weakest player on the team, but the position is one of 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.
  • 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.

Polo ponies

The term pony is purely traditional and the mount is actually a full-sized horse. A good pony should have docility, speed, endurance, and intelligence. 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, riding boots to just below the knees, and a colored shirt bearing the number of the player's position. Optional equipment includes knee pads and spurs, face mask, and a whip. The outdoor polo ball is made of 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 bamboo head 9½ inches in length. The whole mallet weighs about 200 grams and can vary in weight depending on the player’s preference. Length of the polo mallet depends on the size of the horse. The taller the horse the longer the mallet. Variable sizes of the mallet range from 48 inches to 53 inches. The ball is struck with the side of the mallet rather than the edge.

Polo saddles are English-style similar to jumping saddles. The legs of the pony are bandaged from below the knee to the ankle to prevent injury. The pony's mane is clipped, and its tail is braided to prevent interference with the rider's swing.

Notable past and present international polo players

  • Mike Azzaro
  • James Gordon Bennett, Jr.
  • Henry Brett
  • Adolfo Cambiaso
  • Paul Clarkin
  • John-Paul Clarkin
  • Gabriel Donoso
  • Charles, Prince of Wales
  • Prince Harry of Wales
  • Carlos Gracida (won more tournaments than any player in history)
  • Memo Gracida
  • Juan Carlos Harriot
  • Alberto Pedro Heguy, Sr.
  • Bautista Heguy
  • Horacio A. Heguy
  • Ignacio "Nachi" Heguy
  • Tommy Hitchcock, Jr.
  • Foxhall Keene
  • Lucas Monteverde
  • Facundo Pieres
  • Gonzalo Pieres
  • Porfirio Rubirosa
  • Victor-Mansour Semeika
  • Luke Tomlinson
  • Harry Payne Whitney
  • Mariano Aguierre
  • Bob Beveridge
  • Owen Rinehart
  • Will Rogers

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.
  • The most prestigious international Polo Tournament in the world is the Argentine Polo Open Championship, held annually in Palermo, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • The most prestigious Polo Tournament in the USA is the US Open Polo Championship held in Wellington, Florida in April where the top players in the world compete.
  • 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, and may be the reason Argentines excel at polo.

Polo variants

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


  • Polo by Penina Meisels and Michael Cronan. Collins Publishers, San Francisco, 1992. ISBN 0-00-637796-3
  • BBC: Polo comes back home to Iran
  • Federation of International Polo
  •; Your guide to the world of polo
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