Passion and Elegance
© Jacques Toffi
Unlike in the great polo nations such as Argentina, Great Britain, and the US, the polo scene here in Germany is still a rather small one. However, over the last few years there has been some progress here too. More and more, the game is freeing itself of its niche-status and new clubs have sprung up. The appeal of polo is such that an increasing number of polo fans are no longer satisfied with experiencing the fascinating mix of technique, speed, and teamwork on the sidelines and prefer to get into the saddle to actively take part in this dynamic sport. It is becoming commonplace to borrow horses for polo classes offered by professional instructors and polo schools are prospering.
The growing numbers of spectators at major tournaments also speak for themselves. The polo followership is growing. It is essential for new entrants to have some basic knowledge of polo even if they only want to observe the games on the sidelines this season. We shall therefore take a quick look at some key information about this century-old game which still continues to hold its fascination for many.
The field is about seven times the size of a usual football (soccer) field. However, the size of a polo field may vary – as it usually does. Wicker goal posts, which are collapsible for safety reasons, mark the 7.32-meter-wide open top goals. Teams are made up of four players each. A game usually has four periods of play, known as chukkas, each of which lasts seven and a half minutes. Just like in ice hockey, it is only the actual time of play that counts; the clock is therefore stopped whenever there is foul play. While players are expected to play the full game without substitution, polo ponies may not be played in consecutive chukkas. Safety of the horse is paramount in polo. If, for instance, a pony’s bandage comes undone, the whistle is blown to stop play. However, play is not stopped if a player suffers a harmless fall. In short: a polo player entering a tournament must have at least two polo ponies. Four ponies is a professional number, while five are ideal just in case. Some players even bring along six ponies.
The teams change sides after each goal. Many spectators and some polo beginners are irritated by this rule which stems from the hot and sunny colonies where it was a considerable disadvantage to play against the sun. The rule also ensures that the turf at the goalmouth of the weaker team does not get permanently damaged in one-sided matches where one team is dominating the game. As with Golf, in Polo – which was an Olympic discipline between 1908 and 1936 – players are rated in handicaps which they can improve with goals scored or victories at tournaments. Handicaps range from -2 for beginners to a very seldom achieved +10 goals for the best players. Nevertheless, many an Argentine player would rank way beyond the 10-goal limit – if the rules would only let them.
The best German players are ranked +4 and +5. The ranking is crucial for the setting up of polo teams as the handicaps of the four players are added up to derive the so-called team handicap. Handicap tournaments range from “Low Goal” to “High Goal” with the respective restrictions and handicap limits. Polo is a game for tacticians and technicians. Acrobatics may also be part of it as it involves racing at top speeds while striking a 130-gram, ball of 7.5 cm diameter in full gallop, aiming at the opponent’s goal. Proper covering of the opponent, tactical oversight, and precision are the key to success. Experience has shown that players who cannot intuitively discern the flow of the game and keep their eye on well positioned teammates can hardly expect to make it to being average players. Experience has also shown that especially when the riders are beginners, most often than not the ponies react faster to changes and developments in the game.
There is also a secret and history to the breeding of polo ponies. Rosewater, the English pure bred stallion, and his sons are the ancestors of today’s polo pony. Long before polo was even heard of in Europe, the fast-paced game was very popular in Asia. British officers, who were stationed in India at the end of the 19th century, picked interest in the game and continued playing it even when they returned home. The first rules of polo were then written down by the Hurlingham Polo Club which was founded in the U.K. in 1876. To this day, these rules are referred to in international polo.
From the U.K. the game found its way to the United States where the handicap system was established. The system was then adopted in England and India in 1910. The British also took the game to South America where it was picked up with much enthusiasm. The Argentines fell head over heels in love with the game. While Europe fought her wars in the 20th century and paid less attention to polo, the South Americans overtook everyone else in technique and skills to become the undisputed world stars of polo. Today they boast the highest number of 10-goal players.