POLO 101: All You Need To Know

POLO 101: All You Need To Know Get Ready For The Sidelines With A Primer On The ‘Sport Of Kings’

By Y.A. Teitelbaum

“Playing polo is like trying to play golf during an earthquake,” is a quote attributed to actor and avid polo player Sylvester Stallone.

While golf is generally an individual sport, polo is one of the oldest team sports, with its origins in central Asia more than 2,000 years ago. Mounted nomads played a version that had elements of sports and training for war, with as many as 100 men on a side and using the heads of their vanquished foes as the ball.

Polo has since evolved into an intricate sport of four players per team that combines intelligence, strength, power, flexibility and physicality while riding 1,000-pound horses at high speeds on a 300-yard by 160-yard grass field. Whoever scores the most goals, wins — like hockey on horseback, but without a goalie.

The best players in the world are in Wellington during the winter season, playing at the USPA’s National Polo Center-Wellington (NPC) and the Grand Champions Polo Club, among other area clubs.

Carlucho Arellano is a longtime professional player who grew up in the sport and currently is the USPA’s executive director of services.

“[Polo] is nothing short of the best sport in the world,” he said. “There is none other like it, really. A contact sport where you can get on an animal that requires excellent hand-eye coordination. Name another one like it. As a profession, it is the best. As a hobby, it is equal to snowboarding, skiing, flying and racing. As therapy, it takes you away from the hustle and bustle. And as a way of life, it is a family-oriented and healthy culture.”

Players are rated from minus-1 to a maximum of 10 by a committee, based on a player’s horsemanship, hitting ability, quality of horses, team play and game sense. Their handicap is not a reflection of how many goals they score. Each of the polo associations in the United States, Argentina and England update player handicap ratings at least once a year. So, a player could be a 10-goaler in the U.S. and England, and a 9-goaler in Argentina.

Player ratings, or handicaps, is a way to keep teams as equal as possible during a tournament. The four players’ handicaps must not exceed the tournament rating. For example, the U.S. Open Championship is a 22-goal tournament, so the combined handicap rating of the four players cannot be more than 22 goals. Most teams play with three professional players and a patron, an amateur who pays the other players.

Players, like in hockey, wear protective gear. There are leather boots specifically for polo, knee pads, white jeans, team jersey, a protective helmet and gloves. More and more players also wear protective eyewear and elbow pads. This helps protect them when bumping into an opponent, or if an errant ball or mallet hits them.

The mallet is made of bamboo and its length varies, depending on how big the horse is and how tall the player is. Mallets usually range from 49 to 54 inches and are changed throughout the game, depending on the horse or if they break. The ball is about 3.5 ounces and made of hard plastic that starts out round but quickly develops an odd shape after being hit many times.

The game starts with teams lining up at midfield, and an umpire rolls the ball between them. Play continues throughout the seven-and-a-half-minute chukker (period) unless there is a foul or injury. The most common fouls are “crossing the line,” an imaginary line created by the ball as it goes down the field. Some are obvious, others not so much, and it creates animated discussion both on and off the field.

Other interesting rules distinctive to polo is that teams switch sides after each goal to mitigate advantages of sun, wind and field conditions. And all players must play right-handed, even if they are natural left-handers, for the safety of the rider and the horse. This rule decreases the chance of a head-on collision if two players were riding toward each other.

Penalties are called by either of the two mounted officials on the field, and if they can’t agree, a third referee in the stands makes the final decision. There is also video review available during most major matches. Penalty shots are taken from 30 yards, 40 yards and 60 yards, or at the spot of the foul, depending on the severity of the foul. All goals are worth one point. There aren’t any two-point shots, except in exhibition matches.

Most team’s tactics use man-to-man coverage for defense, but sometimes the plan is to double-team the opponent’s best player. But no matter the tactics, many times the outcome is determined by which team has the better horses. Experts say that horses are at least 70 percent of the game. Most horses are Thoroughbreds trained specifically for the sport over several years. They usually play from about five years to 12 years old at the highest levels. For high-goal matches, the pinnacle of polo in the United States, each player will bring at least 12 horses. They usually play two horses per chukker and often will double their best horses. The better players have at least 16 ponies to play throughout the long, arduous season. Players are always trying to improve their string of ponies, either by buying from others or breeding their own.

The featured stadium match is usually Sunday at 3 p.m. at NPC and Sunday at 4 p.m. at Grand Champions. There’s pomp and circumstance, brunch, women wearing sundresses and hats, men in khakis and blazers. There isn’t a dress code at either venue; jeans, a collared shirt and sneakers are quite acceptable.

There are also games during the week on the club’s other fields in a more casual setting. Arellano has some insider tips for watching polo in Wellington at either of the major clubs.

“I recommend polo games during the week. They are free, and you’ll get a true feeling for it if you tailgate and just soak it in,” Arellano said. “The first time the players and horses come running over the boards by where you’re parked, you’ll feel the intensity and excitement. There will be family members cheering, kids practicing on the neighboring field with their foot mallets and one wheels, and the empanada guy will cruise by in his station wagon. You have to try the ham and cheese empanada or a milanesa sandwich. Befriend the polo player in the car parked next to you and ask him or her about the rules, line of the ball and teams. Polo players are friendly and outspoken.”

Veteran polo player Luis Escobar, whose two sons also play high-goal polo, suggests concentrating on the horses while watching the action.

“Look at how the horses and players move around the field with such ease, how they increase and decrease in speed, make big stops and small turns as fast as the rudder can stay on,” Escobar said. “Look at the players, how they hit and place the ball.”

He also had a warning for those new to the game.

“Polo is an addictive sport. Be careful,” Escobar said, smiling.