Polo can appear as a sport only for the elite, but it is now being taken on by many amateurs across the country. Polo clubs are opening their doors to this breakneck fast sport, which requires brains and bravery of both horse and rider.
The simpliest aim of polo is to score more goals than the other team. Every match does not start at 0-0 however, with players handicapped to make it an even competition. Each player is rated from -2 to 10. 10-goal players are the best in the world, and few ever achieve it. The total handicap of each team forms the starting score of each match. This gives the team of lower ability a chance against a higher rated team.
Not interfering with the line of the ball is the main rule in Polo. Once hit, players must not cross or impede the line of the ball unless they are far enough away not to cause danger to other players. The player on the right of the line has the right of way, and owns the ball. Riders will therefore attempt to push them off the line with a shoulder off. Riders will get their horses to push against the horse on the right, so it can become a battle of wills. If this manoeuvre is used to endanger the horse or rider, a foul will be blown.
Riders can also hook the rider on the line when they swing for the ball. They must be directly behind the rider swinging, and cannot hit the horse or rider while hooking. This must be well timed as it is frequently done at speed, making it exhilarating to watch.
Indoor and outdoor polo also needs to be held on specifically designed pitches. They must be flat, with a good surface. Outdoor pitches are 10 times the size of a football pitch, allowing horses to get to top gear.
All shapes and sizes compete in polo. Many Polo centres also offer lessons to complete novices, who can learn the basics in an afternoon and play in their own (walk) chukka. Polo clubs are dotted all over the country, providing lessons with all of the equipment and horse hire included. The horses are all schoolmasters, so you can concentrate on your own skills. You can also take your own horse to train as you learn. If you are worried about your ability with a mallet, they will put you initially on a wooden training horse. This helps you to practise your swing and connection with the ball without skimming your horse’s ears off!
When you have learnt the basics, you can then practise yourself at home as well as enter a few novice events. Finding the right team is very important as you will need to work closely together and learn tactics that require instant reactions.
Horses need to be fast, fit and well trained. Polo ponies are actually horses, ranging from 14.2 hands to 16 hands. If your horse is fast and unflappable, it doesn’t matter what breed they are. Top players use Criollo, an Argentinian breed, but many Thoroughbreds are now being introduced to polo due to their speed and durability. Many ex-racehorses are retrained for Polo, and fairly inexpensive to find. For the amateur, older polo ponies are the perfect option as they can teach you as you help them relax into a quieter life.
One of the reasons the sport is thought of as an expensive luxury is that you will need two ponies per match to play. This is due to the intensity of each chukka. If you cannot afford a stable full of horses, many clubs hire ponies out. This is fairly inexpensive, and doesn’t incur the daily management costs. If you have your own horse you can share a match with another horse owner, both of you doing two chukkas each. To enter a match is around £75 so it is inexpensive and will give both you and your horse the opportunity to compete.
As a player, you will need to co-ordinate with your team to make sure you are wearing the team colours with the right number on the back. Jodhpurs should be white, typically made out of denim so they are hard wearing. Riders can wear spurs and carry a whip, and many wear gloves to keep their grip when playing.
The tack for polo needs to be strong and designed for comfort of both horse and rider. A polo saddle is quite flat so the rider can keep in close contact with the horses movement. No knee rolls also help you stay in a standing position as you move to strike a ball. The stirrup leathers will need to be thick to bear your weight safely. A breastplate added to the front of the saddle also keeps it in place through the changes in gear. Most horses are ridden in a gag or Pelham bit, with double reins. This helps with control and sending immediate messages to the horse. Novices should start with kinder bits, and learn how to use double reins before entering a match as the bit can be harsh in the wrong hands.
Safety equipment is essential. Horses mush wear bandages to help protect their legs from the ball, and overreach boots to protect their heels as they stop quickly and turn on a sixpence. Riders will need a solid polo hat with a face guard – these are cut so the rider can see and hear everything that is going on, whilst protecting them from stray balls and mallets. Long boots and knee pads also protect you when riding another player off their line, minimising bruising.
The most important equipment will of course be a ball and mallet. There are two types of ball, one for indoor and one for outdoor. An indoor ball is larger and inflatable, much easier for a novice to practise with. Outdoor balls are more solid and smaller. You should buy your first mallet from a well-known maker, preferably one who can also measure you for the correct length and weight. Those on taller horses will need longer sticks, and females prefer those with a lighter head.