Polo has been termed the "sport of kings," or sometimes the "king of sports". However, one does not have to be a king to play this game which in recent years has again grown in poularity. The enjoyment of playing can be acheived 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 horsemenship 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 mounts are called "polo ponies" although they are horses ranging from 14 1/2 to 16 hands high at the withers (one hand equals four inches), and weighing 900-1000 lbs. The polo pony is selected carefully for great speed and stamina, similar to thoroughbreds at race tracks, as well as agility and maneuverability, similar to cow ponys used on ranches. When one can combine these traits and train the horse to carry the rider smoothly and swiftly to the ball, the horse can account for anywhere from 70-80% of a player's ability and net worth to his team.
Each team consists of four mounted players. The number 1 is expected to score the goals and carry out an offensive position. The number 2 is also an offensive player but he has to be more aggressive since his object is also to break up the defensive plays of the opposition. The number 3 is the pivot man, similar to a quarterback on a football team, and he is usually the long ball hitter and playmaker of the team.
Mallets are made of bamboo canes, which provide flexibility, and tapered heads of willow or maple. The mallets come in lengths of 49 to 52 inches and selection is made according to the height of the pony being played. The ball is struck with the side of the mallet head, not the end. The ball is made of bamboo or willow root and is carved from the root. Its diameter is 3 1/2 inches and it weighs about 4 1/2 ounces. All players must wear a protective helmet with a chin strap. Some players wear protective knee pads and face masks. The horses are provided with protective bandages on their front legs and sometimes on their rear legs. The horses also have their tales braided, taped or tied to minimize interference in making the various shots.
The playing field is 300 yards long and 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. Goal posts are set eight yards apart at each end of the field.
Play commences when the mounted umpire bowls the ball between the players who line up opposite each other in the center field. the game consists of six 7 1/2 minute periods called "chukkers" during which players may change mounts. 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 post, no matter how high in the air. If a 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 in play. Teams change goals on ends of the field after each score to minimize any wind advantage which may exist. There are two mounted umpires who officiate the game while a referee on the sidelines makes all final decisions concerning penalties or infractions of the rules. Penalties and fouls are described and explained in another section of this program.
Each player is rated on a scale of minus 1 to 10, by regional and national handicap committees of the U. S. Polo Association. A player handicap is based on his net worth to his team with factors to consider such as horsemanship, team play, hitting skills, anticipation and overall understanding of the game and its rules. The rating given is termed in "Goals": example - if four-three goal players formed a team it would be a 12 goal rated team, if their opponents total handicap equalled 10 goals, the difference of two goals on handicap would be awarded to the lesser team to start the match with a two goal advantage. The term "Goals" is a player's rating and is not to be confused with how many times he will score in a match, it is just a matter of the rating system. At present time there are about a dozen 10-goal rated players in the world; in the U. S. Polo Association the two highest are ranked at 9-goals.