Polo has been around a long time – it was first played in Persia way back in the 5th century BC (and possibly much earlier than that). Tribesmen used the game as training for cavalry battles, with up to 100 players on either side. It gradually became the country’s national sport, popular with the nobility – even women joined in.
In early medieval times polo spread to the Byzantine Empire and, after the Muslim conquests, to the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties of Egypt and the Levant, whose elites favored it above all other sports. Notable sultans such as Saladin and Baybars were known to play it and encourage it in their court. It was also passed to other parts of Asia, including the Indian subcontinent, China and even Japan The name polo is said to have been derived from the Tibetan word “pulu”, meaning ball.
The modern game of polo developed near Tibet, in the north eastern region of India called Manipur – the earliest surviving records date from 33 AD (but the sport could have been played here long before that). In Manipur polo is traditionally played with seven players to a side each mounted on the indigenous Manipuri pony, which stands less than 13 hands high. There are no goal posts and a player scored simply by hitting the ball out of either end of the field. Players were also permitted to carry the ball, though that allowed opponents to physically tackle them!
British cavalry regiments in India started to play and the 10th Hussars introduced polo to England in 1834. In 1862 the first polo club, Calcutta Polo Club, was established by two British soldiers, Captain Robert Stewart and Major General Joe Shearer. The establishment of polo clubs throughout England and western Europe followed after the formal codification of rules in 1874 by the Hurlingham Polo Association.
British settlers took the game to the Argentine pampas. The sport spread fast between the skillful gauchos and several clubs opened in the late 19th century – Argentina has dominated the sport ever since. 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.
The modern game of field polo requires two teams of 4 players. A full-size field is 300 yards long, and either 200 yards or 160 yards wide if there are side boards—these are generally 6″ high. There are tall collapsible goalposts at each end 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. Polo teams change direction after each goal in order to compensate for field and wind conditions.
A polo game has periods of play, known as chukkas. This term originated in 1898 and is derived from the Sanskrit word chakra, meaning circle or wheel. Depending on the rules of the particular tournament or league, a game may have 4, 6 or 8 chukkas, 6 being most common. Each chukka is usually 7 minutes long. Between chukkas the players switch to fresh ponies.
There are now many variants of the game played across the world. Arena polo, as the name suggests, is played indoors, on a slightly smaller pitch. Ponies capable of competing in matches don’t come cheap, so it is now very much a sport for the rich. However, other versions of the sport are rather less exclusive – they include canoe polo, cycle polo, camel polo, elephant polo, golfcart polo, Segway polo and yak polo!
However, if you want to see what most people would consider “real polo” there’s no better place than the International Polo Club Palm Beach. The stunningly beautiful setting, with three state-of-the art fields, attracts the finest players on the planet between the start of January and the end of April – the US Open tournament takes place there this year from March 20th to April 17th and if you want to enjoy the spectacle in style take advantage of The Chesterfield Palm Beach’s special Polo Package. To see the schedule of upcoming events click here.