There are few better ways to get your equine fix during the summer months than heading to a polo match. Watching a few chukkas while sipping a glass of Pimm’s or chilled Champagne, you’ll soon feel like you are part of your very own Jilly Cooper novel! However, when you’re new to the game it can seem a little confusing. Even if you’re not planning on getting in the saddle yourself, read our handy beginner’s guide to polo and you’ll be sounding like an expert in no time!
If ever you do take part in equine sports both you and your horse will need insurance cover. Call the knowledgeable team at Equesure to discuss your horse insurance needs.
Polo – what’s it all about?
One of the very oldest sports, polo has its earliest recorded origins in ancient Persia. It was first played by nomadic warriors around 2,500 years ago. The first written account we have is of a game taking place between Persian and Turkoman horsemen in around 600 BC. Apparently, the Turkomans were the victors!
The name ‘polo’ itself is supposed to derive from the Tibetan word ‘pholo’ meaning ball or ballgame. While the sport has often been associated with Persian nobility it also has a rich military history, too. In the Middle Ages it was often used as a mini-battle in the training of cavalry in many areas in the East.
It first became known among Westerners during the 19th Century when British tea planters came across it in the area of Manipur in north-east India. British cavalry officers took it to their hearts and it spread back to Europe. Indeed, the first game of ‘hockey on horseback’ was played on Hounslow Heath in 1869 by army officers based at Aldershot.
Captain John Watson of the British Cavalry 13th Hussars was the first to develop official rules for polo. And these were revised in 1875 to create the Hurlingham Rules, the basis for today’s modern polo game. After a period when enthusiasm for the sport fell, it was revived in the 1940s. Today more than 70 countries play polo and there has even been talk of it returning as an Olympic event!
A bluffer’s guide to the basics
The equine world is full of interesting words, phrases and other terminology that can sometimes seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. And the sport of polo is definitely no exception! If you’re heading to a game for the first time this season, or even thinking about giving it a try yourself, read the Equesure guide to the basics…
Polo is a high tempo game that’s divided into an intense series of seven-minute periods of play called chukkas. The number of chukkas in a match can vary depending on the level of the match being played. In the UK, professional or ‘high goal’ matches tend to have six chukkas but there can be up to eight. Low to medium goal matches are played over four or even six chukkas. Whatever the level, there is up to 30 seconds ‘overtime’ for all but the final chukka. While breaks between chukkas are just three minutes long, with five minutes at half-time.
The simple aim of the game is to put the ball between the opposing team’s goal posts – the most goals wins. The posts are 7.3 metres apart and 3 metres high. Any player is allowed to score goals and it’s a goal regardless of whether it was the horse or the mallet which hit the ball through. There are goal judges standing behind each set of posts to wave a flag when a goal is scored.
The direction of play can be confusing for beginners. To take account of any advantages of weather or turf, teams change ends after every goal scored. If no goals are scored by halftime, then the teams change ends.
Similar to the handicap system in golf, this is a player's rating, based on their horsemanship, team play, and knowledge of the game and horses. A beginner will always start polo on ‘S’ for Starter, until they have sat their rules test through the Hurlingham Polo Association. Players are ranked on a scale from -2 (for the lowest) to 10 (for the highest). While most players in the UK are ranked 0 or below only a handful of British professional players hold handicaps of 7 or above. According to the HPA, James Beim the England men’s team captain plays off a handicap of 7. While the England women’s team captain Nina Clarkin is the only woman in the world to be handicapped 10!
Polo can be a fast and dangerous game so needs rules to ensure the safety of both players and ponies. There are two mounted umpires whose main job is to regulate the right of way rule. This is the rule by which the player on the line of the ball, or the imaginary line along which the ball travels, has the right of way. This means they can only be challenged by being ridden off, or having their mallet hooked.
No, it isn’t cheating. You can stop your opponent from hitting the ball by hooking your opponent's mallet with yours when they are swinging.
It may sound strange but no matter how big they are, all horses in polo are known as ponies. And they are special animals indeed, being bred for speed, agility and mental strength. Back in the 19th Century the height for polo ponies was limited to 14.2 hands, but this is no longer the case. In terms of breeds, in the UK today most polo ponies are Thoroughbreds. But this is partly as a result of the importance of RoR (Retraining of Racehorses) in the horse world rather than because of any rule requirements. Be aware that between each chukka, players will dismount and change ponies.
A classic polo player’s tactic to push another player off the ball by using their horse to bump the opponent’s out of the way. A ride-off is only allowed when the ponies are travelling at the same speed, and are shoulder to shoulder with each other. You’re not allowed to pull in front of another player or ride across the right of way. Sandwiching an opponent between two players is also against the rules.
The umpires will award penalties depending upon the severity of any rule breaking. There are varying degrees of penalties:
- Automatic goal
- 30 yards free hit to an open goal
- 40 yards free hit to an open goal
- 60 yards free hit to an open goal
- A free hit from the spot where the foul was committed
- A free hit from the centre of the ground
- A free hit 60 yards from the back line where the ball crossed
When discussing polo with any nearby aficionados it’s a good idea to understand what the basic polo shots are called. They are named according to the side of the polo pony from which the shot is made. The left side of the pony when mounted is called the ‘near side’. While the right side is called the ‘off side’. This is what the following shots look like:
- Off-side forehand – A basic forward swing of the mallet on the pony's off side.
- Near-side forehand – A forward swing of the mallet on the pony's near side.
- Off-side backhand – A backward swing of the mallet on the pony's off side.
- Near-side backhand - A backward swing of the mallet on the pony's near side. Much trickier than you would think!
- Neck shot – A swing of the mallet under the pony's neck on the offside or nearside.
- Off-side tail shot – A swing of the mallet behind and under the pony's bottom.
- Off-side belly shot – A swing of the mallet on the offside so the ball travels under the pony's belly.
Where can you play?
As we already mentioned, polo is a fast and furious sport. And while you don’t have to join a club to have lessons, it is important you find someone reputable to help you begin playing the sport. The Association of Polo Schools and Pony Hirers is a good place to start looking.
However experienced you are, your first polo lesson will undoubtedly take you through the basics of polo such as riding and stick work. As you get better, you’ll soon take part in entry level chukkas suitable for beginners.
When you feel ready to play proper chukkas, or even take part in matches and tournaments, you’ll probably need to join a polo club. The UK has more than 70 polo clubs, you can find their details using the HPA ‘Find a Club’ page.
Who can play?
Despite its sometimes-fancy reputation, polo is certainly not just a sport for the rich and famous, it really is open to anyone willing to have a go. Just as with anything horse related, while it can be expensive there are plenty of ways to do it on a budget.
If you get involved it’s an extremely welcoming sport, with players from a whole range of backgrounds brought together by their shared love for horses and this exhilarating game.
That said, it’s important to remember polo is a sport you need courage and physical fitness to play. It can be very physically demanding and require a high standard of aerobic fitness and a mobile style of riding.
As well as horse insurance, make sure you have horse rider insurance that covers you against any mishaps.
What to wear?
If you’re just starting out then there really is no need to splurge on specialist polo kit. If you’re already a keen rider then you’ll probably have jodhpurs, riding boots, and your own helmet. So, just wear those. It may be useful to also wear gloves if you have them.
If you eventually start playing chukkas, matches and tournaments, you’ll need to invest in proper polo whites, polo boots, knee guards and a polo helmet. A face guard or goggles are also a wise investment to protect against facial injuries.
Famous polo locations around the UK
A great way to improve your polo playing abilities is to go and watch as many polo matches as you can. There really is nothing better than watching how the professionals do it!
While you might not be riding in any of these any time soon, you’re sure to have a great day out!
The Gold Cup at Cowdray Park, Sussex
Played to decide the British Open Polo Championship, the Gold Cup is one of the most prestigious events in the English polo season. Great for a spot of celeb spotting in an incomparable setting!
Chestertons Polo in the Park at Hurlingham Park, London
This three-day polo extravaganza takes place on the hallowed turf of Hurlingham Park in Fulham, London. Featuring ‘sin bins’, head cams and a large orange ball, the unique, fast-paced format of this event is perfect for newcomers to follow and polo fans to enjoy.
Guards Polo Club, Windsor
The largest polo club in Europe, the club holds a series of prestigious events and tournaments within the Great Park at Windsor every year. If you want to see the world’s leading players in action then this is the place to come.
Prince of Wales Trophy at Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club, Berkshire
Set within classic British countryside just outside Windsor, the Royal County of Berkshire Polo Club stands as one of the very top-tier polo clubs in the country. The Prince of Wales Trophy in the summer is the traditional opener to some of the biggest polo tournaments of the year.
Horse insurance from Equesure
A horse insurance policy arranged through Equesure will guard against the financial consequences of any sporting accidents.
With over 60 years of combined experience in the insurance market, the team at Equesure can offer you a bespoke horse insurance policy tailored to your requirements and budget. If you’re planning on taking part in future polo matches, Equesure offer cover for polo ponies so you can focus on the game knowing your pony is covered.
Get a quote for horse insurance today.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.