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The 2500 year-old game of polo is one of the fastest, roughest, and most dangerous sports played today. It is gaining increasing popularity as a premier spectator sport and can be an easy game for the first-time spectator to enjoy. Imagine the excitement of seeing players on thoroughbred horses bumping and jostling with each other as hockey on horseback, racing at top speeds down the field while striking a small ball with the precision of an experienced golfer.
Polo is played on a 10 acre grass field, 300 yards in length by 160 yards, which is the approximate area of ten football fields. Goal posts are set eight yards apart on either end of the field. The object of the game is to move the ball down-field, hitting the ball through the goal for a score. The team with the most scores at the end of the match is deemed the winner. Teams then change direction after each goal. Two teams, made up of four players each, are designated by shirt color. The players wear high boots, knee guards, and a helmet of their own selection. By tradition, players wear white pants in tournaments. The mallet made of a bamboo shaft with a hardwood head is the instrument used to hit the polo ball, formerly wood, now plastic, about 3 to 3 ½ inches in diameter and 3 ½ to 4 ½ ounces in weight. In fact, the English word POLO is derived from the Tibetan word, "pulu" meaning ball.
The surface of a polo field requires careful and constant grounds maintenance to keep the surface in good playing condition. During half-time of a match, spectators are invited to go onto the field to participate in a polo tradition called "divot stomping", which has developed to not only help replace the mounds of earth (divots) that are torn up by the horses's hooves, but to afford spectators the opportunity to walk about and socialize.
There are six periods or "chukkers" in a match, each is seven minutes long. Play begins with a throw-in of the ball by the umpire at the opening of each chukker and after each goal; only penalties or injuries may stop play as there are no time-outs or substitutions allowed, except for tack repair.
The four basic shots in polo are distinguished by the side of the pony on which strokes or shots are made. That is "near-side", left side of the mount, and "off-side" right side of the mount. This creates the near-side forward and back shot, and the off-side forward and back shot. Shots can also be made under the pony's neck, across his tail, or the difficult under the belly shot, all variations of the basic shots.
Teams and Players
A team is made up of four players, each wearing a jersey with numbers 1 to 4, which correspond to their assigned position. Number 1 is the most offensive, concentrating on opportunities for scoring. Number 4 is the defensive player, primarily responsible for defending his/her team's goal. Usually, the most experienced and highest-rated players are at positions 2 and 3, with the pivotal player being number 3, who must serve as an effective field captain, or quarter back. The number 3 coordinates the offense, and passing the ball up field to his teammates as they press toward the enemy goal. Each player is also assigned an opponent to cover on defense and must be prepared to shift offensive and defensive modes and to make any play that will benefit his team.
Each player is assigned an individual handicap on the ascending basis of C, B, A (-2 thru 0) and 1 thru 10. This handicap reflects the player's ability and his value to the team - the higher the handicap the better the player which is just the opposite in golf. The team handicap is the combined handicaps of the four players. The team with the lesser handicap is granted the difference in goals (or points) prior to the start of the match. For that reason, a match may well have a "score" before based on team handicaps, prior to the start of the game. Player handicaps are evaluated and revised annually by the United States Polo Association. Handicapping is a subjective evaluation of the individual's horsepower, game sense, hitting ability, and overall value to a team.
The polo ponies are central to the success of any team, primarily thoroughbred, often with race track experience, and considered the most athletic of equine performers because of their requirements to sprint, stop and turn and accelerate to open speed for seven minutes in duration. A player's proficiency is predicated on the agility and athletic ability of his/her horse. Leg wraps protect the lower legs of the horse, which is referred to as a polo "pony". Players must change mounts after each chukker due to the extreme demands placed on the pony. Therefore, a team usually has a minimum of 24 horses available during the match. It is not uncommon that 90% or more of the horses played are mares.
Although there are many rules to the game of polo, the primary concept to which all rules are dedicated is safety, for the player and his mount. The right-of-way is defined in accordance with a player's position relative to the direction of travel of the ball which is a line created in the direction that extends forward on an imaginary line which, if followed, will create traffic patterns which then enable the participants to not only play at top speed but to also avoid dangerous collisions. In general, play will flow backward and forward, parallel to an imaginary line extended ahead of, and behind, the ball. The line of the ball may not be crossed except under special circumstances and only in such a way as to legitimately gain control of the ball. When a player has the line of the ball on his right, he has the right-of-way. This can only be taken away by "riding off" and moving the player off the line of the ball by making shoulder-to-shoulder contact.
Strategy and anticipation are two of the most important elements in polo and usually come with experience. For the spectator, keep an eye on the horses. The speed and athletic abilities of both the horse and rider are spectacular. All of these elements combined, make the fast-paced action of polo one of the most exciting and demanding sports in the world.