A Polo Primer: How to be a savvy fan
Those of you who have tried explaining polo to the uninitiated will appreciate this guide to some of the sport’s more baffling customs, terminology and peculiarities.
A horse that is 58 inches or less is considered a pony, regardless of its breeding. Originally, no horse higher than 13 hands and 2 inches (54 inches) was allowed in play. Today there is no limitation, but naturally the smaller horses perform better, provided they can carry the weight of the rider swiftly. The polo pony must be courageous, intelligent, sensitive (without being nervous or too high-strung), obedient, highly trained and must love the game. Polo ponies, after a little schooling, learn to follow the ball for themselves.
Why do the players wear white pants? Like many polo traditions, this can be traced back to 19th century India, where the game was played by nobility and later introduced to British army officers stationed there. Competing in the intense heat, players preferred clothing that was light in weight and color. We know that jodhpurs, the tailored riding britches still worn by some players, took their name from the Indian state of Jodhpur, but how many also realize that Brooks Brothers developed the button-down collar specifically for polo players who wanted to keep their collar tabs from flapping in their faces? Polo, it seems, has always been fashionable.
What happened to the horses’ manes and tails? Free flowing manes and tails are dangerous in polo because they can become entangled with players’ mallets or the reins as the rider tries to control his horse. Therefore manes are shaved and the ponies’ tails are wrapped or braided to prevent tangling. Wrapping or braiding long ago replaced the crueler practice of docking – or amputating – the horse’s tail near the base so all that remained was a short stump. Can you use the same horse for an entire game? No. Polo ponies run the equivalent of one to two miles during a seven-and-a-half-minute chukker, so they must rest frequently. At the high-goal level, players will ideally have a fresh horse every period.
What is a score called and why do the teams change directions whenever there is one? Points scored in polo are called goals, which is much more straightforward than trying to explain why polo teams don’t change field directions by periods or halves like other sports. One theory is that the practice of changing after every goal scored originated in the days when many polo fields ran east to west (generally situated north to south now) and neither team wanted to play for extended periods of time with the sun or wind in their face.
What are all the people doing out on the field at halftime? It’s customary to invite the public onto the field at halftime to tread in the divots kicked up by the horses. The custom has a practical as well as a public-relations value: the field is repaired for the teams by the time they begin the second half of play. To this day, we don’t know the name of the first enterprising club manager to realize he had an abundant and cheap grounds-keeping crew at his disposal.
What do they call the opening play in polo? In hockey it’s a face-off, in basketball it’s the tip-off, but in polo it’s known as the throw-in. The umpire tosses the ball in between the two teams which are lined up parallel to one another. In earlier days, the custom was to place the ball in the middle of the field and have two opposing players charge it from opposite directions.
Why are there no left-handed players? Lefties were officially banned from polo in the mid-1930s for safety reasons, but the restriction was relaxed after World War II when polo players of any persuasion were a scarce lot. The USPA reinstated the lefty ban again in 1974 and it stuck: there are no more left-handed polo players. To understand why, consider this: You’re driving merrily down the street when all of a sudden, coming straight at you, is a crazed Englishman driving on the left side of the road.
Now that you are fully equipped in polo knowledge and history we invite you to join us on Saturday, October 22, 1pm for the 2016 Frisco Life Polo Cup and Horses & Horsepower Car Show at the Prestonwood Polo & Country Club in Oak Point, Texas.