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Polo is a team game played on a field with one goal for each team. Each team has three (enclosed arena) or four (fullsized grass field) players. Polo features successive periods called "chukkas," and riders score by driving a ball into the opposing team's goal using a long-handled mallet. In this it is similar to many team sports such as football and field hockey. The main difference is that the players play on horseback.
""Let other people play at other things — the King of Games is still the Game of Kings""
This verse is inscribed on a stone tablet next to a polo ground in Gilgit, north of Kashmir, near the fabled silk route from China to the West. In one ancient sentence it epitomises the feelings of many polo players today.
Polo is arguably one of the most complex of games in the world. The precise origin of polo is obscure and undocumented and there is ample evidence of the game's place in the history of Asia. No one knows where or when stick first met ball after the horse was domesticated by the ancient Iranian (Aryan) tribes of Central Asia before their migration to Iranian plateau; but it seems likely that as the use of light cavalry spread throughout Iranian plateau, Asia Minor, China and the Indian subcontinent, so did this rugged game on horseback.
However, many scholars believe that polo originated among the Iranian tribes sometime before Darius the Great (521–485 BCE) and his cavalry forged the Second Iranian Empire, the Achaemenid dynasty. Certainly it is Persian literature and art that give us the richest accounts of polo in antiquity. The first recorded polo match occurred in roughly 600 BCE between the Turkomans and Persian, with victory going to the Turkomans.
Ferdowsi, the most famous of Iranian poet-historian, gives a number of later accounts of royal polo tournaments in his 9th century epic, Shahnameh (the Epic of Kings). Some believe that the Chinese (the Mongols) were the first to try their hands at the game, but in the earliest account, Ferdowsi romanticizes an international match between Turanian force and the followers of Siyâvash, a legendary Persian prince from the earliest centuries of the Empire. The poet is eloquent in his praise of Siyâvash's skills on the polo field. Ferdowsi also tells of Emperor Sâpour-II of Sasanian dynasty of the 4th Century AD, who learned to play polo when he was only seven years old.
Polo was also popular among other nations, including China, where it was the royal pastime for many centuries. The Chinese most probably learned the game from the Iranian nobles who sought refuge in Chinese courts after the invasion of the Iranian Empire by the Arabs, or possibly by some Indian tribes who were taught by the Iranians. The polo stick appears on Chinese royal coats of arms and the game was part of the court life in the golden age of Chinese classical culture under Minghuang, the Radiant Emperor, who as an enthusiastic patron of equestrian activities.
For more than 20 centuries polo remained a favourite of the rulers of Asia, who played the game or were its patrons. Their Queens played, as did the nobility and the mounted warriors.
Polo for non-Iranians was the nearest equivalent to a national sport in those times, from Japan to Egypt, from India to the Byzantine Empire. As the great Eastern empires collapsed, however, so disappeared the glittering court life of which polo was so important a part, and the game itself was preserved only in remote villages.
Introduction to the Occident
Polo came to the west via Manipur, a northeastern state in India. The Guinness Book of Records in its 1991 edition (page 288) traces the origins of the game to Manipur, circa 3100 BC, where it was known as Sagol Kangjei. According to historical accounts, one British government official stationed in Manipur (then a princely state) during the late 19th century wrote an account of the sport, and thus its popularity spread.
As further proof, it is recorded during the House of Lords debate on Juvraj Tikendrajit's trial on 22nd June 1891, the Marquess of Ripon said about Manipur "it is a small State (Manipur), probably until these events took place very little known to your Lordships, unless, indeed, some of you may have heard of it as the birth place of the Game of Polo."
The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hants, introduced polo to England, in 1869 after reading an account of the game in The Field magazine. The game's governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal British rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence.
The sport became popular amongst European nobility, but during the early part of the 20th century, under the leadership of Harry Payne Whitney, polo changed to become a high-speed sport in the United States, differing from the game in England, where it involved short passes to move the ball toward the opposition's goal. Whitney and his teammates used the fast break, sending long passes downfield to riders who had broken away from the pack at a full gallop.
The Contemporary Sport
Polo is now an active sport in 77 countries, and although its tenure as an Olympic sport was limited to 1900–1939, in 1998 the International Olympic Committee recognised it as a sport with a bona fide international governing body, the Federation of International Polo.
Polo is, however, played professionally in only a few countries, notably Argentina, England, Pakistan,India, and the United States. Polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often the team patrons, routinely play alongside the sport's top professionals.
Argentina dominates the professional sport, its polo team has been the uninterrupted world champion since 1949 and is today the source of most of the world's 10 goal (i.e., top-rated) players. It is also the source of the Raza Polo Argentino, the only purpose-bred polo pony in general international demand. In the world of polo, Argentina's Heguy family, are to polo what the Barrymore family is to acting.
The U.S. is unique in possessing a professional women's polo league, the United States Women's Polo Federation, which was founded in 2000. The sixteen-team league plays across the country.
The modern sport has had difficulty grappling with the traditional social and economic exclusivity associated with a game that is inevitably expensive when played at a serious level. On the one hand, many polo athletes genuinely desire to expand broad public participation in the sport, both as an end in itself and to increase the standard of play. On the other hand, many members of polo clubs, particularly social or non-playing members, are attracted to the sport precisely because of its aura of wealth and its remove from ordinary people.
Nevertheless, the popularity of polo has grown steadily since the 1980s, and its future appears to have been greatly strengthened by its return as a varsity sport at universities across the world. Recently, in commonwealth countries such as Canada, a modern incarnation of polo has gained popularity. Bulahla, an updated urban equivalent, is rapidly expanding and varsity teams have been created at The University of Western Ontario, McMaster University and McGill University.
Arena (or Indoor) Polo is an affordable option for many who wish to play the sport and the rules are similar. The sport is played in a 300 ft by 150 ft enclosed arena, much like those used for other equestrian sports; the minimum size is 150 ft by 75ft. There are many arena clubs in the United States, where real estate is at a premium, and most major polo clubs, including the Santa Barbara Polo & Raquet Club, have active arena programs. The major differences between the outdoor and indoor games are speed (outdoor being faster), physicality/roughness (indoor/arena is more physical), ball size (indoor is larger), goal size (because the arena is smaller the goal is smaller), and some penalties. In the United States and Canada, collegiate polo is arena polo; in the UK collegiate polo is both.
Flags: Very Short (0-60 mins), Short (1-3 hours), With a Group, Adults, Outdoors, Day, Sunny