Polo is a dynamic equestrian sport which has been played for centuries throughout Asia and the Middle East. The West was introduced to the sport when the British colonized India, and the they quickly spread the sport around the world. Numerous variations of classic polo have emerged, including on bicycles, camels, and for the brave of heart, elephants. Like other equestrian sports, it requires immense athleticism, skill, and cooperation, and a game with talented players can be an impressive sight.
The origins of the sport appear to lie in Persia, and the game has been played there for at least 2,000 years, as artwork and contemporary writings indicate. Polo spread slowly across Asia, where it was played by kings and courtiers. Many warriors played the game because it kept them and their horses fit and ready for battle. The name originates in Pakistan, where it means “ball” in Balti, a language native to that region.
There are two teams of three to four people in a game of polo, depending on the size of the field and the style of game being played. Each player has a long, flexible mallet which is used to hit a ball, with the intent of driving the ball through the opposing team's goal. Polo is played in brief periods called chukkas; each chukka lasts seven minutes, and play can be ferocious. By tradition, horses are replaced at each chukka, ensuring that they stay fresh and fit.
The horses used in the sport are called polo ponies, which is a bit of a misnomer since they are not actually ponies, but rather full sized horses. Thoroughbreds are the traditional mounts, although other breeds may be used as well. In all cases, horses are selected for speed, agility, and obedience. A good horse is capable of stopping on a dime, working with other horses and riders, and moving quickly with the flow of play; championship horses can command hefty sums at sales.
Training for polo is hard work. Horses start training at two to three years of age, and their training may take up a year, and sometimes even longer. Riders usually train heavily throughout the year, often starting out with bicycle polo to get familiar with the flow of the game before they add horses into the mix. Riders are often very attached to their mounts, since the two must cooperate well with each other on the field of play.
Competitive polo is played in a number of nations, especially former British colonies. If you have an opportunity to see a match, it is well worth attending, since things can get quite exciting, with horses pounding up and down the field displaying incredible feats of agility and strength. People who are interested in learning the sport can look up their local Polo Association to find out more about regional classes, clinics, and matches.