There is something good about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
— Winston Churchill
If the idea of tottering across a field, Moet in hand, tamping down clumps of sod with your Manolos seems strange to you, then you probably aren’t familiar with the sport of polo. Known as the sport of kings–Britain’s Prince Charles and his sons are familiar faces on the field–polo is the fastest team sport in the world. An equestrian sport involving four players mounted on horseback, the object of the game is to score goals against the opposing side by hitting a ball with a wooden mallet–all whilst galloping at speed on horseback. An air of exclusivity has always surrounded the game, and its popularity has surged in recent years across Central Europe, including the Czech Republic, and around the world.
The “Sport of Kings”
The origins of polo can be traced back to at least the 6th Century BC in Central Asia, where it was originally developed as a cavalry exercise for warriors — used as practice for battles, with as many as 100 players per side, variations of the game existed from Turkey to India, Japan to Tibet. In Persia, the sport developed into a pastime for the nobility, earning it the nickname “the game of kings”.
During the 19th century, British army officers encountered the game in India and adapted it, introducing it to the UK in the mid-1860 s: the first set of standardized rules was developed in 1874, although the game appears to have been a slower version of that which we know today. From Britain, polo’s popularity spread to the US (the United States Polo Association was founded in 1890), and to South America (see sidebar ‘Viva la Argentina’), notably Brazil and Argentina, retaining its original following in the Middle East – indeed, some refer to polo as Iran’s national sport. Two of the oldest clubs in Europe are the Bratislava Polo Club opened in 1888 and Budapest Polo Club opened in 1895. Hugely popular in the early 20th century, even a Nazi ban on polo from the 1930 s did little to quash enthusiasm for the sport, polo was considered an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936.
Polo from Berlin to Moscow
In the late 1990 s, two clubs opened in Hungary; the Polish Polo Association was founded in 2004; and several major tournaments are now staged in cities such as Prague, Warsaw and Budapest: the Slovakia Open, Austrian Open, and the Central European Polo Tour, played in those cities and culminating in Vienna.
In 2008, the Central European Polo Association (CEPA) was founded in Austria, which has a direct relationship with the Federation of International Polo (the FIP), the sport’s governing body. 2008 also saw the establishment of the Prague Polo Club, which offers polo clinics around Europe for members (see sidebar ‘Polo Comes to Prague’). The fastest growing market for the sport is currently said to lie between Berlin and Moscow, and the Czech Republic is perfectly placed to take advantage of this burgeoning interest.
Anatomy of a Game Polo is a team sport, consisting of four players mounted on horseback who ride at speed and attempt to drive a small ball (made of plastic or wood) into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled wooden mallet. There are many rules governing the play, which are primarily aimed at protecting horse and rider. Two of the basic tenets of polo are The Line of the Ball and The Right of Way. The Line of the Ball is an imaginary line created by the ball as it travels on the field. The “Line of the Ball”changes each time the ball changes direction. The player who hit the ball has The Right of Way, and other players cannot cross the Line of the Ball in front of that player. That player may only be challenged by being ridden off, or having his stick hooked. A player riding along the Line of the Ball in the opposite direction may, if it is not dangerous, hit the ball provided he uses the same forehand or backhand as the original player. This rule can generally be compared with a dual carriageway with the central reservation being the Line of the Ball. There are strict rules governing the entry into The Right of Way and the severity of infringement determines the severity of the penalty.
Traditionally, the game has been played outdoors on grass fields 300 yards long by either 200 yards or 160 yards wide, depending on the availability of protective side boards, though modern variations include arena polo (played on a much smaller pitch indoors or on an outdoor, all-weather pitch using a team of three players), and even elephant polo (and Segway Polo). The match is divided into seven-minute periods called ‘chukkas’ (or ‘chukkers’), and, depending on the level, there will be between four and six chukkas per match. After each goal is scored, the teams change goal ends (though in arena polo, ends are changed only after each chukka.) Each of the four players has a designated position, with players One and Two acting in primarily offensive roles and players Three and Four acting more defensively, with Number Three usually acting as the team captain responsible for team strategy and tactics.
At the time of the game’s formalization in 19th century India, ponies were used as mounts: the term ‘polo pony’ is still used, though in fact full-sized horses are used in the modern game. Each player has a ‘string’ of ponies to allow the horses a rest in between chukkas, though the string may range from just one change of mount to as many as eight other mounts for professional players.
Ponies are selected for their speed, agility, calm temperament and responsiveness–they are trained to respond to leg and weight cues from the rider as well as to reined instructions: to get the right blend of required behaviors, many are thoroughbreds or thoroughbred crosses (see sidebar “Pony Up”).
Wealthy Spectators Can Play
From its glory days as the sport of kings in medieval Persia, polo has retained its cachet of exclusivity. Due to its nature as an equestrian sport, the game requires large amounts of funding, especially at the professional level, due to the teams of grooms, vets, and farriers involved in maintaining a string of ponies. Polo is unique, however, in that ‘patrons’ – or non-professionals–can pay to play on the same team as professional players, even at higher levels of the sport. Pay-to-play clubs, in which one can rent a pony and field time by the chukka, are springing up in areas such as London, as young professionals in the business and financial sectors seek to gain access to this exclusive equestrian hobby without the responsibility of maintaining a full-time string.
It is not unusual for luxury brands, such as Audi and Cartier, to sponsor polo teams and match events, as well as social events for spectators. During the ten-minute halftime of each match, spectators are invited to engage in a time-honored tradition of ‘divot stomping’, or walking across the polo field and tamping clods of earth pulled up by the horses’ hooves back into place–as much a chance to socialize as it is an important feature of grounds-keeping.
Not just a gilded pastime of the rich and famous, polo has once again been recognized by the International Olympic Committee with talks underway to re-establish its position in the next rounds of the Summer Olympics. The stage seems set to see our own Czech Republic polo team proudly representing the country in the not-too-distant future.
In the recent past, players tended to get their horses where they could find them. Many polo ponies are pure thoroughbreds, horses that started on the racetrack and moved to polo after failing. These horses are re-schooled, retrained and then brought into the game. The process of getting a horse to her first match usually takes a year or more, and horses are not considered finished or “made”until they have played for at least two full seasons. Some horses take to polo more quickly than others, and some never take to it at all.
Although equine superstars do emerge from the racetracks, these horses are few and far between and it can take years before polo trainers really know what they have. Even a horse that is superb at the lower levels of polo can come unraveled after making the move to high goal. Today, there are registries for polo ponies both in Argentina and in the United States, and there is a growing movement to use the latest breeding technologies to help propagate desirable bloodlines and create swifter, handier, sounder and more trainable polo ponies.
The idea of breeding specifically for polo is not new. From the time the sport arrived in the western world back in the 1860s, players have wanted to breed better polo mounts. Early British books on polo devoted many chapters to the breeding of ponies. Until World War I, of course, polo ponies were really ponies: the British enforced height limits on their polo mounts and disallowed any that could not pass under the bar. The height limits made it difficult for players to find suitable mounts, but it encouraged the breeding of ponies specifically for polo.
Polo ponies are painstakingly bred for speed, maneuverability, and responsiveness – but they must also be spirited enough to enjoy the game as much the players! As each pony can contribute around 70 percent of a player’s game, they are carefully selected as mounts, with thoroughbreds being the most popular choices. Of these, most polo ponies tend to be mares, as they are traditionally thought to play harder, with the added advantage of acting as breeding stock.
Due to the value of the horse’s contribution to the success of the player, and thus the team, each pony can be worth up to $ 100,000. The advantage of excellent bloodlines in equestrian sports is proven by the 135th Kentucky Derby in 2009, in which Mine That Bird-bred from the mare Mining My Own, who is a half-sister to champion mare Golden Sunray who in turn is related to the 1983 champion mare Ambassador of Luck–completed a spectacular 50–1 finish and amassed a $ 1,417,200 windfall from the race.
Polo Comes to Prague The Prague Polo Club, founded in 2008 by Naveed Gill, a budding Polo player, and his two friends Robert Chelberg, a former polo player and an award-winning veteran of show-jumping circles and Premek Marek, aims to develop the sport here in the heart of Central Europe. As Gill notes in the Club’s constitution, the aims of the Prague Polo Club are to “further the interests of polo in the Czech Republic”and to “train and support the national polo team of the Czech Republic”.
The Club currently offers polo clinics for members, quarterly events such as book talks, and more. For more information on the Prague Polo Club, including how to become a member, please visit www.praguepoloclub.cz.
Viva la Argentina
Despite its origins in Europe, polo has been popular in South America since its introduction there in the late 19th century and nowhere more than Argentina, widely acknowledged as the world’s top polo destination. Argentina is home to the sport’s premiere tournament, the Argentine Open and the country has also produced an ongoing series of top players, including world-renowned Adolfo “Adolfito” Cambiaso, whose horses Colibrí and Aiken Cura were equally well-known–in the world of polo where the highest handicap is +10, Aldofo Cambiaso is a +15.
Currently, nine of the top-ten players ranked by the WorldPolo Tour are Argentineans, paying tribute to the country’s love affair with the sport. The country not only outputs prized equine bloodlines, but also polo playing dynasties. Consider the Heguy family helmed by Alberto Pedro Heguy, an Argentinean polo legend who played in a record 28 Argentine Open finals, and his three sons, Eduardo, Ignacio and Alberto, all top-handicapped polo players. The Astradas and Merlos families add to the list of Argentinean giants.
The quality of the play, players and horses during the Argentine Open is such that it firmly cements Argentina’s position as the world’s top polo destination. For more information on current world rankings visit www.worldpolotour.com/ranking.php.