Polo 101

A newbie's guide to the elegant sport



©asherdb/istockphoto

The Greenwich Polo Club offers tickets for its matches to the public every summer, but if you know nothing about the sport, it’s hard to keep track of what is actually going on. To provide a lesson for the uninitiated, we spoke with one of GPC’s biggest boosters, Susan Oliver Whitney.

Susan is the descendent of Harry Payne Whitney — a renowned sportsman and 10-goal (highest rank) polo player, who with the American father of polo James Gordon Bennett, created a following for the sport in the United States after Bennett introduced it here in 1876. As a result of her family ties to Polo, Susan is passionately devoted to the sport, and knows both its broad and fine points intimately.

“The Greenwich Polo Club is unique, and attracts a family-oriented crowd,” notes Susan. “Everyone watches—and that’s not true of the spectators for every club, since some clubs are more social and less observant of the proceedings. Here in Greenwich, those who come to watch are, for the most part, quite knowledgeable.”

So it’s good to have some basic instruction before attending your first match in Greenwich. Here’s a crib sheet, courtesy of Susan, who tracked down many small details for our benefit:

Teams & Players

First, the basic background:

  • The first recorded polo match took place in Northern Persia in 600 B.C., so the sport has tremendous history. T
  • oday, a polo match is played with two teams of four players each. Every player has a handicap given by the U.S. Polo Association, related to ability and horsemanship; each player also has a specific position and role to play. 
  • Numbers 1 and 2 are offensive positions, with 1 going out for the pass, and 2 moving the ball up the field. 
  • Numbers 3 and 4 play defense; 3 is the captain and highest rated player, and at GPC this spot is taken by Mariano Aguirre, a 10-goal Argentine professional player and polo legend.  Player number 4 is the back, and main defensive player.
  • The games have referees: two mounted umpires, and a third umpire, not on horseback, who officiates from the sidelines. 
  • At the goal posts, which are at the long ends of the 300 yard-long by 160 yard-wide playing field, a flagman assists the umpires in their calls.

“It’s a very fast game, and the horses are moving up and down the field at 30 to 40 miles per hour.  When you hear them in motion, it really is lovely,” says Susan.

Horses & Equipment

  • Polo horses are called ponies; smaller in size than racehorses, they usually stand about 14 hands high. Because flying manes and tails might get tangled in equipment in the sport’s rapid play, ponies’ manes are shaved and their tails are wrapped or braided, for the safety of the animals and their riders. Ponies are bred for obedience, strength and speed. 
  • Because the game is so demanding and the players and horses are in constant motion during play, the patron (the team’s sponsor or coordinator) often has a large stable of ponies, and a team can bring up to 24 ponies to a match; generally, a player rides each pony for only one play period (called a chukker) per game.
  • Polo mallets, or “sticks,” as they are known, are 4 feet long or more, depending upon a player’s height; shafts are made of bamboo, and the mallet head is hardwood or bamboo root.  In the U.S., the balls used are plastic, 3 1/4” in diameter—in Argentina, where polo has many fans and many great players, wooden balls are still used.

“It’s a wonderful sport, and beautiful to watch, “says Susan. “It’s also an extremely costly game. A stable of good ponies is quite expensive to maintain.”

Now, it's on to the rules of the game...

Match Play

  • Polo matches at GPC consist of 6 periods,  called chukkers, of 7 ½ minutes each. 
  • The scorekeeper starts and ends each chukker with a long blow of a foghorn (preceded by a short warning blast 30 seconds before the chukker ends).
  • Between the third and fourth chukkers is half-time, when spectators may participate by walking onto the field and tamping down the divots raised by the ponies during play in the first half. While some of the fashionably dressed women may in fact be in high heels, divot-tamping is done with the sole of the shoe.

Susan also notes that you may look for a champagne cork on the field during half-time, which entitles the finder to a bottle of Champagne (she is the sponsor of this much-enjoyed ritual).

But you won’t see spectators on the field during play. It can get pretty heated with the rapid movement of players, ponies and mallets, up and down the field, with the object of the game being the movement of the ball through the goal post for a score.

The Match

Things begin sedately enough; the players ride onto the field in parallel lines, removing their helmets as they are introduced. The match starts when a guest or umpire throws the ball, underhand, toward the players, who are lined up on either side of the half-field line.

This is called the bowl-in.

Then the action starts. What’s important to know here is that the imaginary line of the ball’s movement is a boundary; this line may not be crossed by player or mount until the ball is struck by a player’s mallet and a new imaginary line formed. Crossing the imaginary line of the ball counts as a foul; fouls are also called for illegal bumping—ponies and players are moving rapidly—or other dangerous moves.

During play, you will see four basic shots, made when the ball is struck, counterintuitively, with the side of the mallet. The offside forehand is the most often used stroke to create the most powerful drive; the nearside forehand, which sets up play for teammates without crossing the line; offside backhand, which changes the direction of play; and nearside backhand, a “save” type of move to prevent the player from crossing the imaginary line.

(Note: for some good videos of these moves, search for these shots on YouTube.)

Once a goal is scored, the teams change ends.

Polo Etiquette

Susan, who’s been going to polo matches all her life, at polo fields around the world, notes that spectators at Greenwich dress well for their role as observers: ladies in sundresses and hats, gentlemen in blazers and slacks. Children — who are welcome — are also dressed in elegant casual wear. Everyone — ponies, the very handsome players, and the guests — is beautifully groomed, giving the event a very special quality.

“Some guests enjoy sitting in the stands, while others like to watch from a spot on the grass. It’s a fast and beautiful game.”

This is the Greenwich Polo Club’s 33rd season. Visit the club website here for more information, and be sure to check out a Polo match this summer — now that you know the lingo!

                                                  

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