A vector illustration of a polo player on a horse.
The Village of Wellington is known as the "Winter Equestrian Capital of the World" and a big part of that notoriety is from polo. The sport of polo has been around for thousands of years and continues to gain adherents. The sport combines strategy, speed and endurance, along with incredible athletes — human and equine.
Spectators and participants flock to Wellington every winter to bring this ancient game to life. The exact origins of polo are hard to pin down, but many historians trace its history back several thousand years.
The first polo matches were a world away from the refined sport we know today. They were most likely enjoyed by nomadic warriors, possibly to hone their equestrian skills for the next mounted battle.
Polo has a long history with the military. The game was used to train cavalry riders in the Middle Ages. From Constantipole (now Istanbul) to the palaces of the Far East, games like polo taught horsemanship and military tactics.
The first formal game of polo took place in 600 B.C. between the victorious Turkomans and the Persians. The Persians took to the game, and when they and the Mughals conquered what is now India, they brought polo with them. The oldest polo clubs in the world are in India.
The Rules of the Game
The object of the sport is simple but involves strategy, training and athleticism. The object is to move the ball down the field to hit it through the goalposts and score.
After each goal, the two teams change directions to compensate for wind conditions and other inconsistencies, ensuring that each team has an equal shot at scoring.
The polo team consists of four players and their ponies, and the field measures 300 yards long and 160 yards wide.
A typical match takes about half an hour. The match is divided into four 7-minute periods known as chukkers.
The game begins when the umpire throws the ball onto the field. The umpire also throws the ball onto the field at the beginning of each chukker and after each goal.
To reduce the demands on the horses, players must change horses after each chukker. The sport is demanding of its human and equine athletes, and both are well conditioned and trained.
Each polo pony can be worth over $100,000 and generally receives the best of care. Various breeds compete in the sport, but many are retired thoroughbred racehorses because their speed and agility are well suited for polo.
Traditions and Rankings
Other team sports forbid spectators to enter the field of play, but polo enthusiasts are encouraged to get in on the action. During the halftime break, spectators participate in “divot stomping,” which helps flatten the divots and other uneven surfaces created by the ponies’ hooves. Divot stomping helps keep the field safe for play and thus prevent injuries for both humans and horses.
Polo uses a handicapping system. Players are ranked by the U.S. Polo Association and their peers on a scale of 2 to 10 goals based on playing ability. These rankings are used to handicap teams.
In addition to the players, two umpires are on horseback. These mounted umpires handle the majority of officiating duties, but a referee at the middle of the field has the final say. When fouls take place, the referee can give the fouled team a penalty shot.
Modern polo is played throughout the world but is especially popular in the United Kingdom, Dubai, India and Wellington. The sport is known for attracting well-heeled enthusiasts and is associated with the wealthy and the famous.
Some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities have been avid polo fans and players. Spencer Tracy loved the game, and he used to play a match every week.
Celebrities still enjoy polo, and star watchers often descend on the fields of Wellington in the winter in hopes of glimpsing celebrities.
The Equine Athletes Who Make the Game So Special
By combining the speed and agility of the polo pony with the intelligence and savvy of a human player, polo offers something special. No matter how good the human players are, they are nothing without their equine partners.
Polo enthusiasts look for speed, agility, athleticism and other traits when choosing a mount. Polo ponies need to be able to sprint from one end of the field to the other, stop on a dime and turn just as quickly.
Before beginning polo training, a horse must be well broken and easy to ride and must understand basic gaits and commands. One of the most important elements of training is introducing the horse to the equipment used in the game.
A good polo pony is the most essential piece of equipment a player can have, and these remarkable athletes make the sport of polo special.