A peep into polo: The king of sports

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Polo is one of the oldest known sports in the world. It was first played in Persia (Iran) at dates given from the 6th Century BC to the 1st Century AD. At the beginning, it was training game for Calvary units, usually the Kings’ guards or other elite troops. Nowadays, the predominant nations in the game of polo are Argentina, the USA and Britain where each has a thriving polo scene and industry. Other polo hotspots include New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, UAE, China, Chile and Spain.

In Nigeria, the game is as old as the country itself. The game was introduced to Lagos in 1914, before spreading to other parts of the country. The game is managed by the Nigeria Polo Association. Despite the age of Polo in the country, very little is known about the game by most Nigerians. Polo is overshadowed by other popular games such as the football, golf, hockey, etc. Many Nigerians that only hear about the game have entirely different perceptions about it. Some believe that it is exclusively for the rich while others see it as a very dangerous game. As a result of these perceptions, people take little or no interest in it; talk less of watching it being played and understanding what it is all about.

Having this at the back of my mind, I decided to write this article as my token contribution towards enlightening Nigerians on the game of Polo. This is with a view to arousing their interest in the game. I am quite certain that after reading this article, your knowledge about the game of polo will never be the same again, more especially if you have not known anything or much about it in the past.

The game of polo, unlike other team sports, consists not only of the players, but also their horses (mounts). It is the unique combinations of man and animal as well as efficient and cohesive team effort that puts Polo in a class by itself. Polo is played on horseback between two opposing teams of four players each with the objective of scoring goals. The players use mallets with long, flexible handles to drive a wooden ball down a grass field and between two goal posts. The basic concept is to strike the ball from horseback and usually at speed, in such a manner as to either pass the ball to a team mate or to direct a scoring shot between the goal posts. Although, there are many rules to the game of Polo, the primary concepts to which all rules are dedicated is ‘safety’ for player and mount. At the heart of this concept, is the definition of ‘right-of-way’, which if followed, will create a traffic pattern which then enables the participants to not only play at top speed, but also avoid dangerous collision. The right-of-way is defined in accordance with a player’s position relative to the direction of travel of the ball. In general, play will flow backward and forward, parallel to an imaginary line extended ahead of and behind the ball.

A polo ground is 300 yards long by 200 yards wide, although if the ground is boarded, it needs only be 160 yards wide. The goal posts are open at the top and are eight yards apart. Polo match could last 1 – 2 hours. In a match, the duration of play consists of four chukkers (periods) and each chukker lasts seven minutes of actual play.  Time is continuous and the clock is stopped only in the event of injury or a mull’s violation. A player may change pony (horse) at any time and will always do so between chukkers. A pony may be played again after being played earlier and a player will try to have as many good mounts on standby as may be available to him.

Polo is definitely a contact sport. Therefore, a very important element is the ‘ride-off’ whereby a player rides alongside an opponent, closest to him until their mounts make shoulder-to-shoulder contact, and then attempts to move the opponent and his mount away from the flow of the play. As long as the ride-off is expected within the rules regarding the use of unnecessary force, and the angle of impact, the ride-off is a very safe tactics and critical to the game.

Most polo tournament matches are played on handicap basis. Each player is assigned an individual handicap in an ascending order of -2 to +10. A team’s handicap is the combined handicaps of the four players. The team with lesser handicap is granted the difference in goals prior to the start of the match. For that reason, you may see a game that already has a ‘score’ before it even starts. In Nigeria, players’ handicaps are revised twice annually by the Nigeria Polo Association and they are a subjective evaluation of the individual’s game sense, hitting ability and overall value to a team. A player handicapped at +5 or above is a very fine player.

Polo is an intensely physical endeavour which from across the field resembles a ballet, but up closer, the sweat and dirt on the players, shouting commands and insults, the heaving as well as blowing horses tell the story of a rough and arduous game that is played in hot blood and demanding the ultimate in skill, fitness and strength from all of the participants. Polo is a team sport as earlier mentioned. There are four men to a side but eight athletes (horses inclusive). It is not possible to become an intelligent observer of the game without developing an eye for the athleticism of the ponies as well as the players.

The players are products of endless hours in the saddle, their riding skills, training their horses, together with many hours of ‘stick and balling’ which is the equivalent of ‘hitting’ in tennis. Great polo players display the anticipation and recklessness of race car drivers in beating the opponent to the ball, with the sensitivity of the champion in controlling the ball, and the hands of a jockey in handling their high strung horses.

The polo ‘Pony’ is actually a horse, usually of a thorough breeding and race track experience. A good pony can tie a race horse into leads. Ponies are products of long rigorous trainings designed to develop stamina, handling mounts and to produce that mind-set that will allow a hot blooded thoroughbred to run a 100 yards at 35 miles per hour while beating a 1,000 pounds opponent and then stop suddenly, to turn and come back in the opposite direction calmly and with alacrity. Great ponies combine ‘I will die before I quit’ heart with the controlled intensity and agility of Michael Jordan.

As you watch the game of polo, try to anticipate what each player will do next. Between two evenly matched teams, it is the team with the best anticipation that will win. Polo is not a game of chance. It is a game of immense skill in which each individual player and horse must be fitted into the team effort. It is this combination of players and horses that makes polo truly the King of Sports.

Polo is not just a game; it is a respite for the polo players. The field is their home and horses their mates. They are in it for the love of the sport and the beauty of the horses at play. Polo might look chaotic and even dangerous, but if you are properly taught and educated about it, it is as safe as any other discipline. Do not allow your lack of knowledge about the game to prevent you from watching or giving it a shot at any given opportunity.

Commodore Hassan, of the Nigerian Navy, writes from Abuja

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