Saturday, August 2, 2014

East Bound and Down Polo Tour: Polo 101

As promised, here is my best attempt to explain some of the basics of the game of polo to an outside observer, such as myself.  Uncle Chuck has taken some time at a couple of the games we've attended to tell me what to watch for.  Maybe it will help give you some background for the next polo game you have an opportunity to attend, or at least sound somewhat educated next time it comes us in a cocktail party conversation.  And if polo doesn't happen to come up in discussion, don’t be afraid to get the conversation started!

Game time at the Mashomack Polo Club in Pine Plaines, New York

The Horses:
·         Most polo ponies are retired race horses that are given a new job playing polo, as opposed to the alternative.
·         Thoroughbreds are the most common breed on the field.
·         Most polo ponies are females because they tend to be more aggressive and mentally mature at a younger age, desirable qualities for an aggressive and strategic game.
At the races, Saratoga.  These horses could find their future in polo.
Polo Ponies at the Saratoga Polo Club

The Players:

  •  Each player is assigned a handicap ranging from minus 2 to 10, a subjective and comparative number determined by a handicap committee assigned to each of the 13 circuits that are part of the USPA. 
  •  Each team has 4 players assigned a position from 1 to 4, which indicates where they play on the field.
  • The level of play is determined by the cumulative handicap of each team.  For example, if you watch a 40 goal game, you are watching 4 players, each with a 10 goal handicap playing.  This would be the highest level of play.  A more common example could be a 4 goal team versus a 6 goal team.  Each player on the 4 goal team could carry a handicap of 1.  The 6 goal team could have a 4 goal player, a minus 2 goal player and two 2 goal players.  Typically, games are set up so the handicap levels are equal. If that is not possible, the teams will choose to add points to the scoreboard for the lower goal team equal to the handicap differential. 

The Game:
·         A standard game consists of 6 periods called “chukkers.”  Each chukker is 7 minutes long. 
·         One main thing to watch for is the “line of the ball.”  The line is created as one of the players hits the ball in any direction.  Players are not allowed to cross that line once it is established. Each time the ball is hit, a new line is established. Players can cross the line to bump their opponent, saddle to saddle.  
·         Players ride down the field towards the opponent’s goal, typically with the player in position 1 closest to that goal.  Players 1 and 2 are generally the offensive players.  Player 3 is the "pivot player" and Player 4, or the "back", is expected to stay behind the play and defend shots on goal.   A “textbook” possession might look something like this:

Playing Field: Line of the Ball   © 2004 POLO+10 The Polo Magazine,

·         There are a variety of reasons why a player may be called for committing a foul.  Obvious reasons would be for unsafe play.  But the most commonly called foul would be if a player on either team crosses the “line of the ball.” 

The Spectators
·         Anyone is invited to attend a polo game.  Many clubs play games on fields without viewing areas for spectators, but members from the community are welcome to pull up a chair, or their car, and enjoy the game from the sidelines.  Entrance is typically free and tailgating is encouraged!  Other clubs have become quite organized and games have great turnouts for their weekend matches.  I experienced this in Saratoga Springs, New York and hear the same about the Newport Polo Club.  (But the jury is still out.  The game is tonight, weather permitting!) 
·         Even if you know nothing about polo, you can still participate in the match.  During halftime (between chukkers 3 and 4), all spectators are invited to walk out onto the field and “stomp divots.”  Divots are the chunks of grass that have been torn from the field during play.  Everyone can help in improving the condition of the field for the second half of the game.  FUN!
·         And if horses and divots don’t interest you, the people-watching never disappoints. 

"East Bound and Down Polo Tour" members out stomping divots.  Clearly, there is more than one way to stomp a divot. 

The Culture
·         Winston Churchill claimed that playing polo was a “passport to the world.”  With over 200 active clubs in the United States and 89 member countries in the Federation of International Polo, it would appear that Churchill knew what he was talking about. 
·         Regardless of what polo club you show up to, there is almost always a common denominator.  Whether it be a horse, a player or another club, everyone seems to be able to connect in some way or another. 
·         Club hosts and players are a very friendly bunch.  As trailers begin to line the field, players walk from trailer to trailer to greet their fellow players and the entourage that joins them.  Typically, after each game, members of both teams, grooms, friends and family gather together for a meal and socializing.  In our case, we have now been to 4 clubs, have had a chance to eat at great restaurants. And last night in Newport we had a blast joining in the festivities at the Polo Ball at the historic Rosecliff mansion.  Hey, I'm a small town girl of Peoria, rubbing shoulders with the elite of Newport. Polo knows no demographic boundaries. 
·         Although polo has been dubbed the “Sport of Kings”, there is a movement within clubs across the country to make it the “Sport for Kids.”  Many polo clubs welcome kids to come out to the barn, help with the horses and learn the basics of polo.  Contact your local polo club for more information. 
·         A wide range of social classes are known to participate in the sport across the country.  On any given game day, someone with a farming background may share the field with a successful businessman.  And it’s not just a man’s sport.  Women are the fastest growing demographic in the sport. 

Enjoying the hospitality of our wonderful hosts in Saratoga Springs, Jim and Elizabeth Rossi

Steph and I enjoying the festivities at the polo ball at Rosecliff 

The United States Polo Association
·         The USPA is recognized by the United States Olympic Committee as the national governing body of the sport of polo. It is the USPA's dream to get polo back into the Olympics. 
·         The role of the USPA has transitioned from instructional training in polo to club management training, in an effort to "Manage the Polo Experience.” 
·         The USPA looks at polo as a high adrenaline sport that brings together players for the love of the game, for the love of the horse, and the love of experiencing all of those things in beautiful settings around the world. 
·         Bonus Fact: After serving as the President of the USPA for 4 years, Uncle Chuck was appointed as Chairman of the USPA 3 years ago.  He has one more year left in his term.  It seems to be a position that he is thriving in.  Well done, Uncle Chuck!  Thanks for letting me in on the action for these 3 weeks!

For more information, check out the USPA website at:

Up next… playing catch-up on our time in Saratoga Springs, New York and Newport, Rhode Island.  Eastbound and Down… we’re still loaded up and truckin’!  Thanks for tagging along!

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