The image polo conjures in some minds is one of a gentle Sunday afternoon sport enjoyed by the gin-and-tonic brigade.
In reality it is one of the toughest and most demanding of all sports. The skills required by a top polo player are a combination of the hand-eye co-ordination of a cricketer, the agility of a gymnast, the fitness of a footballer and strength and courage of a rugby player – and on top of this excellent horseman.
Polo is rated by insurance companies as the most dangerous contact sport in the world with ice hockey in second position. Players have only a helmet for protection and travel at speeds of up to 40kmph on horses weighing up to half a ton. Other players use their ponies to ride each other off the line of the ball and, sadly, accidents are a not uncommon.
Ladies polo is also developing at a fast rate with the numbers of lady players in South Africa ever growing. Major tournaments, such as the SA Inter-Provincial, now have a ladies division as well as the hugely popular Avis Ladies International, which is held at Inanda in September each year.
The origins of Polo, its exotic ancestry and storied past have contributed to a heritage rich in colourful expressions. Understanding that language adds yet another dimension to a fascinating sport.
Chukka: this is the term used to describe the basic period of play. In polo, each chukka is seven and a half minutes long and there are six chukkas in each match.
Foul: this constitutes an infraction of the rules as laid down by the Polo Association. Most fouls govern safe riding and the concept of the line of the ball.
Goal: a point is added to the score each time the ball travels between the goal posts, whether hit in by attacker, defender or pony. The team’s direction of play changes after each goal is scored.
Handicap: the comparative rating of polo players awarded by the Polo Association. Handicaps are expressed in goals but do not describe the number of goals the player is expected to score, but rather the player’s value to the team.
Hook: one of the two defensive manoeuvres allowed in the rules. In this case the mallet is used to block or interfere with another player’s swing at the ball.
Line of the ball: the imaginary line created by the ball as it travels across the field. The line of the ball may not be crossed or infringed except in exceptional circumstances. This is a pivotal concept on which many fouls or infractions are based and is usually what the umpires are discussing after they have blown the whistle.
Mallet: the instrument used to hit the ball.
Near-side: is the left side of the horse.
Off-side: is the right side of the horse.
Out-of-bounds: when the ball is hit out of bounds the clock continues to run and the ball is thrown in by the umpires at that spot.
Penalties: fouls result in the umpires awarding a shot at goal (a penalty) to the offended team (the more severe the infringement, the closer to the goalmouth the penalty is awarded).
Puttees: the leg wraps applied to the horse’s lower legs for support and protection.
Referee: the referee is off-field and has the final word in the case of a dispute between the two mounted umpires.
Ride-off: a ride-off is used to break an opposing player’s concentration, move them off the line of the ball or spoil their shot.
Throw-in: the game is started with a throw-in where the ball is literally thrown in between the line-up teams by the umpires.
Umpires: these are the on-field officials. Mounted on horses, umpires are usually active players responsible for enforcing the rules.