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Polo Playing

( Originally Published 1940 )

AFTER A person has learned riding so as to be strongly assured in seat, in the use of balance, friction and stirrups, has ridden over three-foot jumps and six-foot ditches and has ridden many horses (always something to be sought, so as not to ride just the same horse all the time), and knows thoroughly how to apply the "aids" as they are called (reins, spurs, grip, balance, etc.), he seeks further forms of horsemanship.

And so we come to the playing of polo, the sport of kings and one of the finest ways of becoming a powerful rider at all gaits. Polo, an age-old game, develops a high degree of self-confidence and daring and skill at all gaits and includes the riding of many different horses. The game is very popular all over the world. It is a very hazardous game, life being constantly risked, as well as injuries, but the same can be said of football, swimming, diving, rodeo and ranch-riding, cross-country after hounds, even in basketball and other sports.


It is best, at first, when learning, to ride by oneself, to practice alone on a field. The horse should be a quiet one used to the rider's wielding a polo stick. Ride slowly at first, learning the various strokes at the ball. Even stop at the ball, swing the stick at it and make sure the stick is the right length for the rider. Sticks come in various lengths, so that the rider can select the length best suited to him or her; and here it may be said that women play a great deal of polo, as well as do men.

The ball is always struck with the SIDE of the mallet and never by using its ends. The mallet is the short piece fastened to the lower end of the "stick." The upper end of the stick is made for a firm grip and also has a leather wrist-strap so that, if the stick is torn from the rider's hand (as often happens) he will not lose his stick. If a stick is too long for the particular rider, he will be "constantly hitting the ground instead of the ball, and if it be too short, he will pass the mallet over the ball, missing entirely.

The flat (English) type of saddle is always used in polo. Out on western ranches, where polo horses are being raised and trained for sale to Easterners, the cowboys generally stick to their heavy stock saddles while doing this training, but they are slowly coming to practice with the flat saddle. The length of stirrup, when playing polo, is somewhat shorter than that used by riders of the cattle ranges, but it is, nevertheless, not too short, as in the hunting seat mentioned in a previous chapter. The length of stirrup for any particular player should be decided upon by that player, the point being to be comfortable, secure and able to use a powerful thigh grip and the free use of the lower legs and spurs.

The bridle used nowadays is invariably the "double bridle" type; this has a curb bit and a snaffle bit, the latter lying just behind and slightly higher in the horse's mouth than the curb bit; and there are double reins—one pair attached to the curb bit and the other. pair attached to the snaffle bit. Cowboys, in training western horses for sale to Easterners as polo ponies, frequently adhere to the single-reined bridle. Either type of bridle will do, one as well as the other, on a properly trained horse. However, a rider liking the single or double-reined bridle is extremely positive that his way is the only way, and argument becomes useless. If the new rider, however, means to continue polo playing, he must adopt the equipment used by practically all polo clubs, and this is the double bridle described above. Handling of the four reins in the left hand, as must, of course, be done, must be learned thoroughly.

For a very great number of years, polo players never used what we called the "Martingale." Now practically all polo players use it habitually while playing the game, claiming it gives them better control over the horse and prevents the animal from tossing up his head. Opinions differ. The new player should practice, by himself, with and without the martingale, but when actually in a real game, nowadays, he will be expected to conform by using the martingale.

The martingale is a leather loop around the horse's muzzle (lower part of animal's face, above the curb bit). The other end of the martingale passes down between the horse's front legs and a loop in that end goes around the cinch. The contrivance must, of course, be buckled and adjusted for the particular horse, so the animal won't be made stiff or uncomfortable at the different gaits. Also, in practically all martingales, the horse has a leather loop around the base of the neck (never a tight loop), through a lower loop in which passes the martingale strap on its way to the cinch. This neck loop holds the martingale strap up, so the strap can never drop down and, perhaps, become entangled with the horse's legs.

The horse's front legs are very often protected by heavy canvas or leather guards, which are lined with sheep's wool to prevent chafing. These guards extend from the horse's knee (just below it) to just above the pastern joint (the horse's "ankle" in simple terms), and are usually buckled in place by straps and buckles on the back side of the guard. Sometimes, roller guards are used, but these have a tendency to come loose, string out on the ground and thus create a danger hazard of the horse's tripping or being tripped by some other horse.

The rider also protects himself. He wears a stiff, hard polo helmet, kept tightly on the head by a back strap or chin strap. He also wears thick knee-guards over both his knees and guards over his shins, very often. Severe injuries come from being hit by some other player's violently swinging stick, or by two horses running against each other and thus twisting and injuring a rider's leg.

The polo field is a large rectangle, level, and kept smooth and grassy, with a goal at each end similar to the football goal posts, though heavier and without any top cross bar. A polo team consists of four players on each side, referred to as Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4. There are many books on how to play polo, dimensions of fields, equipment, etc., which are easily purchasable at any first-class book store. This manual is intended only to give the new rider a general knowledge of the game.

The new rider taking up polo should realize that, for his own and the other players' safety and success, he must devote a very great deal of time to practicing the game, and, as has been stated above, he should do a lot of this alone, until he acquires some skill and a very strong seat. He should follow his first slow practice at the ball (at a walk or even, at a halt at first), by similar practice at a slow trot, then at the fast trot, then the gallop and, finally, at a dead run; and he must acquire skill at stopping and turning his mount from any speed. Needless to say, the horse must not be a hard-mouthed brute that cannot be stopped without having to ride a hundred yards or more beyond the place where a halt was desired.

The polo game is played in what we may call "periods" or, as referred to by players, "chukkers," meaning equal time divisions into so many minutes per period or chukker. The horses are changed for fresh ones after every chukker; so this requires that every player possess at least two good polo-trained horses, and, better, three or even four horses, for each game. The play is fast and furious in every chukker, and a tired horse gets nowhere.

And the rider himself must be steel-hard in every muscle, of course, and possess a real passion for riding—or he gets nowhere.

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