Sir Winston Churchill is said to have uttered the immortal words – “A polo Handicap is your passport to the world.” Small wonder then that the game has always been considered elitist! Certainly my first contact with the sport was when a friend of a friend of a friend took some lessons with a guy who once taught Prince Charles to play and I only got to see my first game because I was with a film crew.
It is a dazzling sport to watch in the flesh and fun to join the hundreds of other spectators when they invade the pitch between chukkas (periods of play) to stamp down the clods of earth whipped up by the horses’ flying hooves; this is a British eccentricity, not usually found at games outside of the UK – but it is exciting to feel, just for a few minutes, part of the whole polo tradition.
Polo is probably the fastest, most exhilarating and certainly the oldest team sport on earth; once the preserve of royalty, today it is played by millionaire playboys, princes and ordinary people – like rock stars, Hollywood actors and top models! You don’t have to have a double-barrelled surname or the right accent to play anymore; you just need lots of money.
Played on horseback, with two teams of four, the aim is to hit a small white ball, between two goalposts; all each player needs is a horse, a stick, a ball and a nice, flat, preferably grassy field about the size of ten football fields. Of course professional players on the world circuit, need a whole lot more than this….lots more horses, swanky riding boots, white jodhpurs, a few ‘stick chicks’, copious amounts of champagne, and someone to pay for it all!
Those someones are Patrons – and they ‘employ’ high goal players to be in their teams and earn them kudos. For the privilege, they spend thousands if not millions of dollars flying horses and players around the globe to compete in the top tournaments. The late Kerry Packer was so obsessed with winning the coveted Cartier Gold Cup played at Cowdray Park in the south of England that he ‘bought’ an English village nearby in which to base himself for a month or two in preparation for the prestigious tournament. The structure of Patron Polo plays an instrumental role in keeping the sport and the environment surrounding the game more exclusive that it needs to be.
However, there is no doubt that at a certain level….a very high one, it is a game that requires huge amounts of money. Although each chukka, lasts only 7 minutes, (and there are commonly 6 chukkas in a match) because the ponies are galloping at full pelt for most of that time, they have to be changed every chukka; that means each of the four riders in a team, needs a minimum of four ponies each. A good polo pony can cost in excess of $US50,000…so you don’t need to be a mathematician to work out that money and polo are synonymous.
Thought to have originated in China and Persia some 2,000 years ago polo became a national sport played by the nobility and was dubbed ‘The Game of Kings’. It also developed as a training device for horse mounted warriors. The name polo is said to be derived from the Tibetan word ‘pulu’, meaning ‘ball’. The Moguls spread the game from Persia but it was not until the late 19th century that British tea planters discovered the game in India. The British Army quickly took up the sport which developed as essential training for their cavalry units, and in 1863, the Calcutta Polo Club was founded – it is still the oldest active club in the world today.
The British are credited with spreading the game worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Military officers from the 10th Hussars introduced polo to Britain in 1860, and the first set of formal rules was drawn up in 1874 under the auspices of the Hurlingham Polo Association. Polo arrived in both the USA and Australia in 1876. Today, upwards of 77 countries play the game which was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1939 and has now been recognised again by the International Olympic Committee.
Argentina is considered to be the undisputed centre of great polo today – 85% of the highest goal players in the world hail from here. English and Irish ranchers introduced the game in the 19th century and the first official match in Argentina took place on 3rd September 1875. A wealthy landowner called John Ravenscroft, started a Hurlingham Polo Club, modelled on the English club of the same name, on the outskirts of the capital Buenos Aires. Hurlingham, as well as being a town in its own right, is one of the most important centres of professional polo in the world. The Argentine Open Championship, also played in Buenos Aires, is considered to be the most exalted tournament on the polo circuit.
There is a common misconception that polo is a way of life in Argentina….it’s not – and it remains as much an elitist game here as it does elsewhere in the world. It is true to say though, that the opportunities for playing polo in Argentina are great. With fabulous horses and masses of land, would-be players can practice, practice, practice. But, not all Argentines are estancia owners and as such a polo aristocracy has been born; to assume that every Argentinian has the opportunity to play this game would be quite wrong.
Argentina is a massive country…11 times bigger than the British Isles and with a climate that ranges from sub-tropical in the north to arctic in the south. A quarter of its 40 million people live in and around Buenos Aires, the Federal Capital. This is where the money is and where the polo is concentrated. The huge ranches or estancias, with their thousands of acres, are what make polo a natural sport here. With plenty of space and grazing, horses are a relatively cheap commodity. Anglo-Argentine settlers brought with them not just the concept of polo, but also their thoroughbred horses, which they crossed with the Argentine cattle horse..the Criollo, to produce the greatest polo ponies in the world. This is where the Patrons come to buy their ponies; this is where the big ‘polo families’ are…the Castongnolas, Pieres, Heguys, Lalors and others, who nurture polo in their children from a young age. This is what gives Argentina its enviable advantage in the world of professional polo.
To say that riding is a way of life in Argentina, would however, be accurate. The horse was not indigenous to South America, but was introduced by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. An explorer named Mendoza left a handful of his horses behind when he went home to Spain; by the time he returned two years later his horses had settled in, bred and multiplied. The wide and open grasslands provided perfect breeding conditions for these animals, which became instrumental in Argentina’s economic prosperity at this time.
Outside of Buenos Aires, even today, the horse is first and foremost a work tool. In and around San Rafael, way to the west, at the foothills of the monumental Andes mountain range, horses still pull ploughs in the fields, carts through town alongside the Toyota Landcruisers and my next door neighbour rounds up his cattle on horseback. Pretty much everybody rides really, really well; but you will never see a a hard hat, a painful English saddle or a rising trot!. There’s no polo here either; miles and miles of grapevines and fruit trees, but it is not cattle country and the huge estancias typical of the north east do not exist.
The massive cattle estates are hundreds, even thousands of acres in size and the horse is still the best way of getting around, the gaucho the best man for the job. Gauchos are the cowboys of South America, are nomadic and take to the wilderness for weeks at a time, moving from estancia to estancia looking for work herding cattle. A gaucho’s horse is his most important asset; he travels light, he works and plays hard, but gauchos never did and don’t play polo. When your whole life has to fit into a saddlebag, I guess there is no room for sticks and balls and the chances of finding a 300 x 160 yard piece of flat grass in the pampas is probably remote! Even today gauchos will demonstrate their riding skills at their rodeo shows…breaking colts, slalom riding, demonstrating lassoing and playing pato, but you won’t see them playing polo.
Pato has been played by the gauchos since the 1600s. A live duck (pato is Spanish for duck) would be placed in a basket, and participating riders would pick this up by hand. The playing field would often stretch between neighbouring estancias and the first horseman to reach his own casco (ranch house) with the basket would be crowned the winner. During its history pato has been banned several times due to the violence – gauchos were trampled underfoot and knife fights started in the heat of the game led to injury and even death.
In modern pato, a ball with six handles is used and a goal is scored when the ball is thrown through a vertical ring. There are two four men teams and they play six periods of 8 minutes. The player that has the pato in his possession must ride with his arm outstretched thus allowing rival players a chance to tackle.
Pato is similar to buskashi, which is still played by the Afghan horsemen… they use a headless, hoofless goat, no basket and have two teams of up to 200 men….it is a fight to the death as fallen horsemen have little chance of escaping 800 hooves.
Polo has many relatives; Elephant polo, first played in India at the beginning of the 20th century, is still played today, Tiger Tops in Nepal being the headquarters of this gargantuan sport. The pitch is three quarters the length of a standard polo pitch and the sticks are six to nine feet long! Each elephant has two riders, one to hit the ball, the other to steer the elephant, and in 2008 a team from Britain won the yearly championship. However, you are not likely to get lessons for this sport just down the road! Polo is also played in indoor arenas, though with three riders rather than four to a team, and ice and snow polo are other derivatives of the game.
You don’t have to be a good rider to learn to play polo; but if you want to be a good player, you have to be an excellent rider. It is a game of skill and stamina rather than just brute strength, which is why women’s polo is now the fastest growing section of the sport. Even in Argentina, a traditionally male dominated society, women’s polo has become acceptable and they are becoming part of the sport, not just as grooms, but as players, Patronas and even event organisers; polo families encourage their daughters to play, right alongside their brothers.
What you do need to play polo, is to be right handed, have good hand eye coordination, a moderate level of fitness, and some grit and determination. You ride one handed and neck rein the ponies – leaving your right arm free to wield your mallet – which is quite heavy (about the weight of my handbag!) and spend little time in the saddle. The sticks or mallets, are made usually of cane and the mallet head, or cigar, from a hardwood cut from the Tipa tree, an unusually durable, close-grained variety, found only in northern Argentina and parts of Brazil and Paraguay. Fit legs are good, and get used to either standing or galloping full tilt – there’s very little in between. It can be a dangerous game…whilst the ponies may be doing speeds of up to 35mph a well hit ball could be travelling a whole lot faster!! A good hard hat (a face guard is a good idea if you value your teeth) is a must.
In the UK certainly, it is an expensive sport both to play and learn. A 40 minute lesson can run at about 110 pounds per person, slightly less if you have several in a class. If you don’t own your own ponies but want to play one chukka at a club, (and remember, we are talking seven minutes here), you can pay in excess of 250 pounds. Membership of a polo club can run into the thousands of pounds per year and this is in addition to owning your own horses and all accessories.
In comparison, in Argentina, learning to play is a fraction of the cost. Polo Tourism is expanding; even in these credit crunch times, Argentina is proactive in glamorizing a polo lifestyle with multi-million pound real estate and polo complexes attracting heavy investment. The average cost for a day at a polo estancia is between 250 and 400 USD- but this is all inclusive: costs of transfer from your hotel or the airport, all meals and drinks (including wine) accommodation. And wall to wall polo…tuition, stick and ball sessions, and chukkas. Most estancias offering polo can teach you in English, Spanish, Italian or French and you will find that your coach is likely to be a professional high goal player. All the equipment including hats and sticks is provided…you just have to turn up with your comfortable trousers, boots and some enthusiasm. Leave your ego behind!
It’s a far cry from the UK…make your own way, with a nonsensical map downloaded from the internet, get stuck in traffic and have your lesson cut short due to rain! Polo cannot be played in the rain or on wet ground, so Argentina’s generally dry climate affords year round polo.
There are countless polo estancias in and around Buenos Aires, with beautiful lodge houses, plenty of history, rustic ambiance, all modern conveniences and wide open spaces as far as the eye can see; but beyond the borders of the province, you need to dig a bit to find somewhere to play the game.
The sport of polo has a long and illustrious history – though it’s no longer exclusively a pastime for the rich and famous, it is inherently a game that needs money. A polo holiday in Argentina is a good way of getting a taste, but if this is beyond the scope of your bank account, go watch a game. It is a glitteringly gladiatorial spectacle…and a fit guy (or gal) on a galloping horse is always pleasing to the eye!
Some places to play:
There are countless fabulous polo estancias within a 200km radius of Buenos Aires city, but below are three that I have personal experience of:
El Metejon… 20 mins from Ezeiza, Buenos Aires’ international airport. www.elmetejon.com – with beautiful grounds, stunning lodge house, El Metejon offers high class polo playing and tuition. They also have a resident high goal female player/coach and host a Ladies Tournament every year. Diego and Alicia Richini are consummate hosts.
Estancia El Rocio Canada Rica 110 km from Buenos Aires, half an hour from Ezeiza…..beautiful relaxing estancia lodge house with all amenities. Polo clinics for beginners and advanced players. www.estanciaelrocio.com
Estancia Los Potreros… in La Cumbre, just outside Cordoba (about 700km from BA) www.estancialospotreros.com
Despite the fact that polo is more accessible these days and you don’t have to be rich or royal to play, there is still an aura of ‘snobbishness’ around the game, which may put some people off having a go. Things are a whole lot more relaxed in Argentina and the estancias gear themselves to all standards of riding and play….but if you really want to learn in a truly non competitive style there is one estancia that offers ‘country polo’ as an alternative. This is polo without all the trappings that might make you feel outclassed. Los Protreros is a 6000 acre estancia nestled in the Sierra Chicas just north west of Cordoba. ‘Country’ or ‘farm’ polo was popular in the UK until the price of ponies and the cost of keeping them became too high. Keen riders with enough land to keep a few ponies and have a dedicated polo field, would get together and have low key games, taking it in turns to travel to each other’s farms. Los Potreros has been owned by the Begg family (Anglo-Argentines of Scottish descent) for over a century. With their 160 horses bred on the estate, they offer trailriding holidays and, if you are up for it, your first taste of polo. There’s no time to feel nervous. A quick five minute chat on ‘crossing the line’ and the dos and don’ts to keep you and your horse safe, then you mount up and off you go for a game. It is really a fantastic introduction to polo and if you get hooked, which you will, you can have further lessons during your stay, given by a four goal player from the nearby Ascochinga Polo Club. In response to the great interest from their guests they now have dedicated polo weeks; friends and neighbours make up the numbers for practice chukkas and it is like learning with your family it is so laid back…though never at any time is safety compromised.
Some polo rules
The rules of modern polo are complicated and even top professional players will get it wrong.
For the total novice the ‘crossing the line’ rule is of paramount importance. This is an imaginary line that runs from the ball to its destination….once a player is in possession of the ball, the opposition cannot cross the line of the ball in front of him….horses can be travelling at speeds of up to 35mph so this rule is crucial for the safety of the horse and rider.
Polo matches are divided into periods which are called chukkas. Each chukka usually lasts seven minutes. Games can have either four, six or eight although six is the most common number. There are intervals of 3 mins between chukkas, when players will change their horses, and 5 mins at half time. A player can change his horse mid-chukka, but the clock does not stop and his team mates must continue play without him. In big tournaments like the Argentina Open, there can be no draw in the final so the game will continue beyond 8 chukkas until one team is two goals ahead.
There are usually four players per team, or three for arena polo, and two teams play against each other. There are two umpires, also on horseback. After each goal scored, the teams change ends…this is considered fairest when there are adverse conditions such as low sun or high wind. The object of the game is simply to score more goals than the opposing team. Each player is handicapped from -2 up to 10 goals. A ten goal player is a top professional!
The ground is 300 yards long x 160 yards wide if boarded….which means the field has a 12 inch high board surrounding the perimeter which prevents the ball going out of play. If the ground is unboarded, it is 200 yards wide and marked with a white line. The goal posts, positioned at each end, are 8 yards apart.
Obviously, the players are all mounted on polo horses – they are usually referred to as polo ponies though they are fully grown and a good pony accounts for a huge percentage of the talent and skill in a game.
You have to be left-handed to play.
The sticks or mallets, weigh approximately 510-530 grams, but the relationship between the weight of the head (cigar) and the stick itself, if of crucial importance to the performance of a top player.
The ponies wear bandages or guards on their ankles (fetlocks) to protect them from the players’ sticks. Polo ponies are bred and trained exclusively for the game: and they love it!
Polo photos: Matt Green (www.hungryeyeimages.co.uk)
Gaucho photos: Sebastian Rich (www.sebastianrich.com)