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Horse Polo in India
Polo, a Game on Horseback
I first entered the Military academy and the day commenced with our reading a quote ‘If you sweat in peace, you will bleed less in war’ this about summed up the background of the training, which was tough. One of the regimens was learning to ride a horse. This is one of the traits of an officer and right from ancient rimes a horse is a symbol, both of a gentleman as well as a warrior.
As we learnt to ride the horse and mastered the many intricacies of riding, we were introduced to the game of Polo. This is a game played riding on a horse. The game is popularized in India by the Army which has a special corps looking after horses called the Remounts and veterinary corps. The game of Polo is played generally by the rich and affluent like maharajas and the Officers of the Indian Armed forces. I feel sad that the vast majority of Indians have no access to this game at all and maybe millions haven’t heard about it or just have a vague idea, having watched it only in films or some shows on TV.
People who do not know much about the sport can watch an excellent movie Zubieda(2001) with Manoj Bajpai playing a polo-loving Maharaja Vijayender Singh. The film is available on the net. Polo is a manly sport and the first requirement is extreme physical fitness. We learned it the hard way and on days we were to play Polo and go horse riding we were up at 4 in the morning and got ready to hit the stables before 5 am. Frankly, we loved it, but as always we had a couple of scroungers.
The game of polo has a checkered history. Historians tell us the game originated from Iran in the 5thCentury BC. That’s a pretty long time ago, but the modern game is developed by the British and by corollary it was popularized in India also by the British. Sometimes I wonder how much we Indians owe to the Raj. It was a priceless period that saw the British introduce almost all sports like Polo, Cricket, Hockey and tennis to India. Where would be without the Raj?
Polo in India
Though the Kings of Manipur did play the game it was not popularized all over India and neither were the rules of the game framed. All this was done by the British who set up the first Polo Club in India at Silchar in Assam in 1834. Subsequently, apart from the Armed forces officers, the Princes of India notably from Rajasthan took to this game in a big way. Incidentally, the Nawab of Pataudi (Sr) was a good polo player as well. The husband of actress Nafisa Ali, Colonel Sodhi popularly called ‘Pickles’ was also a national level polo player.
Polo is a game played on horseback. As I have mentioned the first requirement is physical fitness and the second is the ability to be a good rider. As in all games, Polo also has to be learned. All the rules of the game are so framed so that the safety of the horse and rider is paramount.
The polo field is one of the largest in terms of area and encompasses 9 football fields. It is generally about 300 yards long and 160-200 yards wide. These are international standards and Polo cannot be played on a smaller field. The polo field will have a goal post at one end like in a football ball field. The goal post is 7 ft wide and in addition, the field must have fine grass grown all over. This grass has to be specially looked after, hence setting up a polo field and its maintenance is quite an expense. Along with this, the clubhouse must have all amenities for the players and one can’t have a polo club without a clubhouse.
The game is played in 6 sessions of 7 minutes each.Opposing teams consist of 4 players on horses and there are also two mounted umpires. Thus umpires have to be good riders who have played the game before. The polo stick can vary in length as per the height of the horse. It is like in Billiards where there are cues of different sizes. Generally, the length of a club or stick is from 48-53 inches. At one end of the stick is a mallet which is used to hit the ball. The stick may be made of bamboo, but now fiber is used
One thing, however, needs emphasis and that is this game can only be played by a right-handed person, left-handed persons are not allowed to play horse polo. In addition, trained horses are a must. The Polo club in Jaipur maintains its own horses.
The game starts off with both the teams assembling before the public on horses. Equestrian helmets and dress is worn and one cannot play in his own rig. The referee will blow the whistle and the game starts. It involves trying to hit the ball from horseback and net a goal. It’s something like hockey, but here a horse is the means of moving on the playing field. The ball used in Polo is made of high impact material and is about 4 ½ inches in diameter. Riders gallop forward and try and hit the ball into the net. Polo is a fast-paced game and one session of 7 ½ minutes can tax ones physical fitness. However, it is an exhilarating sport. A five-member jury sits outside the playing field and any disputes are adjudicated by them.
Polo is played in 77 countries and Indian polo team takes part in many worldwide competitions. The game is popular in the USA, where it is controlled by the United States polo association. In India, the game is gaining in popularity but is not a mass-based game yet. It is sustained by the Indian Army, but now corporate sponsorship has come in and that is good news. I hope more people can learn to ride a horse and so take Polo.