Polo: A tool for Peace?


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Imagine using this ancient warrior sport of polo as a tool to promote peace and build conversations and connections by bringing different sides together.

Warriors fighting on horseback were historically the most mobile of the combat arms within militaries of the past – polo developed from this is a one of the oldest horseback mounted team sports.

The current game in its modern form originated in South Asian which was then British India and was played by officers of the British military in the mid 19th century.

Polo now popular around the world, with well over 100 member countries in the Federation of International Polo. It is played professionally in 16 countries. It was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936. Polo is known as the sport of kings. It has become a spectator sport for equestrians and society, often supported by sponsorship.

How is Polo Played:

A Polo game is played by two opposing teams with the objective of scoring goals by hitting a small hard ball with a long-handled wooden mallet, and through the opposing team’s goal.

Each team has four mounted riders, and the game usually lasts one to two hours, divided into periods called chukkas (or “chukkers”).

The origins of Polo:

Polo is a horseback-mounted team sport. It is one of the world’s oldest known team sports.

The origins of the game are unknown it is said polo began as a simple game played by mounted nomads of Iranian and Turkic origin in Central Asia, from where it spread to Persia and beyond. Polo became a Persian national sport played extensively by the nobility. Women played as well as men. Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan are all claimed to be the birthplace of polo.


Training of Horseback-Warriors to a Sport of Kings:

Polo was valuable for training cavalry, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. The game also spread south to Arabia and to India and Tibet.

A variation of polo, referred to as buzkashi or kokpar, is still played in parts of Asia. During the period of the Parthian Empire (247 BC to 224 AD), the sport had great patronage under the kings and noblemen. Known as chovgan it is still played in the region today.

The game continued to be supported by Mongol rulers of Persia in the 11th century, as well and the Safavid dynasty. Emperor Shapur II learned to play polo when he was seven years old in 316 AD, and in the 17th century, Naqsh-i Jahan Square in Isfahan was built as a polo field by King Abbas I.
The game was also learnt by the neighbouring Byzantine Empire. A tzykanisterion (stadium for playing tzykanion, the Byzantine name for polo) was built by emperor Theodosius II (r. 408–450) inside the Great Palace of Constantinople.

Emperor Basil I (r. 867–886) excelled at it; Emperor Alexander (r. 912–913) died from exhaustion while playing and John I of Trebizond (r. 1235–1238) died from a fatal injury during a game. After the Muslim conquests to the Ayyubid and Mameluke dynasties of Egypt and the Levant, their elites favoured it above all other sports.

Notable sultans such as Saladin and Baybars were known to play it and encourage it in their court. Polo sticks were features on the Mameluke precursor to modern day playing cards.

The game spread to South Asia where it has had a strong presence in the northwestern areas of present-day Pakistan (including Gilgit, Chitral, Hunza, and Baltistan) since at least the 15th-16th century. The name polo is said to have been derived from the Balti word “pulu”, meaning ball. Qutubuddin Aibak, the Turkic slave from Central Asia who later became the Sultan of Delhi in Northern India, ruled as a Sultan for only four years, from 1206 to 1210, dying an accidental death during a game of polo when his horse fell and he was impaled on the pommel of his saddle. Polo likely travelled via the Silk Road to China where it was popular in the Chinese Tang dynasty capital of Chang’an, and also played by women, who wore male dress to do so; many Tang dynasty tomb figures of female players survive.

Rules of Polo:

Rules of polo are written for the safety of both players and horses. Games are monitored by umpires. A whistle is blown when an infraction occurs, and penalties are awarded.

Strategic plays in polo are based on the “line of the ball”, an imaginary line that extends through the ball in the line of travel. This line traces the ball’s path and extends past the ball along that trajectory.

The line of the ball defines rules for players to approach the ball safely. The “line of the ball” changes each time the ball changes direction. The player who hits the ball generally has the right of way, and other players cannot cross the line of the ball in front of that player. As players approach the ball, they ride on either side of the line of the ball giving each access to the ball. A player can cross the line of the ball when it does not create a dangerous situation. Most infractions and penalties are related to players improperly crossing the line of the ball or the right of way. When a player has the line of the ball on his right, he has the right of way. A “ride-off” is when a player moves another player off the line of the ball by making shoulder-to-shoulder contact with the other players’ horses.

The defending player has a variety of opportunities for his team to gain possession of the ball. He can push the opponent off the line or steal the ball from the opponent. Another common defensive play is called “hooking.” While a player is taking a swing at the ball, his opponent can block the swing by using his mallet to hook the mallet of the player swinging at the ball. A player may hook only if he is on the side where the swing is being made or directly behind an opponent. A player may not purposely touch another player, his tack or pony with his mallet. Unsafe hooking is a foul that will result in a penalty shot being awarded. For example, it is a foul for a player to reach over an opponent’s mount in an attempt to hook.

The other basic defensive play is called the bump or ride-off. It’s similar to a body check in hockey. In a ride-off, a player rides his pony alongside an opponent’s mount in order to move an opponent away from the ball or to take him out of a play. It must be executed properly so that it does not endanger the horses or the players. The angle of contact must be safe and can not knock the horses off balance, or harm the horses in any way. Two players following the line of the ball and riding one another off have the right of way over a single man coming from any direction.

Like in hockey or basketball, fouls are potentially dangerous plays that infringe on the rules of the game. To the novice spectator, fouls may be difficult to discern. There are degrees of dangerous and unfair play and penalty shots are awarded depending based on the severity of the foul and where the foul was committed on the polo field. White lines on the polo field indicate where the mid-field, sixty, forty and thirty yard penalties are taken.

The official set of rules and rules interpretations are reviewed and published annually by each country’s polo association. Most of the smaller associations follow the rules of the Hurlingham Polo Association, the national governing body of the sport of polo in the United Kingdom, and the United States Polo Association.


Field polo:

Outdoor or field polo consists of four to eight 7-minute chukkas, between or during which players change mounts. At the end of each 7-minute chukka, play continues for an additional 30 seconds or until a stoppage in play, whichever comes first. There is a four-minute interval between chukkas and ten-minute halftime. The play is continuous and is only stopped for rule infractions, broken tack (equipment) or injury to horse or player. The object is to score goals by hitting the ball between the goal posts, no matter how high in the air. If the ball goes wide of the goal, the defending team is allowed a free ‘knock-in’ from the place where the ball crossed the goal line, thus getting the ball back into play

Polo Horses:

The horses used are called ‘polo ponies’, the term pony is purely traditional and the mount is actually a full-sized horse. They range from 14.2 to 16 hands (58 to 64 inches, 147 to 163 cm) high at the withers, and weigh 900–1,100 pounds (410–500 kg).

The pony is selected carefully for quick bursts of speed, stamina, agility, and manoeuvrability. Temperament is critical; the horse must remain responsive under pressure and not become excited or difficult to control. Many are Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred crosses. They are trained to be handled with one hand on the reins and to respond to the rider’s leg and weight cues for moving forward, turning and stopping.

A well-trained horse will carry its rider smoothly and swiftly to the ball and can account for 60 to 75 percent of the player’s skill and net worth to his team.

Polo pony training generally begins at age three and lasts from about six months to two years. Most horses reach full physical maturity at about age five, and ponies are at their peak of athleticism and training at around age 6 or 7. However, without any accidents, polo ponies may have the ability to play until they are 18 to 20 years of age.

Each player must have more than one horse, to allow for tired mounts to be replaced by fresh ones between or even during chukkas. A player’s “string” of polo ponies may number 2 or 3 in Low Goal matches (with ponies being rested for at least a chukka before reuse), 4 or more for Medium Goal matches (at least one per chukka), and even more for the highest levels of competition.

Polo Players:

Each team consists of four mounted players, which can be mixed teams of both men and women. Each position assigned to a player has certain responsibilities:

Number One is the most offence-oriented position on the field. The Number One position generally covers the opposing team’s Number Four.

Number Two has an important role in offence, either running through and scoring themselves, or passing to the Number One and getting in behind them. Defensively, they will cover the opposing team’s Number Three, generally the other team’s best player. Given the difficulty of this position, it is not uncommon for the best player on the team to play Number Two so long as another strong player is available to play Three.

Number Three is the tactical leader and must be a long powerful hitter to feed balls to Number Two and Number One as well as maintaining a solid defence. The best player on the team is usually the Number Three player, usually wielding the highest handicap.

Number Four is the primary defence player. They can move anywhere on the field, but they usually try to prevent scoring. The emphasis on defence by the Number Four allows the Number Three to attempt more offensive plays since they know that they will be covered if they lose the ball.

Polo must be played right-handed in order to prevent head-on collisions.

The Polo Field:

The playing field is 300 by 160 yards (270 by 150 m), the area of approximately six soccer fields or 9 football fields (10 acres)., while arena polo is 96 x 46 metres. The playing field is carefully maintained with closely mowed turf providing a safe, fast playing surface.

Goals are posts which are set eight yards apart, centred at each end of the field. The surface of a polo field requires careful and constant grounds maintenance to keep the surface in good playing condition.

During half-time of a match, spectators are invited to go onto the field to participate in a polo tradition called “divot stamping“, which was developed not only to help replace the mounds of earth (divots) that are torn up by the horses’ hooves, but also to afford spectators the opportunity to walk about and socialise.

How do you think Polo can be used as a tool of Peace?

What would your ideas be on using Polo and sports collectively as a tool to promote peace and build honest conversations between people of different nations and backgrounds?

Feel free to contact me via my social media handles:


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Mohammed Abbasi

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