Game of Kings, King of Games


Dan Harvey Pedrick

(member, Victoria Polo Club)

History - Ancient, Recent, and Local

Humankind's oldest known stick-and-ball game has a relatively short history in the western world, but in Central Asia, the land of its origin, it has been played for thousands of years. Historical and artistic references establish that Polo was played in Persia some 2600 years ago. It is said that Mongolian troops played the game using the severed heads of their defeated enemies. Fortunately this tradition lost out to the more humane and more practical one of using a willow root ball ("pulu" in Tibetan), which eponymously gave the sport its name.

The first European polo club (the Silchar Polo Club) was formed in Cachar, India in 1859 by British colonial soldiers and tea planters who had learned the game from the Manipuris. By 1862 the Calcutta Polo Club was formed and the game spread rapidly all over the sub-continent. In 1864 the game reached the shores of England when it was introduced at Aldershot by an enthusiastic quartet of army officers. New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett introduced the game in the United States in 1876 where rules were modified to more closely resemble the ones we know today.

While the Calgary Polo Club is recognized as Canada's oldest, Victoria, British Columbia may well have been the site of one of the first games ever played in this country. This auspicious event occured in 1889 when four members of the Royal Navy stationed at Esquimalt challenged a civilian foursome in Victoria. A series of games followed over the next two summers, finally receiving the notice of the local paper on July 20, 1891: "An enjoyable game of polo was played at Beacon Hill yesterday afternoon between the Victoria team and members of the HMS Warspite." In 1892 a significant match took place when a team from the Calgary Polo club arrived on the island to compete with Victoria's best. Again, the local paper duly reported the occasion: "The members of the Calgary Polo Team, who have travelled westward hundreds of miles over prarie and mountain, for the sole and express purpose of playing the Victoria Club, arrived with their ponies--strong, close-knit little brutes--by last night's Yosemite. The visitors were met at the dock by members of the home club and escorted to the Union Club, whose hospitality they will enjoy during their stay in the city." Apparently the foregoing details were sufficient to satisfy the public curiosity, as no further mention of the contest nor its final result can be found. Polo went on to enjoy a golden age in Canada between the two world wars and was even an Olympic event in 1936. There were some ten clubs in British Columbia alone during those years. Polo clubs in B.C. now survive only in Kelowna and Victoria.

There are currently some two dozen clubs and three hundred players registered with Polo Canada, the national organization organized to promote the sport in 1985. Canada now has more than two dozen first class rated players. Canadian teams began to attract international attention at the 1993 U.S. Open Tournament in Indio, California, virtually dominating playoff action. Further polo history was made at the event by Canadian player Julie Roenisch who became the first woman ever to play in the prestigious American tournament. .

Getting Into the Game

The image that many people have of the sport of polo is one of wealthy people, expensive cars, and snobbish exclusivity. Like the ancient Mongolian tradition of playing the game with a severed head in lieu of a ball, this stereotype is happily being superseded by a more democratic and inclusive philosophy which stresses, above all, what has been the essence of the sport throughout the ages: namely, that polo is one heck of a lot of fun. While having scads of money is certainly no disadvantage to prospective players, what you have in your barn or trailer right now, with the addition of a few safety items, may be practically all you need to get into the game.

How the Game is Played

Polo has often been compared to hockey, on horseback. A playing field is 300 yards by 160 yards, and each goal is eight yards wide. Each team has four players, two offensive and two defensive. There are two mounted umpires and one referee. To be a worthy player, one must possess athletic ability, a keen understanding of strategy, and be a skilled rider. The basic concept of the game is to strike the ball while mounted, usually at speed, in such a manner as to pass it to a teammate or to make a scoring shot between the goalposts. Although there are many rules governing the play, the primary concern which all of these reflect is the safety of the player and the horse. Central to this is the definition of the right-of-way which, when followed, creates traffic patterns enabling the participants to play at top speed while avoiding dangerous collisions. The right-of-way is defined in accordance with the players position relative to the line of the ball--the imaginary line of the ball's actual and anticipated trajectory as it travels from point A to point B. Neither a player nor any part of his horse may cross that line when doing so creates a dangerous situation. If one does, a penalty is called usually resulting in a free hit for the offended team.

A polo match consists of four to six chukkers (periods) of seven minutes each. Time is continuous and is only stopped in the event of an injury or a penalty. Polo is a contact sport. A very important tactic of the game is to "ride off" another player, whereby the player rides alongside an opponent, closes with him until their mounts make shoulder-to-shoulder contact, and then moves the opponent and his mount off the line of the ball and away from the flow of the play. As long as the ride-off is executed within the guidelines regarding the use of unnecessary force and the angle of impact, it is a reasonably safe tactic and one critical to the game.

Most polo matches are played on a handicap basis. Players are rated on a scale from -2 to 10 (with very few players achieving the latter designation). The team handicap is the combined handicaps of the four players. The team with the lesser handicap is granted the difference in their rating in goals prior to the start of the match. Individual player's handicaps are determined by the club's handicap committee which evaluates a player's horsepower and horsemanship, hitting ability, strategic sense, and value to a team.

The All Important Horses

For high-goal polo, Thoroughbreds are definitely the breed of choice, as no other has the speed and stamina that the game requires. For novices and players of low goal polo, almost any healthy and sound horse can learn to play the game. Most horses like to race, and if they are easily neck-reined and not too spooky, they are halfway there. Many games horses, barrel racers, and roping horses have accomplished the switch to polo, some continuing to play well into their twenties.

What You Need to Play

Specialized equipment for the horse should include: English saddle; a double bridle (some players use Pelham bits while others prefer gag bits with running reins); a heavy duty standing martingale (to prevent the sudden meeting of rider's face and pony's poll); a breast plate (to keep the saddle from slipping back); an overgirth (to keep it from slipping off); leg wraps (bandaging a polo pony's legs is absolutely necessary for added support and protection to the lower limbs); bell boots (highly effective in preventing injury to the coronet). Specialized equipment for the player should include: helmet with facemask; boots (traditionally high, brown, and tough); knee guards (remember, the contact of this contact sport is usually first felt by the knee); polo mallets (available in various lengths, weights, types, and materials, to suit individual needs); body support (athletic supporters for boys, sports bras for girls); gloves (a thin, snug fitting leather glove will enhance your grip on reins and mallet).

_ _ _ _ _

Joining The Victoria Polo Club

The Victoria Polo Club has several categories of membership. In all cases, dues (and sometimes fees) are charged. This money is used to defray the costs of maintaining two polo fields and related facilities. These costs include labour, irrigation, taxes, and insurance. Members are also expected to pitch in and help from time to time on occasional work-bees or serve on various committees. For insurance purposes, all playing members are expected to sign a WAIVER form and possess an individual membership in The Horse Council of B.C.

Membership Categories (including privileges, responsibilities, restrictions, etc:

1. Full Playing Membership - $1000 - Full members may...

2. Part-time Playing Membership - $600 - Part-time playing members may...

3. Youth Playing Membership (under 19 yrs., parental consent (WAIVER)form required) - $250 - Youth Playing Members may...

4. Social Membership - $200 (spouse included) - Social members may...

5. Spouses - Spouses of playing members are considered to be social members. Spouses may also be included in the following categories of membership for the payment of an additional fee, e.g:

6. Employees - Bona fide employees of playing members (i.e., grooms coaches, trainers, etc.), when acting for the employer, shall have the same access to the grass fields as the member's category of membership provides for and may be permitted to play in games.

7. Guests - Guests are frequently invited by members to participate as spectators and in social activities, and to play polo. Playing guests are required to sign a waiver form and pay all fees specific to particular events.

Please Note: The foregoing restrictions on play and use of the grass fields notwithstanding, the club may, from time to time, designate certain supervised events as open to visitors for the purpose of promoting an interest in polo. Such activities will be limited exclusively to polo. Other equestrian activities (such as jumping, schooling, lungeing, etc.) shall not be permitted on the grass fields. All mounted visitors shall be required to sign a waiver.

Special Offer: In an effort to recruit new members, a special offer on Full Playing Memberships is currently available on a first-time basis for $500. This offer expires on June 30, 2008.

We hope you will join us in playing the King of Games!

Yours truly,

--Dan Pedrick, (Sec.)

Tel: 384-7437


7161 Wallace Drive

Victoria, B.C.

Back to Victoria Polo Club Page