Men riding around on horses and hitting a ball. Long breaks, where British people drink tea and make snarky remarks about everyone else. Stamping down the divots in the turf. That was polo for me before today’s Yale-Stanford match-up.
While Yale got stomped by the Stanford team, I feel the victory. I learned that polo is not just a men’s sport, but according to the Yale women players in the stands with us, they don’t ever play co-ed. “The men are more aggressive,” one said, also acknowledging my query about bruises. Yes, the play involves pushing into your opponent, playing defense, as well as riding all out to hit a little ball with a mallet.
The object–to score a goal by knocking the ball into a marked area at each end of the arena, while riding full tilt. It is definitely harder than it seems. We saw our share of air-swings, balls once struck that sputtered and went nowhere, balls that ended up knocking around between horses’ legs.
The rules have built-in forms of protection for players and horses, but these are so obscure that even the players don’t quite understand them. Here’s one. When a player hits the ball, that forms an ‘imaginary line.’ Yes, imaginary. You, and the horse, have to envision this line that now you cannot cross. If you do, foul! The other team gets to take a foul shot. This rule supposedly prevents collisions.
“But…,” I said, “but.”
“Yeah,” replied a player.
“It’s imaginary? Then how…”
To make things more complicated, this imaginary line is redrawn every time the ball is hit, too. Um, okay.
The father of one of the Yale team, a polo player himself, explained. “You just get it when you’re out there. Some horses even get the line and know how to work it.”
I tested this idea out on the women players. One’s eyes sparkled as she said,”Yes! The good ones definitely know the line.”
So you think everyone would want that horse, right? Well forget it. The Stanford team traveled across the country for 90 minutes of play (4 chukkers of 6 minutes each, with breaks), so they certainly don’t bring horses with them. They ride the Yale horses. And after 2 chukkers, the teams switch horses, to make sure there’s no favoritism.
The visiting players don’t know the horses, their quirks, other than what a handler will tell them before the match. The players do have a few minutes to canter around the playing field, and that may help some. There are four players per team, with 3 playing at a time, 3 chukkers each. So the players rotate horses and teammates. it’s a game that moves in all kinds of ways.
Oh, by the way, the rules are different when played indoors, as we saw today, versus playing outdoors. Don’t ask. These rule changes are too complicated for my simple-poloish mind. They have something to do with changing which goal is whose after scoring, and, well, you probably have to go to Yale or Stanford to fully understand the rules.
Even so, it was just fun to watch the play, which became noisier as the competition heated up. At first, the play was so quiet, we could hear the horses’ hooves when they shifted into a gallop. Then the coaches started calling instructions, and whoops burst out with goals. I think you’ll hear it all in this video:
Gentlemen to the end, the Yalies and Stanford victors shook hands after the final whistle. It’s all good fun at the collegiate level. The summer may call me to a professional competition, outside on a polo green. I might even get out and do the divot stomp.