Not the glistening white spherical mint with the hole in the middle, but the game played on horse-back, known as the ‘sport of kings’.

Although the precise origin of the game remains unknown, it is one of the oldest team sports known to man. It is believed the genesis of the sport can be traced back to a simple game played in Central Asia by mounted Iranian nomads, dating back to before the birth of Christ. From there it is said to have spread to Persia [Iran], where it was considered a valuable training game for the cavalry units of the king’s guard, or other elite troops. Over time polo became a Persian national sport played extensively by the nobility. In due course reaching Arabia, India, and South Asia, and now popular around the world.


The first polo club was established in the town of Silchar in Assam, India, in 1833. Yet it is the British which are credited with developing polo worldwide, in the late 19 and early 20 century, when the British Empire was at its peak. The 10th Hussars at Aldershot, Hampshire, first introduced polo to England in 1834, with military officers later importing the game to Britain in the 1860s. The game’s governing body in the United Kingdom is the Hurlingham Polo Association, which drew up the first set of formal rules in 1874, many of which are still in existence today. Following which, polo clubs began to emerge and became established throughout England and Western Europe.


British settlers in the Argentine pampas were known to have practiced polo during their free time, and are credited with organising the first polo game at Estancia El Negrete, Buenos Aires in 1875. The sport spread quickly across the country, and in 1892 the River Plate Polo Association was founded, subsequently it became the Asociación Argentina de Polo. In the 1924 Olympic Games held in Paris, a polo team representing Argentina won the first gold medal in the country’s Olympic history. Argentina is now regarded as the global capital of polo.


Polo is played professionally in more than half the countries in the world, and although its tenure as an Olympic sport was limited to 1900–1936, in 1998 the International Olympic Committee recognised it as a sport with an international governing body, the Federation of International Polo, which hosts a World Polo Championship every three years. Polo is unique among team sports in that amateur players, often team patrons, hire and play alongside the sport’s leading professionals.

It was almost undoubtedly Earl Mountbatten of Burma who began the royal love affair with the sport of polo. Born in 1900, the grandson of Queen Victoria, Lord Mountbatten, discovered polo in India, at the age of 22, while serving in the British Army. Although he is probably best remembered as a naval officer, and diplomat, he was also a passionate polo player, who provided a valuable lasting legacy to the sport, when he published his celebrated book ‘An Introduction to Polo’, under the pseudonym ‘Marco’. The book became a best seller, and to this day is considered an essential guide to the sport.

Lord Mountbatten stopped playing competitively in the 1950s, but his enthusiasm for the game never diminished. He encouraged his nephew Prince Philip to play, who developed into a dedicated and competent player. Lord Mountbatten then shared his love of the game with his great nephew and godson, Prince Charles.



After the end of the World War II, Prince Philip further developed the Windsor family tradition and formed the Windsor Park polo team, and ultimately the world famous Guards Polo Club. Prince Philip played until the age of 50, when arthritis forced him to retire from the game, following which he took to competitive four-in-hand carriage driving. Prince Philip gifted his son Prince Charles a mallet at the age of fifteen, who began competing four years later. After suffering numerous accidents during his competitive career he was forced to retire in 2015. However, the family tradition continues, for after watching their father play as they grew up, Prince William and Prince Harry are now also playing polo, and their wives and young families are regular spectators.

In common with numerous social sporting events, polo has become synonymous with charity fundraising, and since 2007 Prince William and Prince Harry have together raised over $10 million for charity from polo events.

Princes William and Harry


Throughout her life, Queen Elizabeth II, always a keen equestrian, has enjoyed the sport from the sidelines as a habitual spectator, along with almost all the members of the royal family.

The name polo is thought to have been derived from the Balti word ‘pulu’, meaning ball. A field-polo match is divided into 4 to 8 chukkas of play, each lasting 7 minutes, with a four-minute interval between each chukka. The game, which must be played right-handed, in order to prevent head-on collisions, is played by two opposing teams of four mounted riders, which can be mixed teams of men and women.   The objective of the game is to score goals, using a long-handled wooden mallet, to hit a small hard ball through the opposing team’s goal.

The playing field of closely mowed turf is 300 by 160 yards, an area of approximately six soccer fields. The goals are posts set eight yards apart, centred at each end of the field. During the 10 minute half-time interval, spectators are encouraged to go onto the field to participate in the polo tradition of ‘divot stamping’, helping replace the divots torn up by the horses’ hooves, which also affords the spectators an opportunity to socialise.

The polo mallet is comprised of a cane shaft with a rubber wrapped grip, a webbed thong, for wrapping around the thumb, and a wooden cigar shaped head approximately 9​14” inches long.  The regulation outdoor field polo ball is 3 to 3 12 inches in diameter, and weighs 3 12 to 4 12 ounces, made from high-impact plastic. Originally they were made from bamboo, leather covered cork, hard rubber, and for many years willow root.

The mounts used are called ‘polo ponies’, although the mount is actually a full-sized horse, many of which are thoroughbreds, or thoroughbred crosses. Polo pony training generally begins at the age of three years and lasts from about six months to two years. Ponies usually reach their peak at around the age of 6 or 7, and are selected for their quick bursts of speed, stamina, agility and manoeuvrability. Each player must have more than one horse, to allow for the replacement of tired mounts between or during chukkas

The polo handicap system was created in 1890, so teams could be more evenly matched by utilising players of varying ability. The players are rated on a scale from minus 2 to 10. Minus 2 indicates a novice player, while a player rated at 10 goals has the highest handicap possible. It is so difficult to attain a 10-goal handicap that there are generally fewer than two dozen in the entire world. Currently all living 10 goal players hail from are Argentina. Handicaps of 5 goals and above are usually professional players.

It is not an estimate of the number of goals a player might score in a game, but rather of the player’s worth to his or her team. In handicap matches, the handicaps of all four players in the team are added together, and if the total handicap of a team is more than that of the opposing team, the difference is added to the scoreboard, and the team with the lowest handicap would begin the match with the difference as a goal advantage.

The match is started when the umpire throws the ball in between the two competing teams. A faster-paced version of field polo is ‘arena polo’, which is played outdoors on an enclosed all-weather surface, or an indoor arena. Unlike field polo, arena polo is played on a dirt surface, enclosed by a wall of four feet or more in height. The ball is similar to a mini soccer ball, and larger than the hard plastic ball used outdoors. The Hurlingham Polo Association, and the US Polo Association, has also developed rules for arena polo, which are often used in other countries. Arena polo is financially more attractive than field polo and can be played all year round.


Nevertheless, I suspect the majority of today’s devoted supporters of team sport, have rarely, if ever, been afforded the prospect of attending a field polo match. Or found it so appealing as to be in the least bit concerned at having been denied the opportunity.

Article © Roy Case