Beautiful horses, stylish people, and popping corks bring to mind the sport of kings, but polo is accessible to all who wish to take part. Getting involved doesn’t mean you have to mount up, because just watching a match is a sport unto itself. Windsor Polo offers a perfect opportunity with the February 17 Charity Cup, a star-studded day of unsurpassed polo action benefiting three worthy local charities: the Homeless Children’s Foundation, Ballet Vero Beach, and the Indian River Land Trust.
Getting to know the intricacies of the game makes for a richer viewing experience, so here are some of the basics.
To start, four players on each team—let’s call them Team Blue and Team Red—line up opposite each other so the umpire can put the ball into play by bowling it into the space between the facing players. It’s an instant scrum from there, with each player pushing, angling, and reaching for the ball to declare his line.
The line of the ball, once it is hit, is like the solid yellow line on the road—not to be crossed. A Team Red player gains control and hits the ball clear of the lineup, and is now entitled to that magic space in front of and behind the ball on that line. A teammate will advance, hoping to receive a pass and move the ball toward the other team’s goal.
Team Blue will try some maneuvering to take it away by using a hook, in which a player rides next to the line of the ball and uses his mallet, always held in the right hand, to block the swing of the player on the line, like an NFL cornerback breaking up a pass to a receiver.
The player attempting the hook must angle the mallet across his body and his horse’s body to the near side, which is his left, and then down to block the opposing player’s mallet from swinging through. The hooking player cannot touch the pony or the player with the mallet, and must stay in that slim allowed space, all while galloping at speed. If the hook is successful, the ball slows or stops as the horses continue forward, and another player will try to take control of the ball.
The rideoff is another legal defensive move to push the player handling the ball off the line that has been established. The pushing player is on the left, or near side, of his opponent and will get his horse into position roughly shoulder to shoulder with the opponent’s horse, at no more than a 10-degree angle, and then try to ride him off the line so the ball can be claimed by a following player.
Swinging a cane mallet at a hard plastic ball while keeping your balance on a fast, 1,000-pound horse is demanding enough without someone trying to ride you off. There are several types of swings. The standard offside swing, on the right side of the horse, can send the ball forward or backward. The nearside swing is on the horse’s left side, but since the mallet is always held in the player’s right hand, this swing necessitates twisting in the saddle to angle the mallet across the horse to hit the ball.
Tricky shots include the neck shot, in which a player angles his mallet under the horse’s neck out in front of the legs, and a tail shot, when a player leans back and tries to hit a ball that is behind the horse.
“At the beginning level, polo can look a bit like an elementary school soccer match, with players bunching up at the ball and kicking at it until it gets loose, and then bunching up again,” says Max Secunda, director of polo at Windsor and 1995 British Open finalist. “At the Windsor Charity Polo Cup, patrons will see an exhibition of how polo is ideally played with very good horses and skilled players.”
Teams will comprise three professionals and one amateur. Each player on a team has a number—1, 2, 3, or 4—that identifies his or her position and role. “Number 1 is out in front of the action,” notes Secunda. Numbers 2 and 3 play in the middle, ready to receive a passed ball and get it to the 1.
“Number 4 is the back position, where a lot of high-goal level pros like to play. The number 4’s job is to defend, and then when his team has the ball, to help set up an attack,” Secunda explains. “It’s like the quarterback on a football team; you are surveying and directing the action from the back.”
When the ball changes direction, the players on offense are now on defense. There are strategies to employ, such as marking an opposing player. “In polo, you each mark a player by getting in front of him before he gets the ball, obstructing his view, and keeping him out of the center, all of which makes him a difficult target to pass the ball to.”
Each period of play, called a “chukker,” from the Hindi word for “round” or “circle,” is seven and a half minutes long with a three-minute rest in between, when riders can change horses.
Rules in place for the safety of both horse and rider are enforced by two mounted umpires and a third watching from the sidelines. “Umpiring has gotten really consistent in the last 10 years or so,” says Joe Henderson, assistant director of umpires for the U.S. Polo Association. “Umpires are rated depending on how good they are, which dictates what kind of matches they can officiate,” he adds. “We debrief after games to go over the calls to see where we made good calls and where we made a mistake.”
Various penalties are assigned based on the severity of the rule infraction and the field position where it occurred. Dangerous riding and dangerous use of the mallet penalties draw more punishment. “A Penalty 1 is an infringement in the area of the goal mouth that is deliberate or dangerous and impedes a goal about to happen,” says Henderson. The goal is awarded and the fouled team gets a free hit from center field.
Penalty 2 is less severe but can still result in a goal. “If there was a strong likelihood that the team would have made the goal if not for the penalty, then the fouled team gets a free, undefended hit from 30 yards out.”
Penalties 3 and 4 are free shots from 40 and 60 yards, respectively. Penalty shots are either defended, with opponents standing in the goal mouth to block the shot, or undefended, with no one in that space. Penalty 5 addresses a minor offense and results in a stoppage of play until the ball is dropped midfield by the umpire to resume the action.
Secunda goes to great lengths to bring to Windsor quality horses that are appropriate for advanced players and for those just getting started. “Learning to play polo starts slowly, definitely not at the speed you see in a tournament,” he says. “It feels fantastic when you hit the ball, even if you are still at a walk or trot. Just like learning to surf, catching a 1-foot wave is a phenomenal feeling. It’s a lot of fun.”
The Windsor Charity Polo Cup will benefit local nonprofits that make a real difference in our lives.
The Homeless Children’s Foundation of Indian River County was formed in 2015 to fund and coordinate programs, such as summer camps and after-school activities, for homeless children while helping their families gain self-sufficiency. All administrative costs are underwritten by the board of directors, so 100 percent of donations go to help homeless children.
Ballet Vero Beach sees dance as a universal language that brings us together. In addition to beautiful onstage performances, BVB offers the groundbreaking Fellowship Initiative for Dancers, which combines performance experience with training in arts integration and arts literacy along with course work at IRSC toward a two-year associate or bachelor’s degree.
The Indian River Land Trust has protected and preserved more than 12 miles of life-giving habitat adjacent to the Indian River. Connecting wildlife corridors and maintaining public trails allow all of us to enjoy native flora and fauna that would otherwise be destroyed or displaced by urban sprawl.