I was first introduced to Polo when I lived in South Africa as a foreign exchange student more than twenty years ago — it appeared to be one of those colonial sports that didn’t seem to make it to the states, or so I thought. A few years later, I was re-introduced to it when I lived in England. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised….after all, England is a country that loves her horses and traditions. The truth is that the sport is so old that it dates back to B.C.
Mounted nomads in Central Asia played a version of polo that was part sport and part training for war and it then migrated to Persia (now Iran) sometime between 600 B.C. and 100 A.D. At that time in Persia, polo became a national sport, played by the nobility and military men. The game was formalized and spread west to Constantinople, east to Tibet, China and Japan, and south to India. So, where does this English colonial thing come in then you might be wondering?
From India, polo migrated to Malta in 1868, England in 1869, Ireland in 1870, Argentina in 1872 and Australia in 1874. How about the states — after all, other so called nobility sports made their way to America and while I thought Squash didn’t exist in the states, I later learned how wrong I was when I returned to America after my studies in Europe. Apparently, twenty million people play squash in 185 countries and yes, polo made its way over to the U.S. as well in the late 1800’s. On a trip to England, New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett apparently saw his first polo game. In 1876, he returned to New York with mallets, balls and a copy of the Hurlingham rules. The first game was played at a city riding academy and then moved outdoors where people could view games in Westchester County New York, which we started writing about more extensively a few years ago. That very same year, the New York players took polo to Newport, Rhode Island, which has no shortage of its own history, including the oldest restaurant in America.
We were fortunate to attend a Newport polo match this past August, and even with kids in tow, it can be an incredible experience. In other words, it’s not just about champagne and PIMs although that is certainly part of the tradition as well. Below, a rider runs towards me during a break while I stood on the field in my flowery dress taking photos of the children doing somersaults around me. He stopped within inches of me to give me a laugh as much of a fright. And yes, if you haven’t noticed, he’s handsome as were the rest of ’em running around on the field during half time.
We had an opportunity to talk to some of the players in between the action which was ever so entertaining. People weren’t asking about the sport itself and I realized after looking around that these local Newporters were not new to Polo — after all, Newport and New York can tout the oldest polo matches in America, so its part of their summer culture, just as the Epsom Downs is for locals who go to the races every season where women wear large hats and striking dresses and strawberries and cream is on the menu.
It’s not super complicated to pick up the objective, but you need to know a bit about the rules. The objective is to score goals just like most sports — players score by driving a small white plastic or wooden ball into the opposing team’s goal using a long-handled mallet. Each polo team consists of four riders and their mounts although in arena polo, only three players are required per team and the game usually involves shorter plays at lower speeds due to space limitations of the arena. Today, the game typically lasts around two hours and is divided into periods called chukkas (or “chukkers”).
“Polo is a Passport to the World.” — Winston Churchill
The Newport International Polo Series features teams from around the world and from major U.S. cities playing against USA / Newport. Newport Polo, host of the Newport International Polo Series XXV, is also home of the Westchester Polo Club and founding member of the United States Polo Association. Below, a bit of action from our sunny August day at this historical venue.
Anthony relaxes as at a front row table as he breathes it all in….
My experience? As I look on below, I couldn’t help but reflect on my earliest Polo experiences in South Africa and England. While I was very young, I remembered the decadent hats and dresses, but only had a sun hat with me on this trip and so I wore it — better than nothing, I thought.
You can reserve a private table or area depending on how large your group is, something I would recommend. Most people bring a picnic and make a “day” out of it. Let’s just say that a lot of the picnic baskets went far beyond ordinary picnic fare. I even spotted Caviar, homemade breads, smoked salmon, Champagne, fruit salads in beautifully adorned bowls and pastries.
The first club in the U.S. was the Westchester Polo Club but by 1890, there were seven clubs in the U.S., which ultimately created the Polo Association (today’s USPA) to standardize the rules of the game. As old and established as it is and the fact that its origins come from nobility, it should be no surprise then that people dress up for the occasion. Town and Country wrote a useful piece on it offering advice and fashion tips on what to wear when watching the Sport of the Kings as did Dress Like the Duchess a few years back. If you’re not familiar with the traditions of Polo, it’s important to know what happens at Half-Time. Referred to as Stomping the Divots, everyone runs out onto the field, including children during the half-time break and begins to stomp on the divots to smooth out the field.
During the game, small patches of grass and dirt are torn up by the polo ponies’ quick starts, stops and turns, creating divots that can be dangerous for the horses. Fans make an experience out of “stomping” the divots back in place, while helping to keep our ponies and players safe. Nice tradition right? While we’re all out there however, it’s a great opportunity to people watch and of course, check out the fashion scene, especially the HATS. Gotta love the hats that come out in full force at Polo Matches. Children also run around and “play” and it is incredibly emotional to watch if you’re really present. Have a look at what I caught on camera a month or so ago, which included a few sightings of umbrellas as well!
Marie Claire shared tips from three stars on how to dress at a polo match and there are a few photos from last summer’s styles – that said, I couldn’t help but wonder, where are all the hats? There were plenty in Newport! Have a look….
They were playing Philly that day, so appropriate it was to find a Liberty Bell on a table in the middle of it all. Go USA! Go Newport! It was one of those marvelous days….more information on Newport Polo can be found at http://www.nptpolo.com/ and another useful resource checking out is Polo Museum, which has a boat load of history and fun facts: http://www.polomuseum.com/ and Polo America at: http://www.poloamerica.com.