Polo is considered by many to be one of the most dangerous sports played in the world today. And when you think about what’s involved, it’s hard to disagree.
First, you mount a 1,200-pound animal with a mind of its own and then, you gallop at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour while swinging a mallet at a tiny ball. Meanwhile, you’re jostling for position with seven other amped up horses and their riders.
Yes, the sport is undoubtedly ripe with risk but that’s why it’s so fun! People still play it and believe it or not, they play it safely! So, what precautions should you take during the game to prevent accidents from occurring?
Before entering a match, both the players and their horses are decked out in specially designed safety gear to protect themselves from injury. From helmets, goggles, gloves and specialized, extra-thick boots for the riders to leg wraps and bell boots for the ponies, all participants enter the field well defended against injury.
Among the most important pieces of safety gear in the game are knee guards. They protect players’ knees during ride-offs and keep them from a crushing blow from a ball, which as you can imagine could be quite painful…and damaging. Made from durable leather and often colored to match players’ boots, they typically have foam or wool felt inside for shock absorption. Knee guards come in several different styles, which vary mainly in how they fasten.
Knee-high polo boots protect against balls, mallets and stirrups scraping against riders as they bump into each other. These boots are designed for optimal protection just like the specialized gear a motorcyclist or dirt biker would wear. The leather is thickened in comparison to regular riding boots and provides extra ankle support.
In addition to knee guards and boots, players wear approved safety helmets with thick wire masks attached. The wire masks protect the players from stray balls and mallets during play. Safety goggles are also recommended for additional eye protection—because a ball or mallet to the eye could cost the eye. These goggles can even enhance the color and contrast of the field and hence enhance the play.
Besides all of that, players wear bright colors to be easily seen (the sport is even looked to as a fashion trendsetter—think Ralph Lauren!). During schooling times, many ride in chaps or half chaps to protect their legs.
Observing the Rules
The most important safety equipment is, however, the rules. These are all designed to keep the horse safe. If a play can be considered dangerous to the horse then a foul is called and the game is stopped. But if a rider falls and is not in immediate danger, the play will continue.
For example, to avoid injury to horse and rider in a polo match, the rule of “right of way” is enforced. The path or line of the ball must be followed on the right and the player who last struck the ball has right of way. It is against the rules for any other player to cross in front of him or her. (Just think of driving! Playing polo is a lot like merging onto the highway at high speeds—some of the same skills apply. Playing safely is akin to driving safely.)
To ensure safety for all players and their horses, we recommend taking 3-4 polo lessons in the arena before venturing out on the grass field. Getting familiar with the atmosphere and pace of a polo match and learning the rules helps to prepare all players to avoid dangerous situations on the field.
So, while it might be high risk, the sport of polo has long been played safely in countries all over the world. And besides, the adrenaline rush of confronting “danger” in the heat of battle is one of our favorite parts, anyway!