Polo in Switzerland
Polo basics and rules
“The origin of polo disappears in the darkness of the time”. That’s how the well-known sport scientist Carl Diem summarizes his intensive research about this fascinating team sport in his classical work “Asian Horse Riding Games”. Nobody knows when exactly polo appeared amongst the horse people of Central Asia. It only is certain that polo is being played since 2700 years already. It all started in Persia and from there the game conquered the oriental world.
At first this fascinating game was known as “Chaugán” and rapidly spread over whole Asia. When the Tibetans took the game over, they named it “Pulu” (ball). Polo was an important indicator for political hegemony and was frequently played to determine the position of a minister or of the military. In ancient China even a promotion needed to be obtained through a polo game. If the sporting performance of a public official decreased, he also was degraded as a result.
The game also was an important part of the social life and therefore, appears in many traditions. An example is the description about Kalif von Bagdad, Haroun-al-Rashid (766 until 809 AD). He was described being so small during his youth, ”that he couldn’t reach the ball with the stick while sitting on a horse”.
However, only in 1859 polo leapt over to the United Kingdom and Europe. British officers of the 10th Husan regiment, who were based in colonies and who got to know polo in India at the court of Maharadschas of Manipur, didn’t want to do without polo as a new leisure activity in their home country. In 1873 the first polo club in the western world was founded in London and to this day is that yearbook the set of rules and regulations. From England, polo then spread over the whole world to America, Argentina, New Zealand and also Switzerland (see ‘Polo in Switzerland’).
The American media-tycoon James Gordon Bennett introduced polo into the USA. During a stay in England in 1876 he became so enthusiastic about the game, that he bought the equipment in bulk and started with the selection and training of suitable horses right after his return. The USA was the first country to introduce a handicap system in 1888 and was followed by the UK and India in 1910.
In 1877 introduced the English farmer and landowner David Shennan, polo on his farm in Buenos Aires. Seven years later already 21 polo clubs were existing in Argentina. Since the 30-ies of the 20th century is Argentina the leading country in polo and this not only in terms of the players but also of the outstanding breeding success of polo ponies.
Polo also was several times an Olympic discipline between 1900 and 1936. The English team won in Paris in 1900, in London in 1908 and in Antwerp in 1920. In 1924 however, they had to be content with the 3rd place after Argentina and the USA. During the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, polo was the discipline with more spectators than any other discipline. Argentina won that year over England and Mexico. Polo was cancelled from the Olympic Games after the 2nd World War due to the fact that there were too less associations on Olympic level.
Polo in Switzerland – an unchecked boom
As polo started to being played around the whole world, the game also was brought to Switzerland. The beginnings are not officially documented but the tracks clearly lead to St. Moritz. At the end of the 19th century, English cavalry officers spent their holidays in the Engadin and used their leisure time with playing polo. It is assumed that they had done military service in India, where they had learned how to play this fast game.
However, it is known for sure that in 1898 the polo field was built in St. Moritz Bad and put into operation. In the following summer the British officers were again in the Engadin when they received the order to return to their regiment and to sail to South Africa in order to fight in the Boer War.
Polo completely disappeared in St. Moritz after the First World War and only emerged again in the early 60ies of the last century. The residentiary family Berry and Matthis regularly received friends’ visits from North Italy and they played friendly games together. Eventually, Reto Gaudenzi founded the St. Moritz Polo team in 1978 and since 1985 the worldwide unique “World Cup on Snow” is being played on the frozen lake of St. Moritz. Furthermore, during summer in 1993 the Polo European Championship took place on the equestrian field in San Gian and during summer in 1995 it was the Polo World Championship.
The first polo club in the region Zürich was the Zürich Polo Club. It was built on the facilities of the jumping- and dressage stables Balsiger in 1987 (the field is smaller than the official size). In 1993 the club was dislocated to Hombrechtikon and the foundation was initiated through the Family Dillier, Werner Meier, Adriano Agosti and Thomas Rinderknecht. In the meantime the Limmattal Polo Club had been created on the area in Dietikon.
In 1990 the Pioneers Polo Club in Guntmadingen was founded as a result of the initiative of the committed polo enthusiast Bernard Zollinger. At the same time the Veytay Polo Club in the French-speaking part of Switzerland opened its doors. Nowadays, the club, located in Mies and which is owned by Yves Luginbühl, counts around 25 active members with 120 ponies. The infrastructure consists of two full-size-fields and one big stick & ball field and is simply fantastic.
In 1998 the vision of the fund manager Markus Gräff become true and the Polo Park Zürich in Unter-Ohringen was established. Within short time the club has developed to being the biggest training centre within Switzerland and is the polo club with the highest amount of members in the country.
In spring of 2006 polo club Bern open its doors in the Hunziken Park in Rubigen. By now the club has been relocated to Witrach in the flat area of the Aaretal.
The youngest clubs in CH are: Legacy Polo Club, that was founded in 2012 and Zug Polo Club, founded in 2015.
Overview of the Game
Polo is a ball- and team sport. Just as in soccer, also in polo two teams are playing against each other with the aim to score more goals than the opposite team. A team only consists of four players. Therefore, it is important that all four players work together as a unity and the team heavily relies on each individual performance.
Each player has a specific position and task within the team, which is indicated by the different numbers on the shirts of the players. Number one is the “forward”, number two the “preparer”, number three the “playmaker”, and also the pivot within the team, and number four (also called ‘the back’) is the “back” and always plays in the very back position.
The handicap of each player is based on his/her performance during the whole season and is determined by a national commission. The range is on a scale between -2 and +10 (worldwide only a few dozen players, mostly Argentinians, do have the maximum handicap of +10). The criteria for determining the handicap are positioning, strength of the stroke, team spirit and ability on the horse. All handicaps of each player added together form the total handicap of the team. If one team has a lower total handicap than the opponent team, it receives a lead over the opposite goal, based on the difference between the team’s total handicaps.
There would not be any polo game without the horses, which are called polo ponies. The pony is much more than just an aid to the human. Horse and player form a partnership in which both are relying on each other. The player not only must know how to ride the horse, he also must be able to pass concentration, passion and determination to it.
Normally a game consists of four (maximum eight) playing periods, which are called chukkas. One chukka lasts seven and a half minutes (playing time). If the game has to be stopped due to the fall of a horse, the losing of a bandage or the disorder of the horse’s bridle, the time is stopped. However, the time is not stopped when the player falls off the horse and is unhurt. After each chukka, there is a small break where the players change horses. The horses may only be used twice per day maximum. After two chukkas, thus half time, the spectators are requested to go on the field and tread in the thrown up pieces of grass.
The game is led by two referees on horses. In case they have discrepancies about a decision, the tournament referee (third man) decides from the side of the playing field. Behind each goal one goal line referee is standing for indicating when a goal is scored. They are essential as the field is very big and the ball quite small. Their job is not really hazard-free, as it requires a lot of concentration and preciseness. They wave a flag over their heads if a goal is scored and if the ball is out, they wave the flag below their hips.