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Seeking a polo position

Yang Feiyue
Updated: Oct 30,2015 9:12 AM     China Daily

The game of polo is attracting increasing numbers of Chinese.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Though many see polo as a sporting pursuit of the rich, efforts are now underway to debunk this.

“Polo is not a luxury sport as many think it is,” says Yue Gaofeng, secretary-general of the Beijing-based China Horse Industry Association.

The sport is widely played in Mongolia and Pakistan, says Yue.

Polo is a sport and people should realize that it represents a kind of culture and doesn’t necessarily mean high-end consumption, he adds.

It costs 500 yuan ($80) for a 45-minute session to learn the sport at the Beijing-based Sunny Times Polo Club.

Xia Yang, the owner of the club, says: “We have members from all walks of life.”

Polo players and amateur riders do not necessarily enjoy a higher social status, and the club’s members come from a wide age group, from a 10-year-old child to retirees, says Xia.

While professional training is necessary to play polo, one needs a firm grasp of horse-riding skills.

Xia says that it takes roughly half a year to master polo if the learner knows how to ride a horse.

The skills one needs include learning how to swing the long-handled mallet and hit the ball and control the horse at the same time.

It is also important to know the rules. For example, horses can run only in parallel during competition to avoid collisions, says Xia.

The game of polo is attracting increasing numbers of Chinese.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Wang Chenyu, 10, began practicing polo about three months ago at Xia’s club.

Before that, she had practiced horsemanship for more than six years, primarily dressage.

She decided to learn polo after watching a few competitions.

Wang says: “I feel it’s more interesting than dressage and I can play with a team.

“Plus, I can use some of what I have learned in dressage in polo.”

As of now, Wang has grasped the basic skills of swinging the mallet and controlling a running polo horse.

Her parents send her to the club once a week, mostly at weekends, but the frequency will increase during major holidays and school vacations.

Wang normally practices three to four hours during each visit to the club.

Her mother, Zhou Ping, says: “She’s very excited and looks forward to playing when the weekend approaches.”

Given her daughter’s age, it will take roughly a year of training before she can play.

The sport requires great body strength and a sense of balance, since riders can use only one hand to secure the horse and need to vary body position during play.

Zhou says that she and her husband do not expect their daughter to play professionally.

“We will support her wherever her interests take her,” says Zhou.

But they hope Wang can take part in the 2022 Winter Olympics if polo is chosen as an event and if their daughter meets the requirements.

Long history

Xia’s interest in horses began in 1996, and he was engaged in show jumping and leisure riding at first. He moved to polo in 2004 after he read a book about the game in China.

Although there are different versions about the origin of polo in China, the sport was enjoyed by emperors such as Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (AD 619-907) and was popular among ordinary citizens, too, as seen from art of the period.

“I was fascinated by the sport after seeing many historical accounts of the game,” says Xia.

To him, polo is faster and involves more technical skills than other equestrian events, and it is more demanding when it comes to a rider’s flexibility.

“The sport is about teamwork between the horse and the rider and among the riders,” says Xia.

Xia has devoted himself to the development of polo ever since he took up the sport.

His club covers 133.3 hectares, including professional polo fields, and he has 160 polo horses.

Polo horses do not cringe from the swinging mallet or jump when the ball hits them, which ensures the riders’ safety, says Xia.

Many homebred and hybrid horses can be used for polo, such as the Yili horse from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

Also, crossbreeding using UK thoroughbreds and domestic mares is a common practice now, since the UK horse performs better when it comes to abruptly changing direction and halting, he says.

Great potential

Currently, there are seven polo clubs in China, spread over Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Sichuan and the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, says Xia. But the number of people playing polo in China is still small.

A lack of professional management means that polo is often used by some as a means to show off personal wealth. This is one of the reasons why polo is not seeing healthy development, says Xia.

As of now, there are only a few polo competitions in China, such as the annual Beijing International Polo Open Tournament conducted by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Sports in September and the annual Tianjin Snow Polo World Cup jointly organized by the US-based Federation of International Polo and the Chinese Equestrian Association in winter (January-February).

These events attract many foreign competitors, and while they show China’s growing links with the global polo community, many Chinese players cannot yet compete at these levels because of their relatively lower rankings and skills, according to Xia.

But Xia believes polo has a great future in China.

“If people get involved in the sport they will find that is not more expensive than other equestrian event,” he says.

At a glance

Polo players are divided into different levels in different countries.

In Europe, they start at minus 2 and go up to 10, while in Argentina, they start at 0 because the general level in Argentina is considered higher than the world average.

A polo team usually consists of four players, and the total of the players’ levels should add up to the level of the competition. Normally, teams agree on the game level before they play each other.

Polo needs an arena of roughly 275 meters in length and 145 meters in width.

Two posts are set roughly seven meters apart at the center of each end of the field. The aim is to hit the ball between the posts of the opponent’s side, just like in football.