It swept out of Egypt and through to Persia before the Christian era began. It was the first bat and ball game humans invented, though it is thought to have had a religious genesis.
Thousands of mounted men would deploy themselves across a field against each other. It was rough. It was tough. It was barbaric: in the Asian steppe and Afghanistan, it is said, the ball of preference was a human head.
But polo has softened since those yeastier times. No heads rolled across the pristine polo grounds at Ladew Gardens yesterday, where the game was played at the Maryland Polo Club's big bash, the "Fiesta del Sol."
Not only is polo civilized, it evokes the courtly aura of medieval tourneys, as men and women in costumes, mounted on smooth-muscled thoroughbreds, often do. The elegance is there temper the rough nature of the play -- the cut and thrust, the grunt and dash, the collision of horse flesh, now and then the crack of bone.
Polo appeals to the mind and senses and it is hard to tell where the strongest allure resides. From a distance, across the 160-yard width of the playing field, or down its full 300-yard length, it seems a controlled equestrian exercise, or an improbable and precise dance of men and animals. The click-click of clashing bamboo poles, the slap of leather drifts faintly across the flattened grass.
But let it come close. Let that fierce congestion of horses and riders, with all its seismic thunder, approach. Then all thoughts of minuets, of delicate control, vanish. The idea arrives suddenly in the mind: this is serious business.
The earth shakes, or seems to, and clots of it fly about and the essence of polo reveals itself hotly in the ears as a kind of cavalry charge. Tons of flesh and swinging sticks pound by, more or less guided, in pursuit of a white, 5-ounce ball.
The blood gets up. There are shouts, curses, near confrontations, anger occasionally flashes between and among players. Do they brawl? Do gentlemen spit?
"Polo attracts an aggressive type," said Edward A. Halle Jr. "A person who really wants to win. And, in polo, money is a very big factor at the upper levels."
Halle and his wife, Cindy, own 5-String Farm in Upperco (he plays the five string banjo), which in combination with another farm, Ashwell, fields one of the teams in the Maryland Polo Club. He plays, and Cindy Halle coaches the sport at Garrison Forest School.
"Some people care about winning more than just enjoying themselves," Halle says. I think there are enough people who take it too seriously, and it can have an adverse impact on the game."
Halle looks out across the field behind Ladew Gardens last Tuesday where his team is struggling against Burnt Chimney Farm. He shades his eyes against the sun, falling behind the wall of trees along Route 146, beyond which sprawl tract houses now penetrating Harford County's horse country. It will be a satisfying day for him. Ashwell/5-String wins, 14 goals to 10.
"Some people like to get heated up," he says, clearly disapproving. Of the Maryland Polo Club, he says: "We are trying be a real gentleman's club, pleasant, relaxing, not go for the guts."
Halle believes in the virtues of true amateurism, and sees them under threat.
Polo's devotees seem to cherish its barbaric beginnings. They would not like to return to those rougher expressions, but they always bring it up to someone who steps newly into their world.
"They used to use heads I've been told," says Betsy Gompf. She and husband Art keep 10 polo ponies at their Monta Santa Farm, in Street.
She inquires, almost hopefully: "Is that true?"
Gompf is a wiry man of 53. Nearly 10 years ago, he was one of the founders of the Maryland Polo Club. He was unhorsed in a match a couple weeks ago, knocked unconscious, rushed to the emergency room. Now he thinks that, in polo, knowing how to fall may be as important as knowing how to ride.
The club has only about 35 members. They all know each other; many are related. Friendships are firm or weak within it, as with all voluntary associations. It has its share of bickering, politicking over small prizes. The club wants to attract new members. That was one of the purposes of yesterday's big party at Ladew.
"This is our grand social event," said Ronald Maher, who organized it. "We'd like to introduce polo to as many people as possible."
The club laid on a Scottish bag pipe marching band, blue grass music, lots of food and drink, pony rides, and paraded a champion timber horse, 1992 Hunt Cup winner Von Csadek, to admire.
They also held a polo match, a semi-final in the U.S. Polo Association's Officers' Cup. It was between Sovereign and Greenspring. Greenspring won 9-8 and everybody had a grand time.
"I think there is more interest in equestrian activities in general," said Maher. There are more polo clubs each year, he says, and a lot of people who hunt fox are being drawn to the game.
Maher does both. To him anybody who will gallop over hill and gully on the back of a thousand pound timber horse pursuing a six-pound fox, will naturally like chasing a ball with a stick (possibly because there is a better chance of catching it). He may be right. There are affinities.
Maher is 70. That's old for any vigorous sport, but not too surprising for polo. Though it requires stamina, strength (especially in the wrist and arm), plus good hand-eye coordination, there is another quality important to the make up of a good polo player: experience. Experts say the best decade of a polo player's life is often between 45 and 55.
The word polo derives from the Tibetan word pulu, which means ball. It was picked up by the British in India in the 19th century. They introduced it to the West and set the rules. These were then changed by the Americans.
The equipment of the modern polo player today is much the same as it was in earlier times. The mallet shaft is bamboo, the head of it maple or some other hardwood. The ball used to be of willow, or a bamboo root. Today it's plastic, but nobody's offended.
There are four players on a team (two forwards, two backs) and the object is to knock the ball between two goal posts. Certain things aren't allowed: dangerously crossing another player's line charge, hooking his or her stick while it is raised above the level of the horse.
The match is divided into six chukkers, each seven minutes long, with four minutes between to change horses. Polo ponies (actually they are thoroughbreds or a mixture of thoroughbreds and quarter horses) very rarely play more than one chukker a match.
Much, if not most of the expense incurred in this sport has to do with the purchase and upkeep of the horses. The average value of horses in the club runs between $3,000-$4,000. They can cost more than $20,000 each. Players need six for a game, though occasionally three will do.
There are more expensive sports, perhaps, such as yachting on a grand scale. Still, Frederick Peterson, a 53-year-old veterinarian, will argue that it doesn't cost any more to play polo than it does, say, to join a "fairly nice country club," and play golf.
Peterson owns Solstice farm in Butler, where he keeps 25 horses. Ten are for polo. Most of the rest are show horses, managed and shown by his wife, Catharine.
He has three retired horses on his farm. "You get attached to these guys when they're not useful any longer. They're your friends, and you remember that they took you down a field at 40 miles an hour to jump, then they got you safely home."
Peterson keeps his costs at a reasonable level by buying younger horses and training them himself. "This is still the sport of kings," he says. "And the horses are the kings."
Others do it differently, in both directions. Jason Cashin is an unwealthy 38-year-old Georgian who manages the club for a salary and housing, and access to the sport. He umpires, he plays, he keeps accounts, arranges schedules.
"Sometime we even mow the grass on the field," says his wife, Elisa, who also plays.
Peter Brant does it the other way. He's an amateur athlete in Connecticut. He has the highest polo handicap of any amateur polo player in the country.
"He's very wealthy," says Peterson. "He plays all the time. When he decided he wanted to get into polo he got a manager, bought the best horses. He hired the best professionals."
Brant's handicap is six goals. Peterson's is two goals, also high ,, for an amateur.
The handicap system was devised in the United States, and was eventually accepted by the British. Under it, every player, amateur or professional, has a rating of his or her skill level, expressed in goals. The lowest rating is minus two, the highest 10. Handicaps are applied by national associations, such as the U.S. Polo Association, and re-evaluated each year.
There aren't many tens in the world. All who have that rating are professionals. Most are Argentines. Argentines, it seems, play polo with the same facility that fish swim.
One aim of the handicap system is to even out the play by distributing talent among the teams. In an eight-goal league, for instance, the handicaps of all four players on each team cannot exceed 8 goals.
The handicap system, some believe, also mitigates the adverse effect of professionals on polo which, by and large, remains an amateur activity. But professionals abound throughout the sport. Teams on the Maryland Polo Club hire them. Not everybody thinks it's a good idea.
"Often the injection of professionals into the match raises the level of competition to the point where it becomes not pleasant for the less gifted players," said Halle.
He believes professionals discourage the we're-here-just-to-have-fun atmosphere the Maryland Polo Club likes to encourage.
Attitudes vary on this. Jason Cashin, the club manager, thinks it generally raises the level of play in the game, which benefits all. The Gompfs seem divided, with Betsy Gompf the more dubious about its impact.
Said Peterson: "The professional in polo has a place and his place is to develop young horses for people like myself, or people that need horses educated. They also can raise the level of the game.
"Unfortunately, for some of us winning is all-important. If that's the dominant attitude you will hire professionals and win lots of games. That I'm not real keen on."
So it continues as one of those slow-burning questions, always there, never settled. Do professionals hurt or help the game? Encourage aggressive tendencies? Or help everybody's play?
One thing is clear, however: you know when professionals are in it. Last week's game between 5-String/Ashwell and Burnt Chimney Farms tallied 24 goals in all. The two professionals, an Argentine player and a New Zealander, scored 14 of them.
Pub Date: 7/15/96