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Is Playing Polo Dangerous? 5 Keys to Reduce Risks of Injury.

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Watching a game of polo from the sidelines — a pack of fearless riders spurring their mounts at high speeds, whacking away at a bouncing ball with their horses frothing and sweat flying everywhere – it looks dangerous for anybody to be involved in this sport. But just how dangerous is polo?

Playing polo is extremely dangerous; the balls travel at high speeds, the mallets are swung haphazardly, and the horses are running at top speed with riders leaning from their saddles. This combination has a high risk of injury to horse and rider.

Polo is a unique contact sport because each player is a combination of rider and horse, and this introduces new variables that certainly increase the chances of injury during play.

picture of a team playing polo and horses bumping each other,

The game of Polo itself is not complicated, but the equipment involved can be dangerous – a small plastic ball traveling at 90mph presents genuine risks.

Polo enthusiasts spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours pursuing what they see as a most thrilling and addictive sport. Sundays are usually game-day at most clubs. So what can we learn about the safety or dangers inherent in polo?

This article takes a look at one of the oldest and most prestigious sports and whether you should be wary of injury.

What Are the Dangers of Playing Polo?

When playing polo, riders sit on the backs of horses (called ponies) trained to sprint at full speed, make the sharpest turns, halt in an instant, and stay balanced and in position even when riders move their weight out of center during play.

In addition, horses occasionally bump into each other at relatively high speeds, which can happen accidentally or on purpose if a rider is trying to gain an advantageous position.

The game’s very nature means that some risk of injury is always present, both for the riders and horses. A recent study conducted among polo players and polo ponies owners found that polo ponies sustained wounds, splints, and tendon injuries.

Still, on average, the rate of injury was no different than for other sports involving horses. Some of the ways that polo players and trainers reduced the risk of injury are bandaging the horses’ legs before a game and applying a soothing poultice after a match to reduce or prevent soreness and inflammation.

Tendons are also checked before each game, and training is kept at a manageable pace to avoid exhaustion. Cuts and wounds are not common injuries in the game, but they account for anywhere between 10-20% of injuries treated by veterinarians.

Splints are a common injury, and they are caused by impact on hard ground or by making sudden turns and stops at high speed.   To prevent overreach injuries, polo horses often wear protective boots or wraps.

Ice boots are also useful to prevent and treat horses’ injured legs. I wrote an article about them you may find helpful: The 6 Best Ice Boots for Horses Legs, and Why You Need Them

What Are The Main Causes of Injuries to Polo Players?

The actual number of injuries caused by playing polo is lower than that of most contact sports, but the difference is that polo injuries tend to be severe when they do occur. Polo players do take some risk when they ride into the field with their 50-inch mallets.

picture of a gourney,
Image by Richard Revel from Pixabay

There are generally two forms of injuries in polo; traumatic and overuse. Traumatic injuries come from falls and high-impact collisions, which can happen in any number of scenarios.

Such as when horses collide or when players are thrown off a horse and, less commonly, when riders and horses come into contact with playing equipment, including the ball, at high velocity.

Everything from minor lacerations to paralysis has occurred on the pitch, which is why game organizers, trainers, and polo owners are keen on following safety regulations to keep the horses and riders safe.   

Fractures happen quite regularly when playing polo aggressively, and they are mostly a result of falling off a horse. Falls can cause serious injury to any part of the body.

And the more serious the injury, the more likely it will impact a polo player’s life beyond the pitch and into their personal lives. It is all the more reason to abide by safety regulations to minimize the risk of serious injury.

Similar To Cycling?

Just like cycling, playing polo also presents a significant risk of injury to the collarbone in the form of a fracture, which is something many long-time players have witnessed at least once, especially when playing.

A player is thrown off their horse and hits the ground in a hard thump, fracturing their collarbone, arm, and shoulder on impact.

Overuse injuries occur after weeks or months of intense training, a lack of safety techniques, muscle weakness, or just the usual wear and tear.

Players should always take up the right stance when riding to prevent posture imbalances, which are unfortunately common with polo players.

The game is played from the right side, which causes some players to overwork and therefore over-develop the right side of the body, which invariably leads to muscle and joint problems later on in life.

Other common overuse injuries happen on the hands and wrists. The most common result is osteoarthritis and tendinitis, both of which can be avoided with proper positioning of the mallet and the gripping reigns and controlled training.

The rotation of the shoulder when swinging to hit the ball can also lead to osteoarthritis in overtraining. If you start feeling pain in any of your joints, take a break from playing polo and see a doctor if it doesn’t get better within a week or two.

What are the Rules of Polo?

Polo rules are relatively simple:

  1. The game’s goal is to drive the ball past the goal without injuring yourself or the other players. It usually means that a player shouldn’t cut across another player’s line or present a risk of injury through collision.
  2. Players are allowed to ride off their opponents by leaning their horses onto another player’s horse and force them away from the ball.
  3. A player can come from behind and hook their mallet onto the other player’s mallet when they attempt to swing to take a shot.
  4. Polo is played on a pitch 300 yards long and 160 yards wide.
  5. A polo ball measures 9cm and is roughly the size of a baseball. It is made of plastic or, in some cases, wood. 

Do Polo Helmets Prevent Injury?

Concussions are prevalent in polo games, and the best way to prevent serious injury to the head is to wear a helmet – which comes standard with polo gear.

Both the head and spine are vulnerable to injury, and that’s why players should wear the helmet and face protector during training and in every polo match.

Polo helmets contribute significantly to reducing the impact of collisions and falls, which happen frequently. Polo riding is unique, and it takes a different approach and form to the riding done for show jumping or dressage.

Such events require riders to sit correctly and maintain balance throughout, but riders must learn to maintain balance while reaching out for a shot when playing polo.

This forces new players to move past a particular intellectual part and get used to the reflexes needed to play polo more naturally.

Five keys to reducing the risk of injury.

  • Always wear a safety-certified riding helmet.
  • Check your horse. Give the horse a thorough brushing and watch for soreness signs; next, look at his feet, rub their legs, and be alert for heat in these areas.
  • Before each match, check your tack, saddle, girth, bit, bridle, reins, and stirrups. Make sure each is in good condition and fits your horse.
  • Wear the correct attire for riding in a polo match, riding boots, riding pants, and riding gloves.
  • Warm-up your horse before the match begins. Most horses need to loosen their muscles before a game and benefit during this time by blowing off nervous energy.

In Closing

Polo is the most ancient equestrian team sport. It began in Persia more than 2,000 years ago as entry training for cavalry units. The game was a lot fiercer back then because the players’ numbered in the hundreds in a massive field.

And the participants charged at each other with little regard for safety. It was a long time before the game found its way into India and China, and eventually, North America when a newspaper publisher named James Gordon introduced the game to the U.S. in 1876.

In 1890, the rules of play were introduced and became standardized through the United States Polo Association’s formation.

FAQ

1.   Is polo dangerous for the horse?

Sports involving a horse and rider are inherently dangerous to some extent, but it takes plenty of training and practice to learn the game correctly, which prevents or reduces the risk of injury.
The most significant dangers when playing polo involve horses bumping into each other and losing footing or injuring a leg from the strain of play.

2.   Is polo a rough sport?

Polo is a highly competitive contact sport, and it can get pretty rough, but when the rules are followed, the risk of injury is reduced significantly. The sport is a contact sport, but it doesn’t get rough in how American football gets rough.

3.   Is polo played on grass?

Polo is played outdoors in an open grass pitch that measures 300 x 160 yards. The game is rarely played on artificial turf.

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Sources:

  1. Featured Image by Darrel Collins from Pixabay
  2. Polo Rules, U.S. Polo Association, https://www.uspolo.org/sport/rules, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  3. Polo, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polo, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  4. Falls And Injuries To Polo Players, Sportsmedicine, https://sportsmedicine-open.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s40798-014-0002-8, Accessed 25/02/2021.
  5. Equestrian Crash Course: What You Need To Know About Polo, Horsenetwork, https://horsenetwork.com/2016/03/equestrian-crash-course-need-know-polo/, Accessed 25/02/2021.