Can’t tell your chukkas from your handicaps? In the dark about dress code and divots? Diana Mather shares her do’s and don’ts of polo etiquette and charts the history of the oldest team sport in the world
Polo, or “hockey on horseback” as it was originally referred to in Britain, is probably the world’s oldest team sport. Although the exact roots of the game are not known, it is thought it was first played by nomadic warriors over 2,000 years ago, though the first recorded tournament was in 600 B.C. between the Turkomans and Persians. In Persia the game was played by Royalty and polo has been linked to the middle and upper classes in Britain, mainly due to the fact it was played by members of the armed forces who could afford the number of ponies needed to play the game.
Polo is divided into chukkas. Each chukka involves seven minutes of play, after which a bell is rung and play continues for either another 30 seconds or until the ball goes out of play. A three-minute break is given between each chukka and a five-minute break at half time, and the ends are changed after each goal is scored. Polo first became known in the west via British tea planters. In 1869, the first game in Britain was organised on Hounslow Heath by officers stationed at Aldershot, one of whom had read about the game in a magazine.
The dress code for polo matches is smart-casual, defined as collared shirts with trousers, chinos or smart jeans for gentlemen; and dresses, skirts, trousers, smart shorts to the knee or smart jeans for ladies. Sandals are permitted for ladies only. For the Royal Box, collared shirts and ties, lounge suits, jackets or blazers with trousers or chinos are required for gentlemen, and dresses, skirts or tailored trousers for ladies. There is no covered seating at most events so it is important to remember the vagaries of the English weather!
The Duke of Edinburgh started following polo in the 1950s, then Prince Charles showed an interest and now William and Harry are regular team players. Divot etiquette is important; divots are the clods of earth that the horses’ hooves throw up, and everyone is expected to go and ‘tread in’ between matches to make the ground as smooth as possible. Sensible shoes are useful here! When meeting members of the Royal Family, the usual rules apply. Don’t speak unless spoken to, and it is courteous for British citizens to curtsey or bow.
Cartier International Day on Sunday 25 July is a major fixture in the sporting calendar for the season, when everyone dresses up. However, it is not like Royal Ascot so hats are not de rigueur, but a Panama or summer hat always looks very chic.
Diana Mather is British etiquette expert and senior etiquette tutor for The English Manner