These days, China may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of polo, but the sport actually goes back here much further than you expect. Polo is widely considered to have originated in Persia around 2,500 years ago, and eventually spread to China and the Indian subcontinent. It was originally a military training game that tested soldiers’ ability to hit a moving target while on horseback. In China, polo was popularized during the Tang dynasty as a pastime for royalty and other elites.
Now, the sport is enjoying a modern rebirth in China, a phenomenon that is largely fueled by the country’s financial elite. According to a May 2012 article by John O’Sullivan in The Financial Times, China didn’t have a single polo club before the mid-1960s. But in the past eight years alone, the country has opened four. These include Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club, and two in Beijing: Sunny Time Polo Club (opened in 2000), and Tang Polo Club (opened in 2010). The latter has hosted a number of international tournaments since its foundation. Now, alone and in collaboration with Sports Beijing, Tang Polo Club offers polo programs for kids and teens.
The rules of the game are relatively simple. Each team is composed of four people mounted on horses called “polo ponies.” The objective of the game is to score into the opposing team’s goal, using a mallet. Outdoor polo takes place on a full-sized grass field with upright boarding along the perimeter that stops the ball from rolling out of play. A period of play is called a “chukka” and typically lasts seven minutes. A full game lasts eight chukkas, but club matches often include only four to six chukkas. There is an interval of three minutes between chukkas and five minutes at halftime. To avoid exhausting their mounts, players must switch ponies at each interval. Fun fact: Polo ponies are almost exclusively female, because they are considered to be less aggressive.
Polo is also distinguished by its handicap system. Each player is given a handicap rating of -2 to 10 goals; the latter is limited to only the top polo players. The combined handicap of four polo players on a team is called a “team handicap.” The idea is to balance out the two teams as much as possible; if the two teams do not have an equal team handicap, then the weaker team is given a specific number of goals to start with. Billing itself as the only polo club in China with international-standard lawns, Tang Polo Club’s programs are open to any interested parties, but full membership is by invitation only. This measure is designed to ensure that only those who are serious about the sport join the club’s ranks.
A member of the International Polo Association and the Hurlingham Polo Association, Tang Polo Club’s 35,000sqm facilities include two polo lawns, stables that can accommodate up to 110 horses, a hotel with 14 suites/rooms and an international restaurant, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, and an equipment and souvenir shop.
According to Tang Polo Club, kids can start learning the sport as young as 4 or 5. Younger riders spend most of their time practicing polo techniques on the wooden horse and in the indoor arena. The club staffs English-speaking, internationally-certified coaches. However, parents should note that polo is neither a cheap nor casual pastime. It takes significant resources to train, house, and look after polo ponies. The extensive grass fields – approximately the size of nine American football fields – must be carefully and regularly mowed, and the equipment itself (including helmets, gloves, kneepads, polo mallets, riding boots, and more) can run into the thousands of RMB.
That being said, polo is a great way for kids to learn the value of communication. Liu Shilai is the founder and chairman of Tang Polo Club, as well as China’s first internationally-recognized polo player. He says: “Normally, people think that you are the horse’s boss or owner. But that’s wrong; the horse is your friend. You can’t use your power to make them do anything, so you have to communicate with them.” This is a lesson that Liu tries to instill in his own 5-year-old son.
When they go riding together, Liu hands the reins to his son and directs the horse’s movements using only his legs. “This builds confidence in my son, who learns to trust the horse,” he says. Beyond that, Liu believes that equestrian sports are suitable for the entire family. “When I was in Australia, I saw [one]dad [whose]kids would help him warm up the horse before [a polo]game. It’s like teamwork [within]the family.”
Tang Polo Club 唐人马球俱乐部
Wugezhuang Lu, Gequ Village, Songzhuang Town, Tongzhou District (8051 9200/1, email@example.com) www.tangpolo.com 通州区宋庄镇葛渠村吴各庄路
Sunny Time Polo Club 阳光时代马球俱乐部
Sunny Time Polo Club is a part of Sunny Time Holiday Manor. They accept polo players of any level and offer regular riding lessons as well. The staff’s English is limited, but they are friendly and helpful. Accommodations are available for overnight stays. Helmet, mallet, and other riding equipment can be rented. Call ahead before visiting; the website has a map of how to get there. Take the fast bus 919 (919 快) from Deshengmen (德胜门) to Yanqing (延庆); then, a black cab will take you to Sunny Time (average fare is RMB 40). RMB 450/hour of polo instruction (Chinese only). Memberships are available for RMB 50,000-150,000 per year. Alternatively, participants can prepay set amounts of RMB 4,300; RMB 20,500; or RMB 37,000 on a card.
Xiaocaoying Village, Kangzhuang Town, Yanqing County (6913 4283/3078, 8464 8201 English, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.sunnypolo.com 延庆康庄小曹营阳光时代庄园
Tianjin Goldin Metropolitan Polo Club 天津环亚国际马球会
Based in Tianjin, this polo club welcomes young and adult polo players. Throughout the year, they offer training camps for ages 10-18. Eight-day junior equestrian and polo programs include accommodations and start from RMB 30,000. Students learn stable management, basic riding skills, and mallet techniques.
16 Haitai Huake Jiulu, Binhai Gaoxin District, Tianjin (22 8372 8888) www.metropolitanpoloclub.com 天津滨海高新区海泰华科九路16号
Photos by Littleones Kids & Family Portrait Studio