The Saint’s points on polo

Photo: Brian Kulik
Photo: Brian Kulik
Photo: Brian Kulik

Unsure of what to expect? Let a team member show you the ropes.

Whether you’ve come across some of the posters scattered across town, unexpectedly happened upon a pony during an afternoon walk on the beach or been hassled by a friend who went to cheer them on in their first competitive chukka, you’ll probably know about polo on the beach. Whilst Polo on the Beach takes place in July in Watergate Bay, the University of St Andrews Polo Club uses one of our town’s most exceptional features every fortnight to host beach chukkas. From the casual friendlies between St Andrews and Stirling, to the Opening Beach Tournament or the highly comical Christmas Beach Tournament (if you have never seen a guy dressed as Santa playing polo, then proceed to ride out of his felt costume, I’d highly recommend it), polo on the beach is fast becoming a St Andrews tradition.

But, hey, what if you don’t know the Polo Club, or the rules of the game? Or you want to come watch with a spot of lunch but aren’t quite sure about picnicking protocol? Oh, and let’s not forget the ever-trying St Andrews issue of what to wear (after all, there’s no sunbathing on this beach!). Have no fear, for this article will cover the core questions of polo on the beach: what to pack, what to wear and exactly what you are watching.

What to bring

So you want to bring a picnic. Now, as game-play starts fairly early on Saturdays due to tide times (around 11.30 am), if you’re going to bring anything, bring brunch. Danish pastries, croissants, anything that won’t mysteriously harbour sand, all go down a treat. Your choice of drink, like most things in St Andrews, is going to depend on the weather. When it looks a little grey up there and a bit windy on the beach, you’re going to be glad you brought that Thermos of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. For those sunnier days, such as the glorious one we had for the Opening Beach Tournament, how about some champagne? Or orange juice? Can’t decide? Mimosas were made for days like these. If you end up staying a little later into the afternoon to watch all the chukkas, the classic strawberries and cream never goes amiss.

When it comes to getting comfortable though, leave that folding chair at home: whilst grass pitches for polo usually have a wooden border to keep the ball from going out of play, the beach has no such luxury, which sometimes results in rapid expansion of the pitch! A picnic blanket set a little further back is much advised, though there will always be those keen spectators who tightly pack the sidelines, take-away picnic food in hand, so as to keep a closer track of the game.

Photo: University of St Andrews Polo Club
Photo: University of St Andrews Polo Club

What to wear

When I approached my academic sons dressed like this and asked, “Boys, did you dress up for polo?”, the response I got was, “No, Mom, we dressed up for life.” Witty as they were, you do not need to dress up for polo: you’re going to be there for a while, and you don’t want to cover your Sunday best in sand. (Knowing St Andrews, it will be windy.)

By all means, dress in whatever way you wish, but remember comfort! And bring a jacket just in case. Boys can get away with a light blazer over a button down, with slacks and boat shoes or chukka boots. Girls are well advised to wear a dress with tights or a button down with jeans and such. Remember, polo is a game where we, the players, charge around on horses trying to hit a very small ball with sticks ill-shaped for the job: we do not take ourselves that seriously. There is no judgement here at all.

With regards to players, each player will be wearing a variation of long boots (black or brown jodhpurs boots with gaiters, polo boots or standard riding long boots), knee pads, a playing shirt and ‘whites’ (white trousers). When they’re on the job, this will be accompanied by a polo helmet, with or without a cage to protect their face, and usually gloves for better grip.

What to watch for

So now you’re on the beach, you’re fed and watered, you’re comfortable yet stylish, and you’re ready to watch. But what exactly is going on? A standard polo game is four chukkas long, each chukka lasting for seven minutes. After ever chukka, each player will switch their horse so as not to tire them out too much and make things safer for the animals. For field and beach polo, due to the larger pitch, there are four players on a team, numbered one to four on their backs. (For arena polo, there are only three players.) Whilst there are no set positions in polo, like goalkeeper or midfielder, your number one is the most offensive player and it goes down a sliding scale to four being the most defensive player. The aim of the game is simple: get the ball into the opposition’s goal as often as you can.

The most important thing to remember in polo – to which most fouls and other rules are related – is the ‘line of the ball’. When the ball is hit or moves forward, it creates a line, and whoever hits that ball last, so long as they are near enough behind it, has the line. Should another player cut across this line, they have fouled and a penalty must be taken. Defensive moves such as ‘riding off’ and reaching across to the nearside and ‘sticking’ or ‘hooking’ another player’s stick to interfere with their swing are both legal and incorporated into game-play when trying to regain possession of the ball.

Looking forward to putting this all into practice? The next beach chukkas are this Saturday, 25 October, with a special surprise promised to follow that evening.

Want to find more about polo? The Polo Club meets every Tuesday at 9 pm at Forgan’s where you can sign up for lessons, buy membership or just come and chat to the committee and the members.


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