Hockey on horseback

Published 8:00 am Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gladiator Polo finals to take place Saturday

Six horses race across the arena, their riders leaning low across the saddles.

A rider in a bright red shirt swings his mallet. The ball streaks across the sandy footing toward the arena wall.

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The roar of 10,000 people fills the George Morris arena as the rider scores. Horses spin and sand flies as they race off again at a full gallop.

Gladiator Polo has become a favorite across the country and the Tryon International Equestrian Center is featuring the final Battle for the Carolinas Gladiator Polo title this weekend.

Strikingly different from the elegant ballet of dressage or the individual show jumping competitions typically seen at TIEC, Gladiator Polo appeals to anyone who loves an exciting, fast-paced sporting event.

“This is not your traditional polo match where you have to dress up and drink champagne,” said Gates Gridley, manager for Gladiator Polo. “If you enjoy hockey or other major team sports, then you’ll love gladiator polo.”

Gridley said though it is similar to arena polo in that it is played in an enclosed arena, the rules for Gladiator Polo have been modified to make it as fast paced and physically taxing as outdoor polo.

“It’s all pro-style modified rules,” he said.

Like most of today’s equestrian sports, polo began as a way to train cavalry. Many say it started during the sixth century B.C. China, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan all claim to be the birthplace of the sport.

Modern day polo includes outdoor and indoor (arena) games. Outdoor polo has four players on each team and arena polo has three.

The object is to use a wooden handled mallet to drive a ball into the opposing team’s goal.

Arena polo is played in a smaller field than outdoor polo and is enclosed by walls. Because of the size of the arena, it involves shorter plays and thrills crowds with many more quick turns and changes of direction than outdoor polo. The crowd is closer to the action and quickly becomes involved, cheering on their favorites.

This Saturday’s game includes six periods, called chukkers, which are five minutes each. Riders and horses go after a small, inflated ball, similar to a soccer ball. The riders change horses between each chukker, making sure their mounts are not over-taxed during the game.

The horses love the sport as much as the riders. Most quickly learn the object of the game and listen closely to their rider’s legs and hands.

Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses are favored as polo “ponies,” and typically stand between 14.2 and 16 hands. These horses are selected for their speed, quickness, agility, stamina and good minds.

“It’s great for date night,” Gridley said. “We’ll also have lots of children and family activities such as kids’ face painting, pony rides on polo ponies, carousel rides and gladiator activities in a bounce house.”

Admission and parking for Saturday night’s game are free. Gates are open at 6 p.m. and the first chukker starts at 8 p.m. Saturday night’s teams battling for the title will be Charlotte versus Greenville.

For more information, contact TIEC at 828-863-1000 or visit