Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Polo - Game for Princes, Warriors and...?

Polo was played in medieval Byzantium, you can see the polo ground on the bottom right of the plan of the Great Palace.                                                                              

In earlier centuries, polo wasn't just played in Byzantium.   The beautiful wall painting above shows Tang Dynasty courtiers playing polo in 706 AD.  It was found on the walls of a prince's tomb, which is a bit gloomy, but the players look so alive!   This next one is a girl player.  This is also an 8th century Tang Dynasty piece.
Recently, were were on a walk through several English villages in the Lambourne Valley - Great Shefford, East Garston, Eastbury.   We saw hoofprints well before the horses. It had been raining, the track was muddy, but the prints hadn't been washed away. Perhaps because I had been thinking about polo ponies, I couldn't help notice the variation in the size of the hoofprints. It reminded me that medieval horses were often a good deal smaller than the horses we see today. And today, polo ponies are small.

In medieval Byzantium, polo was played by cavalry officers as a training exercise as much as for pleasure, though I am sure that many of the officers would be wagering on the outcome. In the capital of Constantinople polo matches could take place either in the grounds of the Imperial Palace where there was a polo field or even in the Hippodrome, where entertainments were put on for the citizens. Horses come in many different sizes, so their shoes obviously must be individually made. But what I had forgotten was that the shoes must also be fit for their particular task. In Eastbury we came across a disused forge, and nailed to the door were the shoes of some of the horses that had been shod there.These are racing shoes, and they are made in lightweight metal alloy, to help the horses speed along. They look nothing like the medieval horsehoes in heavy iron that you can see (below) in the Weald and Downland Museum.