Once upon a time, St. Moritz hoteliers organized a horse polo game on a frozen lake to draw in customers after the New Year celebrations. Today, the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz is the most prestigious winter tournament.

Snow polo was initially a marketing ploy by Swiss hotels aiming to fill the post-New Year gap in the ski resort calendar — an idea inspired by the frozen surface of Lake St. Moritz itself. It became the perfect venue for the tournament, which has been held in the namesake town every winter since 1985. The initiative was eagerly adopted worldwide, and it has now become a fully-fledged sport with official rules, championships, and its own unique aesthetics and unwritten rules.

There are no significant differences between playing on snow and grass, but climate has necessitated some logical adjustments. As daylight hours are shorter in winter, tournaments are packed into a tight schedule. In St. Moritz, for instance, only four teams compete (compared to 30-35 teams in English summer tournaments), and each team may consist of three riders instead of four. Instead of the traditional six chukkers, matches consist of just four, each lasting seven minutes. This is because firstly, the snow-covered field can’t withstand more than two consecutive games without needing to be refreshed, and secondly, horses tire more quickly on snow than on grass. Even in summer, each horse plays no more than two chukkers per match due to the intense physical demands: they need to reach high speeds and make abrupt stops and turns. To improve traction, ponies are given special winter ‘shoes’ — horseshoes with rubber inserts or studs. Instead of white wooden balls, larger, lighter, red plastic balls are used. They are easily visible against the snow and don’t sink into snowdrifts. Incidentally, there is no need to worry about the integrity of the St. Moritz ice; by the end of January, it is 25–30 cm thick.

Snow polo was an instant hit with spectators. Shorter games are easier to watch; there is no risk of being hit by a stray ball and no need to tread down turf churned up by hooves; and the Warm & Chic dress code is relaxed. The only requirement is to dress appropriately for spending the entire day outdoors at an altitude of 1,800 meters above sea level. However, you won’t freeze thanks to the guest tents where mulled wine is served non-stop in a warm environment. By nightfall, resort restaurants host the usual social events: everyone changes into evening wear, but their cheeks are still rosy from the cold.

In 2024, the Snow Polo World Cup St. Moritz will take place on January 26–27. Other prestigious events in the winter calendar include the December game in Aspen (USA), January championships in Kitzbühel (Austria), Megève and Courchevel (France), and the February one in Cortina (Italy). In Russia, the first snow polo tournament took place in 2004, and athletes have been playing passionately ever since, given the long season. The Moscow Cup is played regularly, and the international Russian Snow Polo Championship draws professional players from Argentina, the UK, Italy, and Switzerland. In January, Moscow will once again host this tournament, and even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the games will go ahead on a field with artificial snow.

Photo: Reinhardt&Sommer/Snow Polo World Cup St.Moritz; shutterstock.com