There are those who'll tell you that polo is a way of life. And the dedicated are convinced that the sport will, or at least should, sweep the nation soon.

Rick Talley, 38, of Upperville, says the sport has a bright future in places like Loudoun and Fauquier counties because it offers people interested in horses something more to do than just ride.

"It's obviously going to grow," he said with the confidence that comes of unbridled enthusiasm.

Chris Kelly, editor in chief of Polo Magazine, compares polo's rise in popularity to the surge of interest in soccer several years ago. Part of her magazine's mission is to draw more people to the sport.

"We're trying to show people that polo is fun," Kelly said. "It's hip."

The Game

Polo can be played on two different surfaces--field or arena. Although the rules are generally the same, the experience can be night and day.

A traditional polo field is three football fields long and about 1 1/2 football fields wide. The match is divided into six seven-minute periods, called chukkers. The game usually lasts about 1 1/2 hours; the clock stops for fouls or when the ball goes out of bounds or when somebody falls off a horse. The object is to score as many goals as possible. Goals, one at each end of the field, are 24 feet wide.

In field polo, there are four players on each team, each with a different position. The team's handicap is determined by adding the handicaps of each player. A system devised by the United States Polo Association grants ratings from minus 2 (a beginner) to 10 (ultimate perfection). So, a four-goal team playing a seven-goal team would begin the game with three goals on the board.

Arena polo, on the other hand, is played on a surface about one-third the size of the outdoor field. A wooden wall surrounds the 300-by-150 foot area. The smaller space tends to make the game faster and a little more exciting.

There are three players per team in an arena, and the game consists of four chukkers of 7 1/2 minutes each. Each goal is worth one point, except for shots taken 50 yards or farther from the goal. Those are worth two points each.

History

Polo was first played more than 2,000 years ago by nomadic warriors in Asia, according to the United States Polo Association. It became a valuable game for training horses and, by the Middle Ages, was played from Constantinople to Japan. British planters saw the game in the early 1800s and brought it home to England, where the game became well established by the 1870s.

Polo arrived in the United States in 1876, when American publisher James Gordon Bennett brought the sport to New York. Within a decade, clubs had sprung up all along the East Coast. Polo's golden age came during the 1920s and 1930s, when it was an Olympic sport and attracted crowds of 30,000 at international matches in New York.

Its popularity declined after World War II but has surged again recently, said George Alexander, the association's executive director. There are now 225 USPA member clubs and 3,000 players in the country.

"It's not a big sport, but we've got more players playing now than we've ever had," Alexander said. "It's a wonderfully invigorating game that any grown man or woman can play on horseback."

Cost

Playing polo is expensive. Period. And unless you have an extra stash of cash, it's not a sport that an average middle-class family could afford.

If you want to learn only the basics, however, you could take a few lessons. Those will run about $60 to $70 an hour. Anything beyond that gets pretty pricey pretty quickly, as the association's figures show.

For beginners playing four-chukker games of arena polo, one or two horses is adequate. The typical horse costs $3,000 to $5,000. Horses require shoeing every six to eight weeks, at $50 to $80--and sometimes more--each time. Average vet bills run $300 to $500 annually, and stabling and feed bills range from $250 to $450 a month. Saddles will add an additional $500 to $900, and bridles are $200 each. Other costs include: blankets and polo wraps at $60, a helmet at $100, boots at $150, knee guards at $60, mallets at $80 and ground fees starting at $500.

And that's budget polo. Stepping up to the next level will tack on $5,000 to $10,000 more for more and better horses, a trailer and extra vet and stabling bills.

At the highest level, a season of intense competition costs from $300,000 to $1 million per team.

Although playing polo is expensive, watching it isn't. Admission at Great Meadow's Twilight Polo is $15 a car, a bargain for many families.

"It's cheaper than a basketball game," Kelly said.

Who Plays and Where?

More than half of all players have an average household income of $100,000 or more, according to USPA. The average player is about 45. Because the game requires concentration and control, the best players--men and women--mature after 30, Alexander said.

Polo clubs are concentrated in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast as well as in Florida and California. Tournaments are often held in the north in the summer, farther south in the winter.

Ask anyone who the best players in the world are and you'll get one answer: The Argentines.

"The Argentines rule," Kelly said. "The sport is revered there."