Beginner’s Guide to Polo

Match Format

A match consists of 6-8 chukkas, each lasting seven minutes plus up to 30 seconds of overtime. A horn is blown at the end of 7 minutes to signal to the players that 30 seconds remain in the chukka. During the 30 seconds, play continues until a team scores, the ball goes out of play or a player commits a foul. During the breaks players are able to switch ponies.

The Field

Play takes place on a field of about 300 yards (275 metres) long by 160 yards (150 metres) wide. In theory, that is about the same size as six soccer pitches. The goal posts, which collapse on severe impact, are set eight yards apart.

Teams

There are 4 players on a team with each player assigned a distinctly different role according to their position. The Number 1 player is essentially a goal striker whose primary role is to score goals. The Number 2 player is also a forward, but plays harder, especially on defence. Number 3 is the pivotal player between offence and defence who tries to turn all plays to offence. He is usually the highest rated player on the team. The Number 4 player (or back), is essentially the most defensive player whose primary responsibility is to protect the goal area.

Handicaps

All players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (the higher the better). Although the word ‘goal’ is often used after the rating, it bears no relation to the number of goals a player scores in a match, but to his overall playing ability. A player’s horsemanship, range of strokes, speed of play, team and game sense are the factors considered in determining his handicap. The team handicap is the sum of its players’ handicaps. the team with the lower handicap is awarded the difference in goals at the start of the game. For example, a 26-goal team would give two goals start to a 24-goal team.

Scoring

Any time the ball crosses, at any height, the line between the goal posts, it is considered a goal regardless of who knocks it through, including the pony. After each goal, the teams change ends (i.e. switch the halves they defend). This allows both teams equal opportunities to score in case the field or weather is working to one direction’s advantage (equalise wind and turf conditions). The game is continuous and can only be stopped if a foul is called, an injury occurs to either a polo pony or rider, or if a player’s tack is broken.

The key to a novice understanding the game of polo is to appreciate the importance of the line of ball. The line of the ball, namely the imaginary line along which the ball travels, represents a right of way for the player following nearest that line. All strategic plays are based on the line of ball and you will notice that players always approach the ball along this line, either in the direction it is travelling or directly against it. There are no T-junctions in polo. This ensures fair play, flowing play and, most of all, the safety of the players and their ponies.

The Language of Polo

The origins of Polo, its exotic ancestry and storied past have contributed to a heritage rich in colourful expressions. Understanding that language adds yet another dimension to a fascinating sport.

Chukka

This is the term used to describe the basic period of play. In polo, each chukka is seven and a half minutes long and there are six chukkas in each match.

Foul

This constitutes an infraction of the rules as laid down by the Polo Association. Most fouls govern safe riding and the concept of the line of the ball.

Goal

A point is added to the score each time the ball travels between the goal posts, whether hit in by attacker, defender or pony. The team’s direction of play changes after each goal is scored.

Handicap

The comparative rating of polo players awarded by the Polo Association. Handicaps are expressed in goals but do not describe the number of goals the player is expected to score, but rather the player’s value to the team.

Hook

One of the two defensive manoeuvres allowed in the rules. In this case the mallet is used to block or interfere with another player’s swing at the ball.

Intervals

Three- minutes long rest periods between chukkas. Half time is five minutes.

Judges

Goal judges are positioned behind each goal to signal whether a goal has been scored. Hard hats are worn for protection.

Knock-in

Should a team hit the ball across the opponent’s backline during an attack, the defending team resumes the game with a free hit from the backline where the ball went over. It is equivalent to a goal kick in soccer.

Line of the ball

The imaginary line created by the ball as it travels across the field. The line of the ball may not be crossed or infringed except in exceptional circumstances. This is a pivotal concept on which many fouls or infractions are based and is usually what the umpires are discussing after they have blown the whistle.

Mallet

The shaft is usually made from bamboo cane and the head from a hard wood, although plastic composite shafts are increasingly common. The wide face of the mallet head is used to strike the ball and not the ends, as in croquet. Polo mallets range in length according, principally, to the height of the pony played, and extend from 48 to 54 inches.

Near-side

Is the left side of the horse.

Off-side

Is the right side of the horse.

Out-of-bounds

When the ball is hit out of bounds the clock continues to run and the ball is thrown in by the umpires at that spot.

Penalties

Fouls result in the umpires awarding a shot at goal (a penalty) to the offended team (the more severe the infringement, the closer to the goalmouth the penalty is awarded).

Puttees

The leg wraps applied to the horse’s lower legs for support and protection.

Referee

The referee is off-field and has the final word in the case of a dispute between the two mounted umpires.

Ride-off

A ride-off is used to break an opposing player’s concentration, move them off the line of the ball or spoil their shot.

Safety

Also known as a Penalty 6, a safety is awarded when a defending player hits the ball over his own backline, the shot is taken 60 yards out from the backline, opposite the point at which the ball went over. It is equivalent to a corner in soccer and no defender can be nearer than 30 yards from the ball when it is played.

Sideboards

These are nine to eleven inch high vertical boards along the sidelines only. Such sideboards are optional.

Tailshot

Hitting the ball behind and under the pony’s rump.

Time-Out

Called by an umpire when a foul is committed, an accident occurs or at his discretion. A player may call time-out if he has broken a key piece of tack or is injured. Time-out is not permitted for changing ponies or for replacing a broken mallet, although a player may do so at any time.

Throw-in

The game is started with a throw-in where the ball is literally thrown in between the line-up teams by the umpires.

Umpires

These are the on-field officials. Mounted on horses, umpires are usually active players responsible for enforcing the rules.