Rules of Polo
One of the world’s oldest sports, polo is thought to have originated as long as 2000 years ago in Persia, or present-day Iran. Modern-day polo first came from British soldiers stationed in India in the late 1800s. The soldiers adapted the locally-played game for their own purposes, including to train cavalry riders since polo is played on horseback.
Polo was eventually brought to England, where concrete rules were established, and the first polo club – the Hurlingham Polo Club – formed in 1876. Around that time, the Westchester Polo Club was also founded in Newport, Rhode Island.
One interesting tradition: every time a goal is scored, the direction of play switches. The rule is said to originate from the fact that arenas used to be set up on an east/west axis, and keeping play direction the same would mean one team consistently played against the wind or the sun. Switching the direction of play also prevents disproportionate damage to the turf where the weaker team's goal is located.
Several of the world’s best players are from Argentina, including Adolfo Cambiaso, the Pieres trio (brother Facundo and Gonzalo and their cousin Pablo) and Miguel Novillo Astrada. Notable tournaments include the World Polo Championship, the Snow Polo World Cup, the European Championship, the Ambassadors Cup and the Arena Championship.
Polo can be played on almost any level field of the right size, whether snow, grass or an arena, as long as the ground is firm and well-maintained.
The fields are marked with distance markers 30, 40 and 60 yards from the goal. The standard dimensions of a polo field, which apply internationally, are 182 meters or 200 yards wide by 274 meters or 300 yards long. Goals are approximately eight yards wide. The goal’s height is unlimited, as there is no crossbar.
Match organizers are increasingly allowing play on smaller fields, with the advantage that spectators have an easier time watching the game. A disadvantage to a smaller field is shorter passes and overall slower play. When polo is played on a snow-covered field, the field is typically smaller to minimize extra the physical strain on the ponies.
The object of the game is simple: players on each team try to move the ball into the opposition’s half of the arena and eventually into their goal to score. Whichever team has the most points at the end of four, five or six time units known as chukkas (also spelled chukkers) is the winner.
Moving The Ball
On the polo field, players are on horseback and using polo sticks or mallets – the two words are interchangeable – to maneuver a ball made of wood or plastic. Mallets must remain entirely below the player’s shoulder. Polo balls are approximately three inches in diameter and weigh just over four ounces. For snow polo, the balls are inflated and weigh around six ounces.
Players swing the mallet with their right hand only, but can perform a nearside play on the pony's left side. For a nearside play, the player has to twist in the saddle and bring the stick to the other side of the pony while keeping it in his or her right hand.
Other plays are “under the neck,” which refers to a play performed in front of, or under the neck of, the horse, and the trickier “round-the-tail” plays, which are done behind the horse.
During a game, the player that hits the polo ball is generally the player with the right of way (ROW) and other players are not permitted to cross the line of the ball (LOB) in front of that player. Instead, players on the opposite team must approach that player on either side of the LOB, or from behind. Failure to do so results in a foul.
Players can challenge opposing team members by ‘riding them off,’ which is where a player rides alongside their opponent and attempts to move them away from the ball or take them out of play. Players can ‘bump’ the opposition, which is similar to a body check in hockey, and can also hook an opponent’s stick when they’re trying to hit the ball. To change which player has the right of way, another player can hook or ride off the player with ROW.
Game Format and Duration
Polo matches consist of between four and six chukkas, each lasting for approximately seven minutes. Number and length of chukkas vary by tournament. The chukka starts when the umpire throws the ball in between the two teams. This is also how play is restarted after a goal is scored.
Two mounted umpires oversee each match, and they consult each other on decisions. A match referee, known as the third man, is also present in the event that the umpires disagree on a decision.
At the end of a chukka, play continues for 30 seconds or until a stoppage of play occurs, whichever comes first. A five-minute break happens at halftime, which is generally after two chukkas. The public is asked to walk onto the field during this time and attempt to ‘tread in,’ or even out, the divots of turf carved up by the ponies' hooves.
Polo Teams and Players
Each team consists of four players, called mounts. If a team has more than four players and is considered to be 'sharing,’ two players alternate in one position.
A handicap system is implemented based on the four players’ aptitudes. Handicaps range from -2 (beginner) to +10 (highest possible, which very few players have worldwide). Roughly nine out of 10 polo players have handicaps between 0 and +2. The handicaps of the four players on a team are added up to get a team handicap.
Handicaps are assigned each year by national polo associations in the country of play and are determined based on success in tournaments. Tournaments are advertised as low-, medium- or high-goal, and the team handicaps of the registering teams must correspond to these classifications. Teams of different team handicaps can play against each other, but the difference is accounted for by giving the appropriate number of goals to the weaker team.
The positions are broken down as follows:
Position One: An attacking offensive player in position one. This player is similar to a striker in soccer or a forward in hockey. They must be able to hit the ball hard and accurately as their primary objective is to score. When they’re defending, they also have to look after the other team’s position three player.
Position Two: A primarily offensive player in position two that backs up position one in the attack. This player also has defensive responsibilities and often interchanges roles with the position three player when they attack.
Position Three:Position three, an attacking position, is considered the captain. Their role is very similar to a quarterback position, and it’s usually filled by the team’s best player. Position three players need to be able to accurately hit the ball upfield to position one and two players.
Position Four: A defensive player in position four that acts as a goal defender. They need to be able to move the ball accurately to the team’s offensive players.
The horses used in a game of polo are specifically bred for the sport. Each player will need at least two ponies to switch out between chukkas, as a horse cannot play for more than two chukkas and cannot play for two chukkas in a row. The horses can either be the player’s own horses or ones provided by their polo club.
Polo ponies need special saddles that allow the player to be seated securely, control the horse and swing the mallet. The ponies also have bandages around their legs for protection, and their tails are tied to prevent them from getting tangled with the polo stick. Other essential pieces of equipment for the players include helmets with face guards and leather knee guards.
Polo sticks or mallets are approximately 1.5 meters long, although lengths and weights can vary according to player preference and pony height. Polo mallets have handles made of bamboo with a tapered wooden head, and the handle is fitted with a fabric sling that the player wraps around their hand.
Fouls and Penalties
If a team commits some type of infraction, penalty hits may be given to the opposition from the 30-, 40- or 60-yard lines. They can be defended or undefended, depending on what kind of penalty the other team committed. In All Pro Polo League rules, Penalty A penalties are considered more serious than Penalty B penalties. U.S. Polo Association rules break penalties down into six categories, Penalty One being the most severe.
An umpire blowing the whistle during a chukka signifies that a foul has occurred. When this happens, play stops. Play may also stop for a horse or rider injury. After a foul, a free hit may be given.
If a serious foul occurs, an umpire could award the opposing team a penalty goal. If this happens, the game restarts at the spot of the foul and teams do not switch direction of play.
A penalty could be called for a number of reasons, but ROW and ride-off violations are most common. ROW calls include turning across the ROW, blocking the ROW, impeding the ROW or ROW violation. Ride-off calls include uneven or illegal ride-off or uneven speed on ride-off. Other than those, delay of game, dangerous riding, reaching and dangerous mallet use are also penalties.
Scoring and Winning
Players are aiming to move the ball into the opposition’s half of the arena and eventually into their goal to score. The team that scores the most amount of goals, having the highest amount of points, at the end of all chukkas is the winning team.
If the game is tied, a sudden death round ensues where another chukka is played and the first to score wins. If nobody scores in this additional chukka, another chukka is played with widened goalposts and the first to score wins. There’s also the option of an outdoor shootout, where each player – in turn, and alternating teams – attempts a free hit from the 40-yard line at an undefended goal.
Polo Rules Summary
A game of polo is played in chukkas, or periods, that each last about seven minutes. Games usually consist of four to six chukkas.
Each player needs at least two polo ponies to switch out between chukkas, as a horse cannot play for more than two chukkas and cannot play two consecutive chukkas.
Four players make up each team. If a team has more than four players, two will alternate in one position.
A handicap system is devised based on the players’ aptitudes. Handicaps range from -2 (beginner) to +10 (highest possible).
Players on each team try to move the ball into the opposition’s half of the arena and eventually into their goal to score. Whichever team has the most points at the end wins.
On the polo field, players are on horseback and using polo sticks or mallets to maneuver a ball made of wood or plastic. Players swing the mallet with their right hand.
Every time a goal is scored, the direction of play switches.
If a player commits a foul or penalty, the other team is typically awarded a free hit or a penalty goal.
In the event of a tie, players either enter a sudden death round or a shootout.
Polo fields can be almost any size, but the official international dimensions are 200 yards wide by 300 yards long.
Polo balls are approximately three inches in diameter and weigh about four ounces. For snow polo, the balls are inflated and weigh around six ounces.