Polo 101


The Polo Basics

You don’t need to be a polo pro to attend The Polo Classic, but it’s nice to know what’s happening on the field. Polo is an intense, action-packed sport, but arm with a little knowledge of the basic rules, even a newcomer can understand the action. Here’s what you need to know.

The Team

Each of the four players is assigned a position numbered from 1 to 4. No. 1 is the attacker, no. 2 is a midfielder, no.3 is the team’s tactical link, and No. 4 (also known as the “back”) is the defender at the back most position. While no. 1 and no. 2 play forward, no. 3 and no. 4 take on the defense.

The Field
The polo field is 300 yards long and 200 yards wide or the equivalent of about 270m x 180m. The three meter high goal posts are eight yards (approx. 7.2m) apart and are collapsible for safety reasons. A goal is valid every time the ball goes through the goal – regardless of how high the ball is hit.

The Game
A game has four to eight periods of play known as chukkas. One chukka is seven and a half minutes long with the clock being stopped every time there is any interruption. In lower goal games there are usually six chukkas a game. The breaks between each chukka are about three to five minutes long and this is when players have to change ponies. Sides are changed every time a goal is scored – which can be rather confusing for first-time polo spectators. The game is not stopped if a player falls off his horse but is not injured.

However, play is stopped if a horse injures itself, the bridle gets entangled, or a horse’s bandage comes undone.

Each player is individually ranked – as in golf – on a handicap scale that ranges from -2 (beginners) to +10. There are only a handful of players worldwide with a 10-goal handicap. About 90% of the players are ranked in a handicap range of 0 to 2. The team handicap is the aggregate of the players’ handicaps. The difference in goals (“handicap goals”) between two teams is awarded to the lower rated team before play begins.

Line of the Ball
The line of the ball and the right-of-way make up the fundamentals of the game. The line of the ball is the imaginary path the travelling ball is expected to take. This line may not be crossed by the opponent. A player who is going straight after a ball he has hit, or the first player to swing into the line of a rolling or flying ball, without hampering the others, may not be intercepted by any other player as this could harm the player or the pony.

The Mallet and the Ball
The mallet (also known as the stick) is usually made of bamboo or willow and may only be held in the right hand. Depending on the height of the pony played, and the rider, the mallets are between 48 and 53 inches long. The ball is hit with the head of the mallet. The ball, which is traditionally made of compressed bamboo and today mostly of plastic, has a diameter of about ten centimeters and weighs about 130grams. A hard-hit ball may reach a speed of 80 km/h.

Hooking is a common defensive play. It means that a player can block the swing of the opponent by using his or her mallet to hook the mallet of the opponent swinging at the ball. A player may hook only if he or she is on the side where the swing is being made or directly behind an opponent. The most important rule in polo is always the safety of the horse!

Change of sides after each goal
One of the most important rules: the teams change sides after each goal. This rule stems from the hot and sunny colonies in India, where polo was played in the evening due to the high temperatures during the day. As the sun is low in the evening, it was a considerable disadvantage to play against the sun.

Throw In
The “Throw In” is performed after each goal. Both teams line up at the halfway line of the field, facing the umpire, respectively in the direction of the opponent’s goal. The umpire throws the ball between the two teams to resume play. “Throw Ins” may also occur during the match or at the start of each chukka, always in place where the previous chukka has ended.

Playing Field


Line of the Ball
The number one rule in polo is the “Line of the Ball” – the right of way.

Viewed from the virtual sidelines, tactic and technique become obvious. After a few moments of observation, it becomes clear that a successful strike is only possible with a “safe” ball. Otherwise, the next teammate is better placed to play the ball as a spectacular top-speed-attack could only end up in a fruitless race to nowhere. Polo is therefore always played “in line” from no. 4 at the back to no. 1 in front of the opponent’s goal and vice versa. No.3 is the captain and usually the team’s best player. He coordinates the game, no.1 concentrates on the area around the opponent’s goal, and no.2 takes care of matters mid-field, while no. 4 takes charge of defense. This set-up is consistent throughout the game.

A game will turn out to be good and exciting if the opponents are equally matched and cover each other closely. The line of the ball and the ensuing right-of-way are the deciding and most cited arguments that govern the game and what constitutes a foul. An opponent’s hit can be foiled by way of a “hook” or a “ride off”, is similar to the body check in ice hockey.

A penalty shot (a hit taken at a specified distance from a manned or unmanned goal) is awarded to the team of the fouled player. Most high-goal players, just like basketball players, manage to convert almost all their awarded penalties All players, including those on the opponent’s team, are rated in regard to their abilities, horses played, position, strengths, and weaknesses.

Right and Wrong
Quick reaction and a near-reflex assessment of situations are of the essence of tactical play and safety. The next two examples highlight the right, and the wrong reactions in a given situation.

Situation 1 (left half of the field).
A player doesn’t hit the ball hard enough and tries to hit it again by slowing down, or abruptly changing directions. Another player is directly behind the first player in playing position.

Wrong because:
A player hits the ball wrong and gives it a second try by slowing down or abruptly changing direction. There are other players right behind him in position to hit the ball.

A player, having messed up a hit, should carry on at the same speed without attempting a second hit. He should let a teammate take the next hit or, time allowing, go round and approach from the back of the field to attempt another hit.

Situation 2
In an attempt to hit the ball back in an offside-back-shot a player gets into the way of an opponent who is in possession of the ball on his offside.

Wrong Because:
The defender infringes on the opponent’s right-of-way in a manner that is not only dangerous but also unsportsmanlike. He has crossed the opponent’s line leaving too little space between them and therefore puts himself and the other player in danger.

In order to cover his opponent correctly and effectively, the defender must wait until he can overtake his opponent and hit the ball in the opposite direction of play.

As in other ball games there are a variety of penalties for fouls in polo. It is important to understand these so as to better follow a game.

It is important to bear in mind the following: ROW – Right-of-Way and LOB – Line of the Ball are not identical or interchangeable. A player on the line of the ball always has the right-of-way.

The following are forbidden and constitute a foul:

  • Playing at an angle that could be a danger to the pony and player
  • Playing at a higher speed than the opponent is riding
  • Riding into the opponent’s horse from behind the saddle. Opponents may only play as high as the pony’s shoulders
  • Riding crisscross in the way of a galloping player in an attempt to force him to reduce speed
  • Sideways parrying, pulling the opponent’s horse, or other similar acts that put the pony at risk of tumbling
  • Infringement of the right-of-way
  • Galloping head-on towards an opponent so as to intimidate him or force him into parrying or missing the ball even without fouling or crossing the line of the ball
  • Creating the so called “sandwich” whereby two teammates force a player of the opponent’s team into the middle
  • Intentionally riding into the opponents backhand or forward hit
  • Riding in a manner that could harm the referee
  • Penalties and free hits are taken at a distance of 30, 40, and 60 yards