The Polo Basics

With knowledge of the basic rules, even a newcomer to polo can partake in the action on the field. Below are the basics at a glimpse.

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© Jacques Toffi

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, 3 and 4 take on the defence.

The Field

The polo field is 300 yards long and 200 yards wide or the equivalent of about 270m x 180m. The 3m-high goal posts are 8 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 Germany there are usually four 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.

Handicap

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 122 cm and 137 cm 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 centimetres and weighs about 130grams. A hardly-hit ball may reach a speed of 130 km/h.

Hooking

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 pitch, 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.