Last updated: December 6, 2023
When I took my wife to her first polo game, she had a blast but didn’t really pay attention to the game’s rules or strategy. At her second match, she wanted to know more about the nuances of the game. So I thought an article on how polo is played might benefit others as well.
Polo is an exhilarating game involving horsepower, athleticism, and control. Played on a 10-acre field, called a “pitch,” players compete to drive a ball between the opposing team’s goalpost – which means hitting the ball with a long wooden mallet while riding full-throttle.
The primary objective in polo is straightforward, score more than the other team. However, there are a lot of rules and strategies in a game of polo. And with polo gaining in popularity, a deeper understanding is needed to fully enjoy watching a match.
Players And Equipment
Polo is a team sport played on horseback. The game’s objective is to get the ball from the opposition’s side and hit it through its goal with a mallet while on horseback. This must be done while riding through and around attackers and defenders.
And it is a physical sport that involves skill, strength, and fearlessness. Team members are strong, athletic players that must have the ability to control their horse transition midstream from attacking to defending positions.
A polo team consists of four players, each of whom is assigned a specific position in the form of a number printed on their shirt. Here are the player positions:
- Position 1: This is the attacking offensive position, also known as an offensive player. They are quite similar to a striker in a game of soccer (also called football). The offensive player attacks relentlessly and will hit the ball hard and accurately, their goal being to get it through the other side’s goal post. If they take up a defensive position, their job is to prevent the other team’s attacking player from accomplishing the same.
- Position 2: The second position is an attacking player whose primary goal is to back up the attacking offensive player when he attempts to make a play. Like the first position, they also have the skills to function as a defensive player, which they often do by interchanging with the third player position multiple times in a game.
- Position 3: This position is usually taken by the most talented player and is quite similar to a quarterback in American football. Players in position 3 take up attacking positions and hit or serve the ball accurately to their teammates in the top 2 posts.
- Position 4: As you might have guessed, this position is played by the team’s best defender. They are tasked with defending the team’s goalposts from attacking opponents, recovering the ball from opponents, and moving it as quickly as possible to players 3, 2, and 1.
Horse Polo Playing Equipment
Of course, the main equipment in polo is a horse which is specially bred for use in polo. Each team member requires at least two horses that they will use to switch up between each chukker (a short period of play).
Players are allowed to bring their ponies into the game or lease them from their club. Polo ponies are equipped with a specially designed saddle that the player uses to secure their position on top of the horse and control its movements when reaching out with their mallet to hit the ball.
The rest of the polo equipment consists of a helmet, bamboo mallet, knee guards, and ball.
How To Score In Polo
To score a point, a player must hit the ball into the goal post. When a team scores a goal, they swap sides. This is a big difference from many other sports, they typically only change sides once, and it’s at halftime.
The reason teams change direction after a goal is linked to a tradition from the Middle East. There the game fields were positioned in a format of east/west axis, and one of the teams would have to play with the sun in their face, losing their competitive edge.
Switching goal directions every score means that both teams play with identical pitch conditions, making the final score a result of competitive skill in the pitch and not an unfair advantage.
To win a game, a team must score more goals than their competitor and gain a higher number of points. If the teams end up in a draw, the teams must play an additional chukker.
The first team to score in the extra period is declared the winner. If the first added chukker results in no winners, the teams must play another with widened goalposts until one of the teams’ scores.
What Are The Rules Of Polo?
- Polo is played on an open grass pitch, indoor, or outdoor arena.
- The pitch measures 300 yards in length and 200 yards in width; however, if a boarded pitch is used, the width is reduced to 160 yards.
- The goalposts are positioned yards apart and are not closed.
- A full match consists of four chukkers. A single chukker lasts 7 minutes.
- The match begins the instant the umpire tosses the ball between the two opposing teams. The same process is repeated each time a team scores a goal.
- With every score, the teams switch goals; and this equalizes pitch conditions, including advantages brought on by weather conditions.
- Opposing team members may ride each other off to gain an advantage or secure the ball. It means that players can use their horses’ strength and speed to ride fast alongside their opponent and bump into them to cause them to move away from the ball or lose their advantage.
- Players can use their mallet to hook an opposing players’ mallet to prevent them from making a successful shot.
- A polo game is overseen by two umpires who work together to make essential match decisions. If the two umpires cannot reach an agreement on a match decision, a third umpire is called to assist.
- If a player commits a foul in a game, the umpire may offer the opposing team a free hit. A player might use the free hit to score a goal if the foul occurred close to the goal post or within proximity.
- A team that manages to score more goals than the opposing team is declared the winner when four chukkers are completed.
Important Polo Concepts
- Line of the ball
Each play is based on the “line of the ball.” The “line of the ball” is an imaginary line the ball travels in and is considered a “right of way” for the player that strikes the ball—failure to follow the “line of the ball” rule results in a foul.
- Right of Way
Right of Way is enforced between opposing players in the ball’s proximity and is meant to give them enough room to make a safe shot of the ball. It is implemented no matter which team last hit the ball.
- Using the mallet
A player could not hook their mallet to the opposing player’s mallet unless the opposing player were actively in the act of hitting the ball. Players should swing the mallet below the shoulders to avoid a collision.
- Blowing the whistle
In most cases, the umpire blows the whistle when a foul has been committed on the pitch. But other times include when an injury has occurred to a player or their horse to suspend play.
A successful game requires lots of teamwork, an understanding of the game, and the ability to exploit openings when they do occur during play.
Regardless some injuries happen in a polo match. But if all the rules are followed and proper training is done before riding onto the pitch, the risks of injury and accidents are drastically reduced for the players and their ponies.
How long is a polo match?
A full match lasts 2 hours and is divided into four chukkers, each lasting 7 minutes. A polo match may extend beyond the four chukkers if the game moves into overtime.
How many players are in a polo team?
Polo is played with four players on each team, each of whom must have at least two ponies to switch between each chukker.
How fast do polo horses run?
On the pitch, polo ponies run full speed up to 35 mph, which can be dangerous if they crush into each other. Injuries are common but not usually severe.
If you want to learn more about polo ponies you may find this article helpful: What Horses Are Used For Polo? 4 Popular Polo Pony Breeds.
- Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.
- Polo Rules: How To Play Polo, RulesofSport, https://www.rulesofsport.com/sports/polo.html, Accessed 03/03/2021.
- Polo, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polo, Accessed 03/03/2021.
- Polo Rules, USPolo, https://www.uspolo.org/sport/rules, Accessed 03/03/2021.
Meet Miles Henry
An avid equestrian and seasoned racehorse owner, Miles Henry brings his extensive experience to the equine world, proudly associating with the AQHA, The Jockey Club, and various other equine organizations. Beyond the racetrack, Miles is an accomplished author, having published various books about horses, and is a recognized authority in the field, with his work cited in multiple publications.
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