All you need to know about the game

The History

The 2500 year-old game of polo is one of the fastest, roughest, and most dangerous sports played today. It is gaining increasing popularity as a premier spectator sport and can be an easy game for the first-time spectator to enjoy. Imagine the excitement of seeing players on thoroughbred horses bumping and jostling with each other as hockey on horseback, racing at top speeds down the field while striking a small ball with the precision of an experienced golfer.

An Asiatic game, and possibly the oldest team sport, polo was probably first played on a barren campground by nomadic warriors over two thousand years ago.

Valuable for training Calvary, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings, Tamer Lane’s polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand. British tea planters in India witnessed the game in the early 1800’s but it was not until the 1850’s that the British Calvary drew up the earliest rules and by the 1869’s the game was well established in England.

Polo Terms

Chukka: The origins of this term, meaning the “basic period of play,” are obscure, although it is thought to have come from India. There are between 4 and 6 chukkas of play (dependant on the level of polo being played) – each lasting 7 minutes, 30 seconds. A bell or horn sounds at 7 minutes to warn the players. A second bell then sounds 30 seconds later to end play. The last chukka ends at 7 minutes with no extra time.

Foul: An infraction of the rules. Most fouls govern the safe riding and the concept of the line of the ball. Goal: Ascorewhichistalliedanytimetheballtravelsbetweenthegoalposts,whetherhitinbyattacker, defender, or pony.

Handicap: The comparative rating of polo players awarded by the HP A. Handicaps are expressed in goals (to describe a player’s value to the team, not the number of goals he is expected to score) and range from the beginners’ -2 to 10 goals (the best). Players’ handicaps are added together to derive a team handicap that, in turn, is used to equalize competition. The difference in goals between two teams is awarded to the lower rated team before play begins.


Number 1: The most offensive player. This is similar to the forward position in hockey or football. This player should be an accurate hitter, but need not necessarily hit a long ball.

Number 2: Primarily an offensive player but also responsible for defense, interchanging with the number 3 player. The number 2 player is often the second-highest rated player on the team.

Number 3: The play maker. The “3” is usually the highest rated and most experienced player. This player must be able to hit a long ball accurately but be capable of close-in stick work and ball control.

Number 4: The back. This is a defensive position. However, a good back must be able to not only hit a good backshot, but to turn the play from defensive to offensive in a flash. The number 4 player is the last line of defense.

Polo Ball: Approximately 3-1/2 inches in diameter and 4 ounces in weight, the ball is made of hard plastic. At one time it was made of wood or willow root.

Hook: One of the two defensive maneuvers (the other is the ride-off) allowed in the rules. The mallet is used to block or interfere with another player’s swing at the ball, although it must be used in an approved manner. Unsafe hooking or hitting into a pony is a foul.

Hit-In: A hit-in takes place when the ball goes over the back line, wide of the goal mouth. The defending team hits the ball back into play from the back line. This gives the defending team a free hit and can often change the momentum of play.


Referee: The Referee, usually on foot at midfield, does not call fouls but is the final word in the case of a dispute between the two mounted umpires. The Referee is sometimes known as the “third man.”

Line of the Ball: The imaginary line created by the ball in its sometimes capricious travels. The line of the ball may not be crossed or infringed except in special circumstances. This is the pivotal concept on which many fouls and infractions are based – the interpretation of the line of the ball is usually what the umpires are discussing after they have blown a foul whistle.

Ride-Off: Similar in concept to a body-check in hockey, a ride-off is used to break an opposing player’s concentration, move him off the line of the ball, or spoil his shot. A ride-off is hard and dramatic, but executed properly, does not endanger the horses.

Mallet: The instrument used to move the ball. Although fibreglass has been used in its construction, the shaft is most often still made of bamboo. A hardwood head is used and the ball hit with the side of the head.

Safety 60: A free hit. When the ball rolls over the back line wide of the goal mouth as a result of being touched by a defending man, the attacking team is allowed to hit a safety from 60 yards out to a defended goal. The clock is stopped and the ball is placed on the 60-yard line approximately in line with the spot where the ball crossed the back line.


Near-Side: The left side of the horse
Off-Side: The right side of the horse. By the rules, there are no left-handed polo players. You play with your right hand or you don’t play.


Back Shot: Hitting the ball in a direction opposite to that in which the player is traveling.

Neck Shot: A ball hit under the neck of a pony.

Tail Shot: Hitting a ball behind the pony.

Out of Bounds: When the ball is hit over the side-lines, it is out of bounds. The clock continues to run. Teams line up at that spot and the ball is thrown in by the umpires. Deliberately hitting the ball out in the closing seconds of a match can be an excellent strategic play.

Throw-in: The game is started with a throw-in, whereby the ball is literally thrown in between the lined up teams by the umpire.

Penalties: Infractions of the rules (fouls) result in penalties being awarded by the umpires to the offended team. The seriousness of the foul determines the degree of the penalty. Designated from 1 through 8, penalties usually involve a shot on goal from a predetermined spot with the clock stopped. The most common awarded are the 2, 3, 4, and 5. In a penalty 5, the ball is hit by the fouled team from midfield; in a 4, from the 60-yard line; in a 3, from the 40-yard line, and in a 2, from the 30-yard line.

Umpires: These are the on-field officials. Mounted on horses, the umpires wear black and white, vertically striped shirts to identify them. Most polo umpires are active players. The umpires are responsible for “enforcing the rules,” and “keeping proper control over players and teams” in a sport in which tempers often run hot.

Rules of the Game

Polo is played on a 10 acre grass field, 300 yards in length by 160 yards, which is the approximate area of ten football fields. Goal posts are set eight yards apart on either end of the field. The object of the game is to move the ball down-field, hitting the ball through the goal for a score. The team with the most scores at the end of the match is deemed the winner. Teams then change direction after each goal. Two teams, made up of four players each, are designated by shirt color.

The surface of a polo field requires careful and constant grounds maintenance to keep the surface in good playing condition. During half-time of a match, spectators are invited to go onto the field to participate in a polo tradition called “divot stomping”, which has developed to not only help replace the mounds of earth (divots) that are torn up by the horses’s hooves, but to afford spectators the opportunity to walk about and socialise.

There are four or six “chukkers” in a match, each is seven minutes long. Play begins with a throw-in of the ball by the umpire at the opening of each chukker and after each goal; only penalties or injuries may stop play as there are no time-outs or substitutions allowed, except for tack repair.

Players have individual handicaps on the ascending basis of C, B, A (-2 thru 0) and 1 thru 10. This handicap reflects the player’s ability and his value to the team – the higher the handicap the better the player which is just the opposite in golf. The team handicap is the combined handicaps of the four players. The team with the lesser handicap is granted the difference in goals (or points) prior to the start of the match. For that reason, a match may well have a “score” before based on team handicaps, prior to the start of the game. Player handicaps are evaluated and revised annually by the Hurlingham Polo Association. Handicapping is a subjective evaluation of the individual’s horsepower, game sense, hitting ability, and overall value to a team.

Although there are many rules to the game of polo, the primary concept to which all rules are dedicated is safety, for the player and his mount. The right-of-way is defined in accordance with a player’s position relative to the direction of travel of the ball which is a line created in the direction that extends forward on an imaginary line which, if followed, will create traffic patterns which then enable the participants to not only play at top speed but to also avoid dangerous collisions. In general, play will flow backward and forward, parallel to an imaginary line extended ahead of, and behind, the ball. The line of the ball may not be crossed except under special circumstances and only in such a way as to legitimately gain control of the ball. When a player has the line of the ball on his right, he has the right-of-way. This can only be taken away by “riding off” and moving the player off the line of the ball by making shoulder-to-shoulder contact. Strategy and anticipation are two of the most important elements in polo and usually come with experience. For the spectator, keep an eye on the horses. The speed and athletic abilities of both the horse and rider are spectacular. All of these elements combined, make the fast-paced action of polo one of the most exciting and demanding sports in the world.

Our Sponsors