August 19, 2021
If you’re looking for something fun to do outdoors this summer, consider spending a day at a polo match. After all, what’s not to like about watching beautiful, competitive horses galloping up and down the field with their riders holding giant mallets trying to score goals?
While polo is often associated with fancy attire and finger food, the sport is more than just a seasonal social event. Here’s everything you need to know before the match to appreciate the skill, coordination, and teamwork of horses and riders that make polo so exhilarating.
The Rich History of Polo
Polo is one of the world's oldest known team sports, with a history dating back over 2000 years. Nomadic warriors in ancient Persia played a version of polo to train for cavalry battles before the game spread west and gained popularity among the nobility.
British officers formalized the first written rules for the game in the mid-1800s, and the sport made an appearance in the Olympic games from 1900 to 1936. Although no longer part of the Olympic program, polo is still a popular sport today, with professional leagues in 16 countries throughout the globe.
A True Team Sport
At the highest level, a game of polo can seem effortless. However, this team sport requires a great deal of focus, commitment, discipline, and strategy. Advanced riding skills aren't the only prerequisite for aspiring polo players. A player's temperament, physical fitness, and sportsmanship play a key role in their success.
While a strong team is also essential, polo players are known to switch teams frequently to gain more opportunities to compete, and most polo players are hired on a tournament or seasonal basis. So, it isn’t uncommon for a teammate to become a competitor and vice versa.
If a player is a member of the United States Polo Association, each member can earn a handicap rating, ranging from C (-2) to 10 (highest). These scores indicate the player’s skill, horsemanship, ability, knowledge, and sportsmanship. Handicaps are reviewed twice yearly and can change based on these factors.
Partners on the Polo Field - The Polo Ponies
Despite their name, polo ponies are not actual ponies and generally measure between 15 and 16 hands. While these so-called ponies can be any breed, most polo ponies are thoroughbreds or thoroughbred crosses.
Polo ponies are bred throughout the world, but many come from Argentina due to the country's concentration of polo-specific training and breeding operations. The best breeding programs produce polo ponies with the superior intelligence, obedience, and endurance necessary to succeed on the field.
These equine athletes are equipped with proper bridles, saddles, saddle pads, breastplates, girths, martingales, and polo wraps. Polo pony tack protects the horses and allows riders to communicate with their partners effectively during a fast-paced game.
Polo Player Positions
A player’s attire or uniform, including a personalized shirt with the player’s number, is based on their team and position. Since there are four players from each team playing on the field, each player is numbered one through four.
Player number one is the primary offensive player, and player number two supports player number one. Player three is the captain of the team as well as the overall planner of strategy and tactics. Lastly, player number four is the primary defensive player on the field.
Polo players are required to wear appropriate boots, helmets, and knee guards. In addition, players can also wear gloves, eyewear, elbow pads, mouth guards, and even protective face masks based on personal preference.
Wooden mallets between 49-54 inches in length allow players to maneuver the ball around the field or arena. These mallets are also fully customizable and feature a sling to assure proper grip and limit the risk of dropping it during a match.
The ball used for outdoor polo games is hard plastic and can weigh between 3.5- 4.5 ounces. For indoor polo or arena polo, the ball is much larger.
Two opposing teams of four players on horseback play polo with the objective of scoring goals by using a wooden mallet to hit a small, hard ball through the opposing team’s goalposts. The team with the most goals or the highest score wins the game.
Outdoor polo matches take place on large grass arenas measuring 300 by 160 yards. Arena polo takes place in an enclosed sand arena and has similar rules to regular polo but involves teams of three instead of four. The arena measures only 300 by 150 yards.
Most polo games include four to six periods of play, called chukkas or chukkers. The game typically lasts anywhere from one to two hours, with an option of continuing into overtime if needed. Two mounted referees oversee the match to ensure players follow the appropriate rules and regulations.
Teams can score during a play on the field or through a penalty opportunity. Scores can also occur by a handicap goal. Each team has a handicap rating determined based on the players' skill level, experience, and status defined under the United States Polo Association.
For example, if a 12-goal team plays a 14-goal team, the lower-goal team can earn “goals on handicap.” This handicap is determined by multiplying the lower-rated team’s goals or score by one-sixth of the difference between the two teams, giving the lower-goal team a fair advantage while playing a higher-goal team.
A coin toss determines the initial direction of play at the start of the game. After that, teams will switch the direction of play after each goal is scored unless it’s arena polo, in which the direction of play will change after each chukker.
The “line of ball” in polo is the imaginary line created after the ball's direction of travel is determined. “The line” helps prevent collision during play by forcing players to travel in one direction on either side of the ball.
Some polo games invite the spectators onto the field to do a “divot stomp” during halftime. This social event encourages spectators to help fill the divots kicked up by the horses, and it is a great photo-op opportunity for all.
Learning to Play Polo
While polo may be known as the “sport of kings,” learning to play polo is not as exclusive as you may think. There are local clubs all over the United States that offer lessons and events to learn more about the game. To find a local polo club near you, visit the United States Polo Association website, where you will be able to locate and choose the best polo club for you.
From there, you can begin taking lessons and eventually join an appropriate league and team. Leagues range from middle school (5th-8th grade), interscholastic (7th-12th), intercollegiate, amateur, to professional. Women and men playing on the same team are dependent on the leagues’ regulations. Unlike many sports, polo allows amateurs and professionals to play together at the highest level of play.