Polo can be a difficult game to follow, especially for a newbie. Here, we try to slow the game down with a breakdown of the rules and handy glossary of terms that are a must know when headed to International Polo Club Palm Beach.
A polo match consists of six periods of play known as chukkers, each lasting seven minutes. The teams switch goals with every point scored to account for variances in the wind and field conditions and ensure neither team has an advantage.
Two teams of four on horseback attempt to move the ball downfield and through the goalposts at the ends of a field measuring 300 by 160 yards (slightly larger than nine football fields). Two mounted umpires and a referee stationed at midfield control the game.
Quick cheat: A bell rings to indicate 30 seconds left in the chukker and a horn sounds to end the chukker.
The play is quick-paced, with no time-outs, except for injuries, penalties or unsafe situations. The clock keeps running when a player leaves the field in the middle of a chukker to change to a fresh horse or replace a broken or lost mallet. There is a three-minute break between chukkers and a 15-minute halftime.
Quick cheat: Rather than fixed plays, such as in football, polo mostly consists of action and reaction. The key to winning lies in a team’s ability to better anticipate and place its members in strategic positions.
Appealing: When a player raises his mallet over his head to influence the umpire into calling a foul.
Back shot: A backhand swing that changes the flow of play by sending the ball in the opposite direction.
Check and turn: To slow the pony and turn safely.
Stick and ball: Personal practice time.
Throw-in: When the umpire throws in the ball at the opening of each chukker and after each goal to begin play.
The four players on each team are assigned positions.
Quick cheat: Each player’s position is designated by the numbers 1 to 4 on their team jerseys. The most experienced and highest-rated players are often placed at positions 2 and 3.
Position Number 1 is the attacking offensive player, an accurate hitter who concentrates on opportunities for scoring and defending the opposing No. 3 player.
Quick cheat: The No. 1 player is similar to a forward in hockey or soccer.
Position Number 2 is primarily an offensive player who follows the No. 1 on attack but also has defensive responsibilities, interchanging with the No. 3 player.
Position Number 3 attacks the opposing offense and turns the ball upfield, typically with a pass to the No. 2 or No. 1 player. These players must be able to hit long distances with accuracy and be good at stick and ball control.
Quick cheat: A No. 3 player is similar to the quarterback in football, usually the highest-rated player on the team and the de facto captain.
Position Number 4 defends the team’s goal and is capable of turning the play from defense to offense with a good back shot.
Quick cheat: A No. 4 player is similar to a back in football and the most valuable player on defense for defending the team’s goal.
The Takeaway: While every player is assigned a position, each role is flexible, and athletes must be prepared to make whatever play is necessary to benefit the team, even if it means changing positions.
Odds & Ends
- The ponies’ manes are roached (shaved down to the neck) and tails plaited so the polo mallets don’t get tangled in them.
- Brooks Brothers developed the button-down collar specifically for polo players to keep collar tabs from flapping in their faces.
- Left-handed players are required to play right-handed because of safety reasons.
- The first recorded game of polo was played between the Turkomans and the Persians in 600 BC. The Turkomans won.
For more of our polo guide, from dress code and traditions to the game’s top players, click here.