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Polo 101: The Basics

Polo is an intense, action-packed sport, so as a newcomer to the game, a little knowledge of the basic rules will help you understand what's happening on the field so you can better enjoy the game. Here’s what you need to know:

The Team

Each of the four players is assigned a position numbered from 1 to 4. The #1 is the attacker, #2 is a midfielder, #3 is the team’s "quarterback", so to speak, who ties the team together, and #4 (also known as the “back”) is the defender at the back-most position. While #1 and #2 play more forward positions and are pushing to score goals, #3 and #4 are more responsible for defence. However, any player is allowed to go anywhere on the field at any time.


Each player is individually ranked on a handicap scale that ranges from -1 (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 sum of the players’ handicaps. The difference in goals (“handicap goals”) between two teams is awarded to the lower rated team before play begins, unless the game is being played on the flat where no handicap advantage is given.

The Field

The regulation polo field is 300 yards long and 160-200 yards wide. The goal posts are on the end lines and are three meters high and eight yards apart. A goal is valid any time the ball goes through the goal – regardless of how high the ball is hit. The sidelines are usually marked with pylons at the 60, 40 and 30 yard lines from the goals. These are used for penalty shots that are awarded due to fouls.

The Mallet & 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 48 and 53 inches long. The ball is hit with the head of the mallet on the side. The ball, which is traditionally made of compressed bamboo and today mostly of plastic, has a diameter of about ten centimeters and weighs about 130grams. A hard-hit ball may reach a speed of 80 km/h.

The Game

A game has between four and eight periods of play known as chukkas or chukkers. One chukker is up to 7-1/2 minutes long with the first horn being blown at the 7 minute mark. Play continues until a horn sounds to end the chukker at 7-1/2 minutes unless a foul is called, the ball goes out of play, or a goal is scored. The clock is stopped only when the umpire blows the whistle. The time is not stopped when a goal is scored or if the ball goes out of play. Play also continues if, for example, a player breaks a mallet. However, for safety reasons, play is stopped if a horse injures itself, a bridle gets entangled, or a horse’s bandage comes undone. The breaks between each chukker are about 4 minutes long and this is when players change ponies. Half time is a 10 minute break. One point is awarded for each goal and when a goal is scored, players come back to center for a throw-in. This can be confusing at first, but it is important to learn that teams change sides after every goal! This is so that no team has a sun, wind or field advantage.


The “Throw-In” or "Bowl-In" is similar to a "face-off". It is performed to start the match, after each goal, and to resume play such as if it is stopped for safety reasons. Both teams line up on their respective sides of the field facing tnnhe umpire. The umpire throws the ball between the two lines of teams to resume play.


The knock-in is taken by the defending team (usually the #4) when the ball is hit over the end line, but not between the goal posts, by the opposing team. The ball is placed just inside the playing field and it is put into play with a free hit after the umpire calls "play".

Line of the Ball

For safety reasons, 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.


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. A player may not hook higher than the shoulder of the horse.

Riding Off

Another common defensive strategy is to "bump" a player off the line of the ball by using your horse. Riding off can prevent a player from being able to make a shot by pushing him over or by keeping a player away from the line of the ball or another teammate. For safety of the horse, as well as the rider, riding off must be done shoulder to shoulder and not at a steep angle or inequitable speed.

Fouls or Penalties

When an infraction of the rules occurs, which is usually related to safety or the line of the ball, a penalty shot is awarded.  Penalty shots are awarded based primarily on where on the field the foul occurred. The Penalty 5 is a hit from the spot or center field. Penalty 4 is taken from the 60 yard line and the goal can be blocked by the defending team. Penalty 3 is from the 40 yard line and Penalty 2 is from the 30 yard line. These two penalties are open goal and the defending team is not permitted in or in front of the goal mouth until after the ball has been hit. Penalty 1 is much less common but is when a goal is automatically awarded to the opposing team.

Grass Close Up

If you are interested in lessons or would like more information about polo, get in touch with us!

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