A guide to Polo
If you are planning on coming to watch a match you can download and print our Polo Guide (PDF).
If there are any words used and you are unsure of the meaning, there is a Polo glossary at the bottom of this page.
The page has been broken down into the following sections. Click on a title to jump to a section.
- The Polo Pony
- Training a Horse to play Polo
- Preparing a Polo Pony for a Polo Match
- The Polo Player
- A Polo player’s equipment
- The skills required to play Polo
- Player Handicaps
- The Game of Polo
- The Polo Ground
- The Polo Team
- The different levels of Polo
- The Polo Match
- The Rules of Polo
The Polo Pony
A Polo Pony is in fact a Horse (they are over 14 hands in size) and predominately of thoroughbred breeding or quarter cross. A thoroughbred is preferred because of its agility, speed and spirit (the Ferrari of the horse world). Many Polo Ponies come from the racing world where high volumes of horses are turned over to find a true champion.
Training a Horse to play Polo
A Horse is trained from the age of 3 for approximately 2 years before being brought onto a Polo ground. In this time a rider will build a bond of trust and gradually train it to move and react in certain way to a rider’s commands.
Preparing a Polo Pony for a Polo Match
A Polo Pony is prepared in the following way:
- The mane is removed – this is so a players view is unobstructed around the horse’s neck.
- A Polo Bridle is put on the horses head. This has a standing martingale and two sets of reigns. The bit used tends to be a Gag or a Pelham.
- A Polo Saddle – is put on the horses back. The saddle doesn’t have knee rolls and the pommel is low to allow the rider to position themselves forward on the horse.
- Standing martingale – encourages a horse to keep its head lower by putting pressure on the nose.
- A Breastplate – is put on the saddle to stop it slipping back.
- The tail is taped up – so it doesn’t interfere with the stick and players view.
- A Surcingle – is put around the saddle to help stabilise it and as a back up incase the girth breaks.
- Bandages – are applied to all four legs to provide extra support and protection.
- Brushing boots – additional protection for the front legs.
- Overreach boots – are placed on the front feet to protect the hoof.
- Studs – are placed in both rear shoes to provide extra grip.
The Polo Player
The player’s equipment.
A polo player will use the following equipment:
- A Helmet – essentially a modified riding helmet. It has a wide brim so a player can dip their head and deflect a ball or mallet. It also might have a face guard made from thin steel bars to protect the face from a Polo ball. A Polo ball can travel up to 80mph and is therefore a potential serious hazard.
- A Polo Stick – traditionally made from a bamboo shaft and a Tipa wood head. Depending on the size of the horse they are between 49 and 53 inches in length. The ball is struck on the side of the head (unlike croquet).
- Elbow guards – protects a players elbows from a Polo ball or another players stick.
- Riding crop / whip – used as a riding aid and not for punishment. This is optional.
- Knee Pads – to protect a players knees in a ride off.
- Riding Boots – that go up to the knee.
- Spurs – used as a riding aid. These are optional.
The skills required to play Polo
To be a good Polo player you have to be skilled in:
- Horsemanship – A good rider will almost become a part of a horse. Good players will tell you they almost forget the horse is there and subconsciously manoeuvre it so natural is the bond made.
- Hand eye co-ordination – Moving at up to 35 miles an hour a player has to hit and control a ball 3 and a 1/4 inches in diameter with a Polo stick that is up to 52 inch long.
- Tactics – Polo is a very tactical game based on team play. Like most team sports a good player will read the game and anticipate where the ball is going next. A weaker player will chase the ball around the ground and invariably never catch up.
Every player is given a handicap rating. The ratings start at minus two (beginner) and goes up to ten (the best players in the world – very few players hold this rating).
The Game of Polo
The Polo Ground
The ground is a grass flat rectangular field 300 yards long by 200 yards wide (the equivalent of 9 football pitches). There is a goal at each end. The goal posts are 8 yards apart and are designed to break easily if accidently run into. Some grounds have wooden boards along the side, this is to stop the ball from going out of play and reduce the number of throw-ins during the game.
The ground is laid out as follows:
- The back line – this is the line the goals sit on. If the ball rolls over the back line the game is stopped.
- The side line – these run along the side of the ground. If the ball rolls over the game is stopped.
- 30 yard line – 30 yards in from the back line. Used for taking penalties.
- 40 yard line – 40 yards in from the back line. Used for taking penalties.
- 60 yard line – 60 yards in from the back line. Used for taking penalties.
- Centre line – dissects the centre of the ground. Used for lining up the teams at the start of a match or after a goal is scored. Also used for penalties.
The Polo Team
A team is comprised of four players, they are numbered one to four and have the following roles:
- No.1 – Usually the weakest player. Their role is to score goals and mark the No.4 in the opposite team.
- No.2 – In attack their role is to support the No.3 and feed the ball to the No.1. In defence they mark the No.3 in the opposite team.
- No.3 – Usually the strongest player. In attack they will try to control the game and with the support of the No.2 feed the ball to the No.1. In defence they mark the No.2 in the opposite team.
- No.4 – In attack they support the No.3 and take hit-ins from the back line. Predominately their role is a defensive one so they will try to disrupt an attack before it gains momentum.
The different levels of Polo
There are three levels:
- Low Goal – This level is where Polo players first experience Polo at tournament level. Generally each team will have one or two professionals playing. It is the most popular and fiercely competitive.
- Medium Goal – Faster than low goal. All the players are highly skilled, there can be up to three professionals playing in each team.
- High Goal – The highest level of Polo played by the best players in the world. A team will have three or four professionals and each will have a high handicap.
The Polo Match
- A match is broken down into periods of play called chukkas. Each chukka is 7 ½ minutes long (a bell is rung at 7 minutes and again at 7 ½ minutes).
- A match is normally 4 (Low Goal) to 8 (High Goal) chukkas. A Low Goal match lasts about an hour.
- Before the match starts the player handicaps of each team are added up. If there is a weaker team, they are awarded goals at the start. The number of goals they get is calculated using a mathematical equation. The equation can sometimes return half goals so a weaker team can sometimes start with a half goal.
- There are two umpires mounted on horseback and a referee on the side-line.
- The match starts with the two teams facing each other in the centre of the ground. One of the mounted umpires then initiates a “throw in” by throwing the ball along the ground between the teams to start the chukka.
- A player is allowed to “ride off” another player to get priority over the ball. This is when two players ride alongside each other and try to barge each other to one side.
- A player is allowed to hook another player’s stick to stop them hitting the ball.
- The object of the game is to score goals, the team with the most goals at the end wins.
- After every goal the teams swap ends.
- After every goal the players meet back at the centre of the ground for a throw in.
- A player will change their Horse after each chukka; a player will therefore ride 4 or more Horses in a match.
The Rules of Polo
The rules are designed around safety. Here is a basic breakdown:
- When a player hits the ball, the direction the ball travels in creates an imaginary line (referred to as “The Line”).
- The Line is like the central reservation of a motorway. To avoid a collision this line cannot be crossed (Fig.1).
- Players must travel in one direction on either side of The Line (Fig.2 and Fig.3).
- A player hitting the ball on the right hand side of his Horse has priority over a player hitting on the left. So if two players are meeting they must meet right hand to right (Fig.3). This avoids any collisions (Fig.4).
- If a player crosses The Line or meets a player on a collision course or commits any other foul a penalty is awarded. An umpire will indicate a penalty by blowing their whistle.
There are 7 types of penalty:
- Penalty Goal – a dangerous foul is committed near the goal mouth and so a goal is automatically awarded.
- 30 Yard Penalty – a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team 30 yards from the goal. It is undefended. The attacking team must score the goal with one shot.
- 40 Yard Penalty – a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team 40 yards from the goal. The defending team must stay behind the back line. The attacking team must score the goal with one shot. The penalty can be defended by a player riding across the goal and trying to block the ball.
- 60 Yard Penalty – a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team 60 yards from the goal. The defending team must be 30 yards from the ball.
- Half Way Penalty – a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team on the half way line. The defending team must be 30 yards from the ball.
- Spot Penalty – a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team at the point where the foul occurred. The defending team must be 30 yards from the ball.
- Penalty 60 – When the defending team hit the ball over their own back line a spot penalty is awarded to the attacking team 60 yards from the goal. The defending team must be 30 yards from the ball.
Listed below are some of the terms used in the context of Polo.
Click on a letter to jump to the section containing a word.
Appealing – This is when a player raises their stick in the air to draw the umpires attention to a foul. It’s against the rules but players still do it!
Back hand – This is a type of shot that a player can play. The ball in this case is hit backwards from the horse. There are variations such as “tail” and “open”.
Ball – This is a white plastic ball measuring 3 and a ¼ inches in diameter. It can travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles an hour.
Bandages – These are a length of protective cloth wrapped around the horses cannon bone to support the tendon and provide protection from knocks.
Bay – A colour description for a horse with a black mane and tail, and reddish brown colour over the rest of the body.
Bit – The metal or rubber straight or linked bar that rest in a horses mouth. This is attached to the bridle and reigns and used to control the Horse.
Blaze – A natural white marking down the face of a horse.
Breast plate – A piece of leather tack that reaches around the horses chest to keep the saddle from slipping back.
Breeches – Trousers worn by the rider, usually a pair of white jeans.
Bridle – A harness of leather straps around the horses head to hold the bit in place.
Brushing boots – Also called over reach boots or coronet boots. Usually made of neoprene, these are designed to protect the hoof and lower part of the leg (below the fetlock).
Buck – This is when a horse tries to dismount a rider by lowering it’s head and throwing it’s backside in the air.
Cannon Bone – This is the part of the horse’s leg where the bandages are applied. Found between the Knee and the Fetlock.
Canter – The action of a horse moving. A canter is faster than a trot but slower than a gallop.
Check and turn – This is when a horse is asked to change direction. The check is a light pull to the horses mouth coupled with a lifting action from the riders legs. A Polo Pony will then shift it’s weight on to it’s back legs. With the horses weight on it’s back legs it is then asked to turn.
Check up – Where a rider has to stop or partially stop to avoid a collision.
Chestnut – A colour description for a horse with a light brown body, mane and tail.
Chukka – A period of seven and a half minutes of play.
Coronet – The surface of the hoof.
Coronet Band – The top of the hoof.
Criollo – An Argentinian breed of horse originally brought over from Spain.
Crop – Also known as a Whip. Used as a riders aid, not for punishment.
Divot – A section of turf ripped up from the ground by a horses hoof.
Draw reign – A set of reins attached to the girth at one end, passing through the rings of the bit and back to the rider’s hands. Used to control and align the horse’s head position.
Drop noseband – Used to remind a horse to keep it’s mouth closed and therefore giving the rider more control.
Dun – A colour description for a horse of light to medium sand colour with dark skin, dark points on the mane, tail, and lower legs.
Farrier – A professional blacksmith who puts shoes on horses.
Fetlock – The ankle joint of a horses leg.
Field – The ground that the game of Polo is played on.
Filly – A female horse under 4 years old.
Gait – The different ways a horse can move. They are Walk, Trot, Canter and Gallop.
Gag – A type of bit. The most commonly used in Polo.
Gallop – The fastest way a horse can move.
Gelding – A castrated male horse.
Girth – The wide leather strap that holds the saddle on a horses back.
Goal – A goal is scored in a polo match anytime the ball crosses the line between the goal posts, regardless of who (including a Polo Pony) knocks it through.
Goal judge – A person who stands behind the goal and signals with a raised flag when a goal is scored. They will also signal a goal has missed by waving the flag from left to right at waist level.
Grey – A colour description for a horse that ranges from white to dark grey.
Green horse – A young horse that is fairly new to the game of Polo.
Groomed horse – A horse that has been prepared for Polo but before the tack is applied. This includes brushing, hoof picking, mane clipping and the tail tied up.
Halter – Also called a head collar. This is a harness of leather, rope, or nylon that fits over a horse’s head, like a bridle but without a bit or reins, used for leading a horse or tying up.
Handicap – The ability rating of a player or team. A player handicap is a rating from minus two (beginner) to ten (the best players in the world). A team handicap is all the players handicaps added up. The higher the team handicap the better the team.
Hands – A unit of measurement used to measure a horse’s height. A hand is approximately 4 inches. The measurement is taken from its withers (the highest point on a horse’s back just before the mane begins) to the ground in a straight line.
Head collar – see Halter.
High goal – A term to describe the standard of Polo. This is Polo played at the highest level and by the best players in the world.
Hind quarters – The part of the horse’s body from the rear of the flank to the top of the tail – it’s backside.
Hit in – When a player hits a ball in to play from their team’s own back line.
Hock – The knee joint on a horse’s hind legs.
Hogged mane – A mane that has been completely removed from a horse by using hair clippers. This is to allow a player to see around a horse’s neck without obstruction.
Hoof – The foot on a horse. A horse shoe is applied to the base.
Hoof picking – Part of the grooming process. This is where a hoof pick (metal blunt pick) is used to remove any dirt or stones from the base of the horses hoof.
Hook – The action where a Polo player uses their stick to stop another player hitting a ball.
HPA – Hurlingham Polo Association, this is the UK governing body for Polo.
Knee Rolls – Padding on a saddle where the rider’s knee sits.
Lame – When a horse has injured a leg.
Line (The Line) – A term is used to describe an invisible line created by the direction the ball has travelled in. This line cannot be crossed. Players must instead travel up and down it rather like the central reservation of a motorway.
Low goal – This is a term to describe the lowest standard of Polo. By far the most popular and fiercely competitive.
Made Pony – A horse that has been trained for Polo.
Mallet – Another term for a Polo stick.
Mane – The hair that grows along the top of a horse’s neck.
Mare – A female horse over 4 years old.
Martingale – In Polo this is a Standing Martingale. This is a leather strap that goes from the girth to the bridle underneath the chin to prevent a horse from throwing its head up.
Medium goal – A term to describe the standard of Polo. A higher standard that Low goal but not as high as High goal.
Nearside – The left side of the horse if you are sitting on it’s back.
Neck reigning – The action where a rider asks a horse to turn in one direction by applying pressure on it’s neck with the reigns.
Neck shot – This is a type of shot that a player can play. The ball in this case is hit under the horses neck.
Officials – The officials in a Polo match are the two mounted umpires and a referee on the sidelines.
Offside – The right side of a horse if you are sitting on it’s back.
Open (shot) – A type of shot where the ball is hit so it travels at an angle away from the horse.
Out of bounds – This is where the ball is hit outside the field area and therefore goes out of play.
Palomino – A colour description for a gold coloured horse with a blond or white mane and tail.
Pass – When a player hits a ball to another player.
Patron – A player who pays a professional to play in their team.
Pelham – A type of bit.
Penalty – A free hit awarded to a team because the opposite team committed a foul.
Piebald – A colour description for a horse made up of white with black patches.
Pommel – This is a part of the saddle that sits over the horse’s withers.
Ride off – The action where a player travelling in the same direction as another player tries to gain advantage over the ball by pushing the other player to one side using their horse.
Reigns – A thin strip of leather going from one side of the bit, through the riders hand and back to the other side of the bit. Used for control, a Polo bridle has two reigns.
Saddle – Placed on a horse’s back for the rider to sit on. A Polo saddle has a low pommel and no knee rolls to allow the rider to sit forward on the horse’s back.
Skew bald – A colour description for a horse made up of white with brown patches.
Side boards – Wooden boards running along the side of the Polo ground to keep the ball in play.
Snaffle – A type of bit.
Sound – A horse that is free from lameness or injury.
Spur – A blunt metal device worn on the heel of a riders boot. Used as a riding aid.
Stick – Used by a rider to hit the ball. The shaft can be between 49 and 53 inches in length (depending on the size of the horse) and normally made from Bamboo with a Tipa wood head. The ball is struck on the side of the head (unlike croquet). Some modern sticks use a carbon fibre or fibreglass shaft.
Stick and ball – The term used to describe a player practising before playing.
Stirrup – The Stirrup Iron is a metal D- shaped ring hung from the saddle to support the rider’s leg. The leather strap the Stirrup Iron hangs from is called the Stirrup Leather.
Sudden death – Overtime play in polo when the score is tied at the end of the last chukka, the first team to score a goal wins.
Surcingle – A leather strap placed over the saddle to provide additional support and as a back up in case the girth breaks.
Tack – Any equipment worn by a horse including studs, bandages, saddle, bridle, reins, martingale etc.
Tail (shot) – This is a type of shot a player can play. The ball in this case is hit at an angle behind the horses tail.
Third man – One of the match officials, the third man is unmounted and stays in the centre of the ground. He is there to give the final decision if the umpires can’t agree.
Thoroughbred – A breed of horse descended from three Arab stallions brought to Britain in the 17th century. Thoroughbreds are favoured by Polo players because of their agility, speed and spirit.
Throw in – When the two teams line up opposite each other and an umpire throws the ball between them to start play.
Treading in – This is when spectators are asked to walk on to the ground and help repair damage to the playing surface. A section of turf ripped from the ground is called a divot. This is picked up placed in the hole where it was removed and then the foot is used to tread it down.
Trot – The action of a horse moving. A trot is faster than a walk but slower than a canter.
Turn the ball – This is when a player rather than play a backhand will tap the ball around until they are facing in the opposite direction.
Umpires – These are the two mounted referees.
Whip – Also known as a Crop. Used as a riders aid, not for punishment.
Wind milling – When a player swings their stick above their head in a helicopter motion. This is done in joy or frustration and illegal for safety reasons.
Withers – The slight ridge on a horse’s back just before the mane begins.
PLEASE NOTE: This page does not contain the views of the Dundee and Perth Polo Club. This has been written independently as a guide.
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