How to Play Polo

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What You Need to Know

  1. The game of polo has been around for centuries and was played by Kings. It is still very popular today with The Royal Family.
  2. A polo match lasts 90 minutes, with a 45 minute interval. Spectators are then invited to come onto the pitch and flatten the grass racked up by the ponies and mullets.
  3. Ponies used in polo games are specially trained for the game.
  4. Polo is a dangerous game and the safety of its players and the horses is paramount. Safety gear must be worn at all times during the game.
  5. Fouls committed during a game are usually because the safety of the rider has been put in jeopardy.
  6. The rules of polo can vary between each game. It is only really standardised during international play.

The sport of Polo dates back thousands of years, to when nomadic tribes competed to display their skills on horseback. The game was then taken up by warrior kings who encouraged its practise as training for their cavalry; and so it became established across the Persian Empire. The first recorded match was in 600BC, between the Persians and the Turkomans, when Persia lost. The original game was very brutal, injuries and deaths, among both riders and their horses, were common. The modern game guards the safety of both the players and their mounts but it still remains a fast moving and exciting sport for competitors and spectators.

Basis of the game

Polo is a ball game where two teams of four players compete against each other on horseback. The object is to score goals between pairs of upright posts at either end of the field, driving a hard wooden or plastic ball down-field using mallets.

Each Polo match lasts approximately 90 minutes, divided into eight chukkers, which last 7 minutes each. The ponies being ridden are changed at the end of each chukker due to the intensity of the play. The players change ends after each goal is scored so to even out any advantage gained from the run of the field or the wind direction. Half time is called after 45 minutes, during which spectators are traditionally invited on to the pitch to stamp down the divots caused by the pony’s hooves. Every time the play stops, it is re-started with a throw in by the umpire, who controls the game and sees that play is fair.

The Polo Ground

The dimensions are 300 yards long, by 160 yards across; which at just under 10 acres in size is the largest field of play in any modern organised sporting event.

The goals sit centrally at either end of the field, with posts 10 feet high, set 24 feet apart. These posts are designed to break without causing injury if a player or horse collides with them. The boundaries of the pitch are marked with side and end boards that are a maximum of 11 inches high, which are designed to deflect the ball back into play.

There is a buffer zone that extends beyond the marked pitch which is known as the run-off area. The centre line is indicated with markers at the sides of the field and divides the pitch in half; midway down its length.

The rest of the pitch markings consist of a T shape in the centre, any boundaries that are not already indicated by boards, and then at distances of 30, 40 and 60 yards from each goal line at both sides and in the centre to indicate the penalty lines

The ground itself is generally turf, mud or compacted sand, but needs to be a surface that the ball can freely run across and that will not cause injury to the ponies.

Polo ponies

Although traditionally known as ponies, the player’s mounts are more often full sized horses, 14-16 hands high. The important qualities that a good polo pony has to possess are speed and stamina, while at the same time they have to be agile and capable of manoeuvring in tight spaces. Even more important is the mount’s temperament, they must remain highly responsive to the rider at all times, working as one unit at critical moments.

The ponies have to be specially trained to compete in polo matches. The rider only uses one hand on the reins, always the left, and signals are given to stop, turn and move forward using the legs and the shift of bodyweight on a saddle that is designed to enable upper body movement. In a match, it is the pony that is more critical than its rider when it comes to levels of skill and performance. A mediocre player on a good mount is more useful than the other way around.

Polo ponies will usually have their tails braided to keep them out of the way during the game. An excited horse is likely to swing its tail back and forth which could become entangled with the mallets. Similarly, the pony’s mains are kept trimmed to provide the rider with the maximum of manoeuvrability.

Each player must have more than one pony to enable them to be alternated between chukkers, even at the least demanding of games. In top competitions it is usual to have four or more, known as a string, that will ensure that the rider can draw on their mounts full reserves when required. The ponies tend to hit their peak at six to seven years of age, but skill and experience also count and it is not unusual for them to compete until they reach ages of between eighteen and twenty.

Equipment

The most recognisable piece of equipment is the polo mallet and it is used as a universally recognised symbol of the sport. They range in size from 49 to 54 inches in length which allows for differences in size of riders and mounts. A player might change their mallet at the same time as their pony.

The oval mallet head is used to strike the ball with its widest side, unlike in croquet where it is used like a hammer. Traditionally made out of wood from the tipa tree, the heads are more commonly carved out of maple or ash and are between eight to ten inches across. Personal preference plays a large part in the design of the mallets. Rather than striking the ball with force applied by the wrist the mallet’s energy comes from a flowing downward swinging motion. A heavier head will provide more impact but will also have a detrimental effect on the player’s wrist. The amount of play in the shaft of the mallet also has a big affect on how it is used. The greater the flexibility the stronger the whip effect, which increases its power but at the expense of a controlled shot.

Like all horse riders, polo players are expected to wear helmets but these have been specifically designed for the game. As well as being designed to protect the head from trauma if the rider is thrown from the horse, it also takes into consideration the likelihood of the impact from a ball or mallet. The helmets will often be fitted with a framework mask, sturdy enough to stop injury from a fast moving ball but not restricting the lines of vision.

Players will also wear goggles, partly for protection from heavy projectiles, but also for the far more common irritation of flying mud which could temporarily blind them.

The style of saddles that are used for polo ponies are strikingly different to regular riding varieties. The player requires a great deal of manoeuvrability in the saddle, not only to use the mallet smoothly and accurately, but also to signal to the horse with the shifting of bodyweight. The front of the saddle has been adapted so that the torso can come fully forward across the horses neck, and similarly, the back has been levelled off.

Player positions

The four players in a polo team are assigned consecutive numbers on their shirts which denote their positions on the field. It's usual for the two more experienced players to be wear numbers two and three.

  • Number 1: This is the main attacking position requiring the player to press forward and be an accurate goal shooter, similar to a striker in football or hockey forward. They also have a defensive role, covering their number three.
  • Number 2: Another position that concentrates on offensive moves, they follow their number one to provide cover. In defensive play they are interchangeable with the number three.
  • Number 3: This player is usually the most skilled on the team and their role is to feed the ball forward with long accurate passes; After successfully having retrieved it from attacking opposition players.
  • Number 4: Defends the team’s goal if the opposition manage to get past their number three. They swiftly recycle the ball into an attack for their own side.

In such a fast moving environment the team positions are very flexible, with each team member prepared to jump into whichever role suits their position on the field and the state of play.

Rules

There are some variations to the rules where the game is played around the world, except during international tournaments.

The polo field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide where side boards are in use to prevent the ball running outside the boundaries, but where these are not in place the width is extended by an extra 20 yards on each side. This is known as the run-off area.

A normal game lasts for eight chukkers, lasting seven minutes each, although this can be reduced to six or four at club level. The end of a chukker is signalled with a bell but play continues until either the ball exits play, or an additional thirty seconds elapses; when a second bell is rung and the umpire calls a halt with their whistle.

If the umpire stops play for any reason during a chukker the timer is stopped and resumes again when the umpire starts it again with their whistle. Each chukker is separated with an interval of three minutes, apart from at half time, which lasts five minutes.

The ponies have to be rested after each chukker and a replacement used by each player; they are generally limited to two chukkers in an afternoon.

After each goal is scored the teams switch ends to ensure that any inconsistencies at the ground do not give an unfair advantage.

Polo allows for a handicapping system to allow matches between disparate teams. This provides for a wider range of opponents and more exciting outcomes for the spectators. Each player receives a handicap that can be a positive or negative number of goals and the team total added up. This is then matched against the opposing players and any difference is awarded to the weaker team as a head start.

Fouls

Fouls are generally decided by dangerous play that may endanger either horse or rider. Safety is always paramount during the game. Penalties may be awarded and will depend on the severity of the infringement. When a player strikes the ball and follows its direct line they have right of way, if another player crosses this line close enough to impede the original player a foul is committed. The severity of which depends upon the closeness and risk involved.

Players are not allowed to obstruct another's mallet, unless they are on the same side of the opposing riders pony as the ball. It is permissible to force a player to move away but not to drive in to them at an angle.

There are various penalties that may be awarded after a foul. In the case of a serious infringement close to the goal area a penalty goal may be awarded. For lesser fouls, free shots may be awarded at the 30, 40 and 60 yard penalty lines and the goal must be left undefended, the shot may also be awarded from the spot where the incident took place with opposition players no closer than 30 yards.

In rare cases where play is deemed to be excessively dangerous a game may be forfeited or the player disqualified.

Polo trivia

  • The dimensions of the Polo ground can be traced back to the ancient capital of Persia, Isfahan, now in modern Iran, where a public park still has the original stone goal posts, dating back to the turn of the 17th century.
  • When stamping down the pitch at half time the advice to new comers is to avoid the steaming divots – fresh horse manure.
  • Mickey Mouse appeared in a cartoon polo match in 1936.
 

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