Guide to Polo


Polo is a dynamic and exciting team game. One of the oldest known sports in the world, it is thought to have originated in Persia over 2000 years ago. The game as we know it today was codified and developed in India in the 1800s, where British soldiers who were stationed there saw the game being played locally and adapted it for their own uses, often using it as training for cavalry riders.

The object of Polo is for a team to score more goals than its opposition to win the game. Each team of four is made up of attackers and defenders, but all members of a polo team are expected to be flexible and make any play whether offensive or defensive and change position as necessary to benefit the team.

Each player is given a handicap from -2 to 10 goals depending on his ability. The lowest handicap is -2 and 10 is the highest. A team’s handicap rating is calculated by adding together the 4 players’ handicaps. The handicap of teams entering the Cowdray Gold Cup is 20-22 goals.
A team is made up of 4 players with each numbered 1 to 4. Each position has a purpose; No.1 and No.2 are the forwards, No.3 is the pivot position (usually the best player in the team) and No.4 (or Back) is the goal defender.
Matches are divided into chukkas. In the UK, there are between 4 and 6 chukkas in a match, the number of which depends on the level of the polo (low goal – 4 chukkas, medium goal – 5 chukkas, high goal – 6 chukkas) Each chukka lasts 7 minutes, with an interval of 3 minutes between each one. At half time, the interval is extended and spectators are invited onto the pitch to tread in the divots. The bell is rug at the end of each 7-minute period. Play continues until the ball goes out of play, the umpire stops play for a foul, or the bell is rung for a second time 30 seconds after the first bell. In the final chukka, the match ends after the first bell.

There are 2 mounted umpires on the pitch following the game and a third man (or referee) in the stands who acts as the arbitrator if the umpires cannot agree. There is a goal judge behind each goal and they will wave a flag when a goal is scored. The scorer and the timekeeper record the goals and track the timing and sound the bell at the end of each chukka.

Polo pitches are 300 yards long by 160 yards wide. ‘kickboards’ are situated along either side of the pitch to help keep the ball in play. Goalposts, open at the top, are 8 yards apart.

Polo is probably the only game in which the teams change ends when a goal is scored, thus equalling out any ground or weather advantage.
Play starts with the umpire throwing in the ball between the two teams lined up in front of him. In the same way play is restarted after a goal is scored or if the ball goes out over the side boards. If the ball goes over the back line, there is a hit-in by the defending team. There is no offside in polo.
A polo player must have a helmet, with or without a visor, knee guards, and a polo stick (or mallet). The ball is hit with the side of the mallet not the end as in croquet. The cane is pliable and hits of up to 100 – 150 yards are not unknown.

The ball is made of plastic and is 3.5 inches in diameter and weighs 4.5 ounces, still remarkably hard if it hits you.

Right of Way – During play there is an imaginary “line of the ball”, which is generally the direction

in which the ball is travelling at any one moment. When a player has established the right of way along that line, it may not be crossed by an opposing player if there is the slightest risk of collision.

Crossing – Any player who crosses the player holding the right of way close enough to be dangerous or cause a player to slow up, commits a foul.

Riding Off – pushing another player and his horse out of the way using your horse is permitted, whether the other man is playing the ball or not. But it must not be done by charging in at a dangerous angle, nor must the man in possession of the ball be crossed.

Hooking sticks – A player may hook an opponent’s stick provided he is on the same side of the opponent as the ball, or directly behind him, and provided the stick is below the level of the opponent’s shoulder. Players must not attempt to hook an opponent in front of the pony’s legs.

Different types of penalties are awarded depending of the nature of the foul:

  • Penalty No 1 – Automatic goal
  • Penalty No 2 – 30 yd hit to an open goal
  • Penalty No 3 – 40 yd hit to an open goal
  • Penalty No 4 – 60 yd hit to a defended goal
  • Penalty No 5 – A hit from the spot where the foul was committed
  • Penalty No 5B – A hit from the centre of the ground. This is used when the defending team are attacking from their own half.