A-Z, Rules & History

Change Ends – Probably the First thing the newcomer needs to know about the game of polo is that unlike, in football or other sports, the players change ends after each goal, rather than at half time.

Right of Way – The right of way or “line of the ball” – is an imaginary line along which the ball travels – it represents a right of way for the player who last struck the ball. There are strict rules governing the other teams access to

Chukkas – A game will consist of six chukkas, or periods each of seven minutes in duration, when the bell is rung for the first time. The game then continues until either the bail goes out of play or for another thirty seconds when the bell is rung again and the game stops wherever the ball may be. There are three-minute intervals to change ponies between each chukka, except at half time when it is five minutes.

The Third Man – If there is any doubt about the two umpires, decision, they defer to the Referee, also known as the Third Man, who sits and watches the game from the side.

Fouls – Are defined to ensure the safety of both player and pony. A player following the ball on its exact line has the “right of way” over all other players. Any other player who crosses the player on the right of way close enough to be dangerous commits a foul. Penalties vary according to the degree of the danger and closeness of the cross.

Penalties – The following penalties may be enforced depending on the severity of the foul. A free hit towards the goal is awarded to the team when a foul is committed by the opposition. The hit is taken from a set distance depending on the decision of the umpires. Penalty 1: A goal is given if the cross is dangerous or deliberate in the vicinity of the goal. The ball is then thrown in ten yards in front of the goal without ends being changed. Penalty 2: A free hit from 30 yards to an undefended goal Penalty 3: A free hit from 40 yards to an undefended goal Penalty 4: A free hit from 60 yards to an undefended goal. Penalty 5A: A free hit from anywhere on the ground Penalty 5B: A free hit from the centre of the ground. Penalty 6: Also known as a Safety This is awarded when a defending player hits the ball over his own backline. This shot is taken 60 yards from the backline opposite the point where the ball crossed. No defender can be nearer than 30 yards from the ball when it is played.

Hook – Players may not “hook” an opponent’s stick unless he is on the same side of the opponents pony as the ball. Dangerous riding or rough handling is not allowed – a player may ride an opponent off the line of the ball but must not charge in at an angle.

Fair Play – The idea of this is fair play – to give each team an equal opportunity to take advantage of the direction of the sun or wind or at least not to be disadvantaged by it.

A-Z of Polo:

AIM The aim of the game is to beat the opposing team.

BALL White and made of plastic or wood. It weighs four and a half ounces and is three and a half inches in diameter.

CHUKKA There are six chukkas in high handicap matches each lasting seven minutes plus up to thirty seconds overtime. There is no overtime at the end of the sixth chukka unless the score is tied and a seventh chukka is played. Players return to the field each chukka with a fresh pony.

DIVOT Divots are the pieces of turf kicked up by the ponies during play. They are replaced at half-time and trodden in by the spectators.

EQUESTRIAN Though the players may gain the glory without their ponies they couldn’t compete. Using horses makes polo an equestrian sport.

FIELD The polo field is 300 yards by 160 yards, or the equivalent area of three football pitches. The goal- posts, which collapse on severe impact, are set eight yards apart.

GOAL Any time the ball crosses at any height, the line between the goal- posts, it is considered a goal regardless of who knocks it through (including the pony) to equalise wind and turf conditions the teams change ends after each goal is scored.

HANDICAP All players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (the higher the better). Although the word ‘goal’ is used it bears no relation to the amount of goals a player scores but to his horsemanship, range of strokes and speed of play. The team handicap equals the sum of it’s players’ handicaps. In matches of six chukkas the team with the lower handicap is awarded the difference in goals at the start of the game.

INJURY Polo is a highly physical sport. With horses, players and mallets flying up and down the field there is always the chance of someone getting injured. Although serious injuries are rare in polo they can occur and so, just like the VET, there is always a doctor in attendance at matches.

JUDGES (GOAL) These are the men standing by the goal posts in hard hats whose job it is to decide if the ball passed between the posts and if it did so legally.

KNOCK-IN Should a team hit the ball across the opponent’s backline during an attack, the defending team resumes the game with a free hit from the backline where the ball went over.

LINE OF THE BALL The line of the ball – the imaginary line along which the ball travels – represents a right of way for the player who last struck the ball. There are strict rules governing opponents’ entry into that right of way.

MALLET The shaft is usually made from bamboo and the head from either bamboo root or hard wood. The side of the head is used to strike the ball and not the ends as in croquet. Mallets range in length according to the size of the pony played and vary from 48 to 54 inches.

NECKSHOT A mallet stroke hitting the ball under the pony’s neck.

OUT OF BOUNDS When a ball goes over the sideboards it is considered out of bounds and the umpire throws the ball in between the two teams at the point at which it left the field of play.

PENALTY A free hit towards the goal is awarded when a foul is committed, the hit is taken from a set distance, dependent on the severity of the offence. Distances are: 1 – Automatic goal. 2-30 yards to an undefended goal. 3-40 yards to an undefended goal. 4-60 yards to an undefended goal. 5 – From anywhere on the ground. 5b – From the centre of the ground. 6 – Also known as a Safety. This is awarded when a defending player hits the ball over his own backline. The shot is taken 60 yards from the backline opposite the point where the ball crossed. No defender can be near than 30 yards from the ball when it is played.

QUERY When one of the mounted umpires questions the other’s decision they refer to the Third Man. The third man is a referee who sits on the sidelines and arbitrates any disagreements between the umpires.

RIDE OFF Two riders may make contact and attempt to push each other off the line to prevent the opponent strikingthe ball. It is primarily intended for the ponies to do the pushing in a ride-off but a player is allowed to use his body (but not his elbows).

SUDDEN DEATH In the event of a tied score at the end of the final chukka there will be a five minute break to allow the players to catch their breath and change to fresh mount before beginning a sudden-death chukka. The first team to score wins.

TIME-OUT Called by the umpire when a foul is committed, an accident occurs or at his discretion. A player may call time-out if he has broken tack or is injured. Time-out is not permitted for players to change ponies or for replacing a broken mallet.

UMPIRES Two mounted umpires consult each other after every foul, imposing a penalty if and when they agree. See QUERY.

VET There is always a vet in attendance at polo matches to ensure the welfare of the ponies and to treat any injuries to the ponies should they occur.

WHITES In most sports there is a set dress code and polo is no different. When in tournaments and chukkas players must always wear white trousers.

X-ING THE LINE ‘Crossing the line’ is the most frequent foul in polo. This involves encroaching on the right of way of the player who last struck the ball. The severity of the penalty awarded for crossing the line of the ball depends upon where it happens on the polo field. See PENALTY.

YELL A loud yet polite noise the crowd are asked to make in support of the teams. A loud but not always polite noise the players make during the game.

ZONE (SAFETY) The area around the field which is out of bounds for the spectators during play.



How to play:

1. THE GROUND is 300 yards long and 200 yards wide, or if there arc boards down the side (to keep the ball in play) then 160 yards wide. The goal posts (collapsible on severe impact for safety) are 8 yards apart. There is a white line at the centre of the ground and Penalty lines 30, 40 and 60 yards from each back line.

2.a) DURATION OF PLAY. The full game is over six periods, though only four are more often played in this country, of 7 minutes each and are called by the Indian name ‘Chukkas’. Al the end of the Chukka the (first) bell is rung but the game continues until the ball goes out of play or the 7V2 minute (second) bell is rung when the Chukka ends. The next Chukka starts with a throw-in from where the previous one ended, or if a foul the appropriate penalty is taken, or if it went over the sideline the Umpire throws in. In the event of a tie, the game goes on with additional Chukkas until a deciding goal is scored – sometimes the goal posts being widened. There are intervals of 3 minutes between Chukkas and 5 minutes at half time. Teams change ends each time a goal is scored – this has been found fairest with the light ball and when there is a wind; likewise if there is no score at half time, ends are changed.

b) When the ball goes out of play over the sides of the ground, teams line up side-by-side 5 yards back and the ball is thrown-in. If the ball crosses the back line, being last reached by the attacking team, the defending team takes a free hit from where the ball crossed their back line. Should the defending team hit the ball over their own back line a penalty is called and the attacking team is given a free shot at goal from the 60 yard line opposite where the ball went ‘out’ and with no defender nearer than 30 yards. There is no ‘corner’ as in football and no ‘offside’.

3. PLAYERS The four players in each team are called:- No. 1 – Forward, with fast handy ponies to quickly turn defence into attack, slip the opposing back and with accurate rather than powerful hitting, score the goals. No. 2 – Forward basically Well mounted to mark the opposing No. 3 in defence but support his No. 1 in attack. No. 3 – Similar to ‘centre-half in football. He controls the speed and direction of the game and usually his passes to the forwards start an attack resulting in a goal. No. 4 – The back. In defence able to hit strong back handers to his team members, in attack likely to be seen somewhere behind waiting to snap up any chance loose balls that come his way. Players must wear a protective polo helmet or cap, and no player shall play with his left hand.

4. HANDICAPS Each player is handicapped from minus 2 up to a maximum 10 (the very best players) and reflects his/her ability as if playing a full six Chukkas match. In handicap Tournaments the number of goals start is obtained by multiplying the difference between the two teams total handicaps by the number of Chukkas to be played and then dividing by 6. Any fraction counts as half a goal.

5. EQUIPMENT The sticks are made of bamboo shafts and hard-wood heads. The length of the stick varies according to the height of the pony being played and ranges from around 48 inches to 53 inches. The ball is hit with either face of the head and not with the ends as in croquet. The ball, traditionally either bamboo or willow, is nowadays made of plastic.

6. PONIES There is no height limit but most ponies are between 15 and 15.3 hands (4 inches) high. Much of their schooling is devoted to stopping and turning quickly and being able to accelerate, to ride-off another pony and to face a fast approaching pony Ponies usually only play two Chukkas in an afternoon with a rest of at least one chukka in between. Bandages or boots for support and protection are compulsory and a pony blind of an eye, showing vice or not under control may not be played.

7. UMPIRES There are two on the field of play with a referee off the field who acts as arbiter in the event of umpires being unable to agree.

8. FOULS and PENALTIES The most common fouls occur as the result of a player having ‘the right of way’, being crossed by another player which would be very dangerous. A player has ‘right of way’ when he is following the ball on its exact line or is closest to it; he must not cross this line if by so doing there is any possibility of another horse having to check in order to avoid a collision. A player may ride-off an opponent but not by charging-in at an angle. Dangerous riding, rough handling or misuse of the polo stick is not allowed. Penalties vary according to the degree and place of foul. Penalties are referred to by numbers as follows:-

Penalty No. 1. A goal is given for a dangerous or deliberate foul in the vicinity of the goal. The teams line up and the ball is thrown-in 10 yards in front of the goal without the teams changing ends.

Penalty No. 2. A free hit is given from the line 30 yards in front of the goal. The defenders must stand behind the back line until the ball is hit and may not come on to the ground through the goal.

Penalty No. 3. A free hit is given from the line 40 yards from the goal with the defenders as in Penalty No. 2.

Penalty No. 4. A free hit is given, from the line 60 yards from the goal. The defenders must be on the ground but must be at least 30 yards from the hit. The attackers may be ahead of the hit.

Penalty No. 5a. A free hit from where the foul occurred.

Penalty No. 5b. A free hit from the centre of the ground. The defenders must be 30 yards from the hit and the attackers may be ahead of the hit. Penalty

No. 6. A free hit at the ball from a spot 60 yards from the back line opposite where the ball crossed it. Defenders must be 30 yards from the ball; side fouled may place themselves where they choose.


Polo is probably the oldest recorded game in the world; the Persian poet Hrdausi, described a match between the Persians and the Turkomans about 600 B.C. At Isfahan are the ruins of a very ancient polo ground with stone goal posts 8 yards apart and the ground 300 yards long, the correct measurements of a ground today.

The name ‘Polo’ came from ‘Pulu’, the willow root from which polo balls were made in Tibet.

Slowly the game spread over Asia, even to China, Japan and India. It was played in the nineteenth century in the mountainous northern region of India. The first club, The Silchar Polo Club, in Cachar, was formed in 1859 by soldiers and tea planters. They played the game with the Manipuris, who have played for hundreds of years..

By 1862 The Calcutta Polo Club was formed and the game spread rapidly all over India and throughout the Army. In England the first match was played at Hounslow in 1871, between the 9th Lancers and the 10th Hussars.

In 1874 the Hurlingham Club was formed and in the following year the first English Rules were drawn up by the Hurlingham Polo Association. This Association now has representatives on its Council from all Associations within the Empire where Polo is played, from all English Clubs and from the Royal Navy and Army.

Though the game had spread from England to America, and then to the Argentine, more polo was played in India than in any other country. A series of Matches between England and America for the famous Westchester Cup was won in England in 1885, 1900 and 1902.

In 1909, America won with a team known as the ‘big-four’ – their celebrated back was Devereux Milbum, whose son played here in 1953 in The American Meadowbrook team; and they won again in 1911 and 1913, but an English team of four Cavalry Officers won decisively in 1914. We lost the Cup in 1921 and failed to recover it again though we nearly did in 1936.

In England the height of ponies was limited initially to 14 hands, but this limit was increased to 14.2 hands in 1895.

After the first World War, height limits were abolished in this country and in India to help get polo started again. It soon revived, and although there were fewer country clubs, London polo at the Hurlingham, Ranelagh and Roehampton Clubs was more crowded than ever with strong visiting teams from America, Australia, India and the Argentine.

After the second World War, it seemed to many that polo in England was doomed – expenses had risen enormously, and there was a great shortage of potential ponies – but by sound re-organisation, through the Hurlingham Polo Association, and with the support of the general public as spectators, polo is thriving once again, and there are now over twenty-five Clubs in this country.


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