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Learn About Polo

The Game

Each polo match consists of 4 to 6 chukkers (periods) that last seven and a half minutes with a warning bell at seven minutes and a final bell thirty seconds later (unless a team scores after the warning bell which stops the chukker immediately). The game is played on a field with goal posts on each end. The players try to hit the ball between the posts (no matter how high), to score one point. After each goal, the teams change sides. Two mounted umpires accompany the players, (four on each team in outdoor polo, three on each team in arena polo) and a “third man” sits near the middle of the field to referee in case of a disagreement between the mounted umpires. The whistle is blown to indicate a foul (scroll down to learn more about fouls), and stops the clock. At the end of the chukker, the players change horses.

Each team consist of four players.
#1) An offensive player
#2) The offensive midfielder
#3) The pivot, often the highest rated player
#4) The defensive back

Each player is expected to cover his/her man (or woman) who is the numerical opposite on the field.

Note: In arena polo, each team consists of three players.

The horses traditionally called ponies, are well trained equine athletes. Able to stop and turn on a dime, they are considered faster than racehorses over short distances. Polo ponies are the most essential part of the game.

“A polo handicap is your passport to the world.” – Sir Winston Churchill
In polo, a handicap is required and considered a good thing. Players are rated from minus two to ten. Ten is the best. Each team’s handicap is the sum of the players’ handicaps. In an Open tournament, teams play “on the flat” meaning that no scoring advantage is given to the weaker team. In a handicap tournament, points are given to the weaker team based on the difference of handicaps between two teams. For example, if a sixteen goal (handicap) team plays against a seventeen goal (handicap) team, then one point is awarded on the scoreboard for the sixteen goal team at the start of the match.

To the layman, fouls in polo are very hard to see. Even professionals have a hard time, but one can usually tell a foul by listening to the players after the whistle blows. A foul is basically a dangerous play, mostly stemming from crossing in front of the man with the ball. When the ball is hit, it creates an invisible line and the players must follow it as if they are driving on a make-believe road. Each time the ball changes direction, the road changes as well. Penalty shots are awarded depending on where the foul was committed, or upon the severity of the foul. Lines on the field indicate where midfield, sixty, forty and thirty yard penalties are taken from. If the ball is hit past the back line by a defending player, a sixty-yard shot facing the spot where the ball went across the line is awarded.

The Ponies

The term "polo pony" is a traditional phrase used to describe a horse of any size or breed that is used to play polo. In the early days of polo history the height of the mounts used for polo were restricted to pony size and thus the term "polo pony" developed. The average size of a polo pony used today is about 15-15.3 hands tall. Polo ponies can be of any size or breed. The most common breeds used for polo today in the United States are the Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse. Polo Ponies are also imported annually from countries around the world including Argentina, England, New Zealand and Mexico to name just a few. The breed of polo pony used for each player depends on that player's personal preference and skill level. Polo horse prospects can be found in many places doing other equestrian sports. New polo horse prospects are often referred to as "green horses". Some common sources for young prospects are breeding farms, working ranches and the racetrack. Young polo prospects go through years of specialized training before they become what is traditionally called a "made pony". A made pony is one that is ready for use in tournament polo. The sport of polo is played at many different skill levels and each one requires a specific type of horse to meet the demands. Top notch ponies will sometimes be shipped around the globe with their professionals in pursuit of prestigious tournament titles.

Traditionally a polo pony has some very common characteristics. Players like to have a horse that is deep in girth for a large air capacity, a short back for quick maneuvering, and conformationally correct legs for a lengthy career. The average height for a polo horse today is between 15-15.3 hands tall. Because polo can be played on any breed of horse it is not uncommon to see horses of many different color patterns competing in the same game.

Protective gear for the polo horse during games includes a set of protective bandages or boots on the legs, a protective type boot over the bandages, skid boots on the back legs and coronet boots to protect the front feet. Traditionally the mane and forelock are shaved and the tail is tied or taped up to prevent getting in the way. Tack commonly used for polo is an English style saddle, English style bridle of any bit combination with two sets of reins and a martingale. Personal preference of players will dictate the type of bridle that is used for each horse and whether or not a saddle pad is used under the saddle. Some players prefer to place a well fitted saddle directly on the horses' back without a pad for increased stability and contact with the horse. It is common to see polo teams with all of their ponies outfitted with matching bandages and saddle pads.

For more information on polo pony terms see the Polo Pony Lingo page. This information has been provided by the American Polo Horse Association. Downloadable Version in Adobe PDF Format

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