Polo 101

Polo Glossary

What are they saying? When you go to a polo match, especially if it is your first one, you will discover that polo players and fans speak a slightly different language. Sometimes it sounds like English; sometimes like Spanish; sometimes it just sounds odd. Just what are the players saying and what do they mean? The following is an abbreviated polo glossary that might help you understand what is going on around you.

Bump: A player may ride into an opponent in order to spoil his or her shot. The angle of the bump must be no greater than 45 degrees. Although a bump can be quite hard, it may not endanger either horse or rider. A bump is “dangerous riding” and a foul if either horse is significantly ahead of the other, going much faster than the other, or if the bump causes either mount to lose its balance.

Chukker:  A period in polo is called a “chukker,” or sometimes a “chukka.” Each chukker lasts seven and a half minutes and there are either four or six chukkers in each game. After each chukker, the players leave the field and then return with fresh horses for the next chukker. A horse may play one or at most two chukkers in a game.

Divot: A piece cut loose from the turf, created by galloping hooves – or more likely by horses stopping quickly. At halftime, spectators are invited on the field to replace the divots, otherwise known as “stomping the divots.”

Foul: Also a “penalty.” A foul is any infringement of the rules. When the umpires blow their whistles, time stops and the team fouled takes a free hit. Depending on the severity of the foul, the free hit may be from the point of the infraction, or closer to the goal. If the umpires determine that there was no actual foul or that both teams fouled simultaneously, they may have a throw-in instead of the foul shot. Polo being a gentleman’s game, it is actually a foul to appeal for a foul.

Goal:  The purpose of polo is to score goals by hitting the ball through the goal posts. It doesn’t matter how high in the air a player hits the ball:  as long as it passes between the parallel lines created by the goal posts, it counts as a goal. After each goal, the teams switch directions and return to the center of the field for a throw-in. Also a term for a handicap, as in “How many goals are you?”  (See next entry)

“Leave it!”  A player may call for a teammate to “leave it” (meaning don’t try to hit the ball) if the player behind the one “on the ball” thinks he has a better shot. Generally speaking, the player behind has a better view of the game and knows if it would be better for the player in front to leave it or not.

Line of the Ball: The imaginary line that the ball creates from where a player hits it to where it is going. The line extends indefinitely across the field.  Many of the right-of-way rules in polo are based on the concept of the line of the ball. Generally, a player tries not to cross the line of the ball, especially in front of someone who is “on the line.”

Knock-in:  When the ball goes over the endline but not through the goal posts, the team defending that goal gets a free hit or “knock-in” from the point where the ball went out. Attacking players must stay 30 yards away from the hitter until the ball is in play.

Mallet: The polo stick. Players hit the ball with the side of the head, at the juncture of the head and the cane. If a player breaks his mallet, he may yell “mallet!” to his groom. With luck, someone will come to the endline to bring him a new one. The play never stops just because one of the players has a broken mallet.

Off Side:  The right side of the horse. The most common shot in polo is an offside forehand. The right side of the horse is called the “off side” because riders usually handle horses from the left (near) side.

Pony:  Although they are full-sized, full-grown horses, polo mounts are called ponies. Today, many polo ponies in America are Thoroughbred horses, some of which began their careers on the racetrack.

Safety:  If a defending player hits the ball over his own endline, the umpires blow the whistle for a “safety.” The attacking team takes a foul shot 60 yards out, parallel to the point at which the ball went out of bounds.

Sudden Death: If the score is tied at the end of regulation play, the game goes to sudden death overtime. The overtime chukker is timed just like a regular chukker, and ends either if one team scores, or at the seven-and-a-half minute mark. It is possible for a game to go to double, or triple overtime. More usually, however, if a game is still tied at the end of the overtime period, the match winner will be determined by a shootout, in which every player on each team takes a turn making a foul shot.

“Take the man!” Like “leave it!” This is something that a player might yell at a teammate who is in front of him. He is asking his teammate to ride off an opponent and leave the ball for the player behind him.

Throw-In:  The way a ball is put into play in a neutral situation, such as at the beginning of the game or after a goal. The umpire lines the two teams up facing him, and then bowls the ball between them. Each team fights for possession.

An Introduction to Polo

By Pam Gleason


People who have never been to a polo match sometimes imagine that the game is like croquet on horseback. This would be true, if croquet were a fast-moving, physical, exciting game in which the players often found themselves hurtling along at speeds in excess of 30 miles an hour. 

In truth, polo is nothing like croquet. The players ride galloping horses, and they often must lean off their mounts at top speed in death-defying attempts to strike the ball. The horses run, and the ball flies. The best players can hit it like a major league baseball player hammering a home run. The field, when it is empty, looks immense because it is. At 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, it covers the area of nine football fields. When the players are on it, however, it’s obvious why there is so much playing space – the game occupies every square yard, and the horses and the ball often come off the field, making it seem too small to contain the action. 

The Basics

At its heart, polo is a simple game. Four mounted players make up a team. These players meet on a manicured grass field, each armed with a wooden-headed mallet that is generally between 51 and 53 inches long.  All players are required to hold the mallet in their right hands, even if they are left-handed.  They hold the reins and control the horse with their left hands. 

The first objective of the game is to hit the ball (made of hard plastic and about 3½ inches in diameter) through a set of posts marking a goal 8 yards wide. The ball can go through the posts at any height. Polo is a game where geometry counts, and the parallel lines formed by the goal posts are considered to extend infinitely into space. A goal judge (flagger) on each endline is charged with determining whether a goal has been scored or not. If the ball passes between the posts, he waves his flag over his head for “yes.” If the ball goes outside the posts, or passes over the top of them, he waves his flag by his feet for “no.”

The second objective of the game is to prevent members of the opposing team from hitting the ball and scoring. Defensive plays include “hooking” an opponent’s mallet as he or she tries to strike the ball — you can only do this if you are on the same side of your opponent’s horse as the ball, since it would be dangerous (and a foul) to reach, over, under or in front of another rider’s horse. You may also “ride off”, which you accomplish by placing your horse next to your opponent’s and encouraging your horse to push his off course.  Finally, you may “bump”, which is riding off with a bang — but it is illegal to bump or ride off at an angle greater than 45 degrees, or to do anything that makes either your horse or your opponent’s horse lose balance, stumble or fall. 

In addition to eight players, each game also includes two mounted umpires in striped shirts who ride along with the players to ensure that everyone is adhering to the rules. Any time one of the umpires sees something that looks like a foul, he blows his whistle, which stops the play. If the other umpire saw the same thing and agrees with him, the team that was fouled is awarded a penalty shot.  If the other umpire does not think there was a foul, the two umpires ride over to the third man, who sits on the sidelines. The third man, otherwise known as the referee, decides whether a foul was committed or not. 

The Play

The play begins with a line-up at the center of the field.  Members of each team line up opposite members of the other team. Then one of the umpires bowls the ball between the two teams. Each team fights to gain possession and drive the ball down to the opposite goal. After each goal, the teams switch directions. If the red team scores on the east end of the field, then in the next play, red will be trying to score on the west end of the field. Switching directions after each goal equalizes field conditions. However, it can be confusing to players and spectators alike!  

It often happens that a team attempting to score a goal will hit the ball over the endline instead. When this happens, there is a knock-in: the defending team is given possession of the ball on the endline and has a free hit at it.  On the other hand, sometimes the team that is defending the goal accidentally hits the ball over the endline while trying to get it out of danger. When this happens, the opposing team is given a “safety” which is a free shot on goal from 60 yards out. 

The ball also sometimes goes over the sideboards. When this happens, spectators must resist the urge to toss it back onto the field.  It used to be that when the ball went over the boards, the umpire would line both teams up for another throw in. According to the current rules,  however, hitting the ball out of bounds is treated like a “from the spot” foul. Now, the team that hit the ball out gives the other team possession and a free hit. 

A polo match is divided into four or six periods called “chukkers” or “chukkas.” Each chukker consists of seven and a half minutes of playing time. The timekeeper stops the clock when a player commits a foul, or when someone hits the ball over the endline, but not when a player scores a goal.  At seven minutes, the timekeeper sounds a warning bell. Play continues until a goal is scored, or 30 seconds have passed. The final chukker ends at the seven-minute mark unless the score is tied. 

When time is up for each chukker, the timekeeper sounds the horn. Then the players have four minutes to leave the field, change horses and come back for the next chukker. Play is continuous in polo, which means that the action starts in the second chukker at the place where it ended in the first. After the third chukker in a six-chukker match, or the second chukker in a four-chukker match, there is a longer half-time break, during which spectators are encouraged to walk out on the field to “stomp the divots.” 

Most players prefer to have a fresh horse for each chukker. As a rule, a horse can play one or two chukkers per game. This means that a player must have a minimum of three horses to compete in a six chukker match. At higher levels, some players use eight or ten horses in a game, jumping off one and onto another mid-chukker.  Although they may decide to change horses when the clock is stopped, the umpires do not stop the clock just because one of the players is changing mounts.  They also never stop the clock just because a player has dropped or broken his mallet. They may not even stop the clock if a player falls off. As long as that player is not hurt and isn’t in imminent danger of getting run over, the umpires are not required to blow their whistles, and usually don’t.

Fair and Foul

Most of the rules in polo come from the concept of the “line-of-the-ball.” The line of the ball is an imaginary line that the ball creates when a player hits it. A simplified explanation of the rules is that a player must not cross this line if there is another player behind him who is “on the line” and therefore has the “right of way.” This sometimes means that a player must take the ball on the left side (near side) of his horse, and sometimes means he must not try to hit it at all. 

If a player does cross the line or commits another foul such as “high hooking” (hooking another player’s mallet when it is above the level of his shoulder), the fouled team gets to take a penalty shot. The more serious the foul, the closer this shot will be to the fouling player’s goal. Fouls that occur closer to the goal are more serious than fouls that occur further away from the goal. A minor foul might merit a hit “from the spot.” If the foul is more serious, or is repeated or deemed to be intentional or dangerous, the umpire might move the ball up to mid-field, to the 60-yard, the 40-yard or the 30-yard line. The umpire might also move the ball up if a player on the fouling team complains about the call. 

The Makings of a Team

The four players on each team wear jerseys bearing a number from 1 to 4. The number refers to the player’s position on the field. The Number 1 is primarily an offensive player, whose job is to run to goal, hoping for a pass from his or her teammates. The Number 2 is also an offensive player, but he must be more aggressive, breaking up the offensive plays of the other team, and continually forcing the attack. The Number 3 is usually the strongest player on the team. His job is to hit long balls, set up his teammates, plan the plays and make them happen. He also must cover the opposing Number 2. The Number 4, or Back, is primarily defensive. He covers the opposing Number 1 and generally “shuts the back door” preventing the other team from scoring. He also must get the ball to his teammates, often by hitting long back shots. 

The Life

Polo was once the sport of kings, played only by the wealthy leisure classes. Today, although playing polo certainly requires a significant investment of time and money, the people who play have different backgrounds and occupations. People of all ages and abilities can play, and the sport does not really require vast sums of money, although money certainly helps. The range goes all the way from England’s Prince Harry to the local veterinarian, real estate agent, blacksmith or carpenter. 

Polo players are not all men, either. Women make up the fastest growing segment of the polo playing population. Sometimes women play in special women’s tournaments, such as the Aiken Women’s Challenge, held in Aiken each fall. More usually, women play in tournaments with and against men. Polo is the only contact sport in which men and women regularly play together on an equal basis.

Some polo players are professionals, who make their living playing polo, teaching, or training and selling horses. Other players are dedicated amateurs, who spend much of their spare time riding and playing. Still other players are more casual, playing on weekends or occasional weekdays after work.  

Whatever their level of commitment, all polo players share the special world of polo; a world with its own language, its own worries and preoccupations and its own set of celebrities. They are united by a shared passion for horses, a shared commitment to the sport, and a love for the game, which is like no other game on earth.