Polo is played on a ten acre grass field, 300 yards in length by 160 yards, which is the approximate area of ten football fields.
Goal posts are set eight yards apart on either end of the field. The object of the game is to move the ball down-field, hitting the ball through the goal for a score. The team with the most scores at the end of the match is deemed the winner.
Teams change direction after each goal.
Two teams, made up of four players each, are designated by shirt color. The players wear high boots, knee guards, and a helmet. The ponies wear protective bandages and boots to shield them from the ball or the mallet. By tradition, players wear white pants in tournaments.
The mallet, made of a bamboo shaft with a hardwood head, is the instrument used to hit the polo ball.
The polo ball was formerly made of wood but is now plastic. It is about 3 to 3 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 ounces in weight. In fact, the English word POLO is derived from the Tibetan word, “pulu” meaning ball.
The surface of a polo field requires careful and constant grounds maintenance to keep the field in good playing condition. During half-time of a match, spectators are invited to go onto the field to participate in a polo tradition called “divot stomping”, which has developed to not only help replace the mounds of earth (divots) that are torn up by the horse’s hooves, but to also afford spectators the opportunity to walk about and socialize
There are four periods or “chukkers” in a match. Each chukker is seven minutes long. Play begins with a throw-in of the ball by the umpire at the opening of each chukker, and after each goal. Only penalties or injuries may stop play as there are no time-outs or substitutions allowed (except for tack repair). The four basic shots in polo are distinguished by the side of the pony on which strokes or shots are made. That is “near-side”, left side of the mount, and “off-side” right side of the mount. This creates the near-side forward, and back shot, and the off-side forward and back shot. Shots can also be made under the pony’s neck, across his tail, or the difficult under the belly shot, all variations of the basic shots.
A team is made up of four players, each wearing a jersey with numbers 1 to 4, which corresponds to their assigned position. Number 1 is the most offensive player, concentrating on opportunities for scoring. Number 4 is the defensive player, primarily responsible for defending his/her team’s goal. Usually, the most experienced and highest-rated players are at positions 2 and 3, with the pivotal player being number 3, who must serve as an effective field captain, or quarter back. The number 3 coordinates the offense, and passing the ball up field to his teammates as they press toward the enemy goal. Each player is also assigned an opponent to cover on defense and must be prepared to shift offensive and defensive modes and to make any play that will benefit his team.
Each player is assigned an individual handicap on the ascending basis of C, B, A (-2 thru 0) and 1 thru 10. This Handicap reflects the player’s ability and his value to the team. The higher the handicap the better the player (which is opposite to golf). There are only a few 10-Goal players in the World.
The team handicap is the combined handicaps of the four players. The team with the lesser handicap is granted the difference in goals (or points) prior to the start of the match. For that reason, a match may well have a “score” before based on team handicaps, prior to the start of the game. Player handicaps are evaluated and revised annually by the United States Polo Association. Handicapping is a subjective evaluation of the individual’s horsepower, game sense, hitting ability, and overall value to a team.
The polo ponies are central to the success of any team. They are primarily thoroughbred, often with race track experience, and considered the most athletic of equine performers because of their requirements to sprint, stop, turn and accelerate to open speed for seven minutes in duration. Although they are called “ponies”, they are actually small horses (average height 15 – 16 hands high). Players must change mounts after each chukker due to extreme demands placed on the pony. Therefore, a team usually has a minimum of 16 horses available during the match.
Most horses can be trained to play polo, however training horses to learn the game should only be taken on by experienced polo players. Beginner and intermediate players are much better off buying an already trained polo pony. Costs for ponies vary, depending on the pony’s age and the level of polo you want to play them in. A good low-goal polo pony for a beginner or intermediate rider usually costs around $10,000 Canadian.
Possibly the oldest team sport, polo’s genesis is lost to the eye of history. An Asiatic game, polo was probably first played on a barren campground by nomadic warriors over two thousand years ago. Valuable for training Calvary, the game was played from Constantinople to Japan by the Middle Ages. Known in the East as the Game of Kings, Tamer Lane’s polo grounds can still be seen in Samarkand. British tea planters in India witnessed the game in the early 1800’s but it was not until the 1850’s that the British Calvary drew up the earliest rules and by the 1869’s the game was well established in England. James Gordon Bennett, a noted American publisher; balloonist, and adventurer, was captivated by the sport and brought it to New York in 1876 where it caught on immediately. Within ten years, there were major clubs all over the east, including Newport and Long Island.
Over the next 50 years, polo achieved extraordinary popularity. By the 1930’s polo was in the midst of a Golden Age – it was an Olympic sport and crowds in excess of 30,000 regularly attended international matches at Meadow Brook Polo Club on Long Island. The galloping game produced athletes who would doubtless have achieved greatness in any sport: Cecil Smith, the Texas cowboy, who held a perfect 10 goal rating for a still-record 25 years; Devereux Melbourne, instrumental in formulating modern styles of play; and Tommy Hitchcock, war hero, and the best of the best in international competition for two decades.
Polo is an international sport. Played during the summer season in Canada and at Hurlingham, England, the fall season at Palermo in Buenos Aires, and the winter season at Palm Beach or Palm Desert, 30 to 40 teams will be manned by players from the Untied States, Argentina, Zimbabwe, Canada, New Zealand, Pakistan, Mexico, France, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain, and a dozen other polo playing countries. For over 30 years the Argentines have been preeminent in the sport, but explosive growth in players and the availability of good horses is honing the competitive abilities of challengers from many
Learning to play polo is not as daunting as it may seem, in fact many of our members have learned to both ride and play as adults. While the Toronto Polo Club does not operate a polo school, we can recommend several facilities that are managed by our club members where you can learn how to play on safe school horses. Riding experience is not necessary. Many of these facilities offer “introductory polo clinics” where you can try it out and see if polo is the sport for you.
Once you know the basic rules and are able to safely play polo at club level you may apply for membership to the Toronto Polo Club. Please contact [email protected] to apply as a new member.