At first sight, polo looks fairly simple. However, the written rules of the game, governing all the moves and rights of way, are voluminous. The safety of the ponies and their riders are accorded the highest priority, in addition to balanced, competitive and fluid play.
To give a broad understanding of polo, and make it possible to follow the game, the main rules are outlined below.
The full set of rules of the Hurlingham Polo Association, valid internationally, can be seen via here >>>
RULES IN BRIEF
The earliest official rules of polo originate from England, where they were first established by the Hurlingham Polo Club, founded in 1876. Three years later, the Americans, who had actually discovered the sport of polo for themselves, and had founded the Westchester Polo Club in Newport, Rhode Island, asked the British to write a definitive version of the Hurlingham Rules and to draw up corresponding club rules. These are still valid to this day. The Americans themselves devised the handicap system, which was also adopted by Britain and India in 1910.
Polo can be played on practically any level field of sufficient size. The ground must be firm and constantly maintained (not too moist, too deep or too hard and hence, once again, too slippery). The official international dimensions of a polo field marked out with lines and distance markers (30, 40 and 60 yards to the goal) are 182 metres wide by 274 metres long. However, match organisers are increasingly allowing play on smaller fields. The advantage is that it is easier for spectators to watch. The drawback is slower play, with shorter passes. Polo on snow is always played on smaller fields, as the physical strain of playing winter polo, mostly at higher altitudes, is even greater for the ponies than in summer polo on grass. The goal has uprights but no crossbar, and is 7.3 metres wide.
Each team consists of four players. Number 3 is the captain, who organises the match. Number 4, also known as "back", is responsible for defence, while the other two are attackers. If a team is fielded with more than four players and billed as 'sharing', two players (usually with the same handicap) alternate in one position.
Depending on aptitude, each polo player plays with a handicap ranging from -2 to +10. While the entry level of -2 denotes a beginner, very few players in the world hold the highest possible handicap of +10, and most of these are Argentinians. Around 90 per cent of all polo players have handicaps in the range 0 to +2. The national polo associations review and assign individual players' handicaps annually, according to success in the tournaments. When a team is put together, the handicaps of the four individual players are added up to give the team handicap. Tournaments are advertised in various classes of play (low-, medium- or high-goal), and the team handicaps of the registering teams must correspond to these. If teams of different team handicaps play against each other, the difference is made up by allocating the appropriate number of goals to one team.
Depending on the organisation of the tournament, a polo match consists of four, five or six time units known as chukkas. In Europe, a match normally consists of four chukkas, each lasting 7.5 minutes. The last chukka of the game lasts exactly seven minutes. A pony can be played in no more than two chukkas in any one match, and not in consecutive chukkas. This means that ponies are changed between chukkas. At half-time (generally after two chukkas), there is a five-minute break, during which the public are asked to walk on to the field and "tread in" the divots of turf carved up by the ponies' hooves.
Direction of play
The game has one curious tradition, which always confuses newcomers to polo. Whenever a goal is scored, the direction of play switches. The rule traces its origin to the hotter climes of the empire on which the sun never set. Playing against a low and dazzling sun put one team at a decisive disadvantage. The rule also prevents excessive damage to the turf at the weaker team's goal mouth due to one-way play.
Line of the ball
The fundamental and most important rule of the sport of polo is known as "Right of Way" (ROW). Whenever the ball is in play, a right of way exists and is always deemed to be held by the player who is established on, or at the closest angle to, the Line of the Ball (LOB = the extended path along which the ball has travelled, or is travelling). No other player may enter or cross this ROW. Players may not position or check their ponies over the line if this poses the slightest risk of collision with the player who currently has ROW.
The player with ROW can only lose ROW by being "ridden off" or "hooked". "Hooking" means using the stick to prevent the other player from retrieving or striking the ball. This is done by blocking the opponent's stick during a swing or while the other player is tapping or dribbling the ball. It is forbidden to hook over the body of the opponent's pony. "Riding off" means trying to force an opponent, who is riding parallel, off course by a kind of body check, so that the player can no longer hit the ball. Riding off is allowed, provided it takes place parallel, and not at an angle, to the player who has ROW.
In principle the ball is tapped on the right side of the pony, known as the "offside". Tapping takes place in a forward (offside forehand) or backward (offside backhand) direction.
For a "nearside" play, which takes place on the pony's left side, the player has to twist in the saddle and, holding the stick in his right hand, bring it to the other side of the pony. Nearside forehand and nearside backhand are the corresponding forward and backward plays. "Under the neck" refers to strokes performed in front of, or under the neck of, the pony. Among the trickiest manoeuvres are "round-the-tail" strokes, performed to the rear of the horse.
The polo pony
The present-day polo pony (height 14.5-16 hands, or 155-160 cm) far exceeds pony height. It traces its pedigree back to the crossing of the original Himalayan mountain ponies (13 hands or less - 125-135 cm), the Manipuris of Assam, with English or American thoroughbreds, Arabians and others, especially South American stud horses. The Argentinian polo breed still dominates. These tough little horses are masters of the sudden burst of speed. Brave and pugnacious, they are second to none in agility and alertness.
Equipment and tack
Each player carries a mallet around 150 cm long (lengths and weights vary according to pony height and player preference, and mallets of any elasticity – or "whippiness" – and hence striking power are allowed). The mallet handle is bamboo cane, with a tapered "cigar" head, commonly of Argentine tipuana blanca wood. The handle is fitted with a fabric sling, which is wrapped round the hand for stability during tapping. All players must wear a helmet, preferably with face guard. Leather knee guards are also required. The legs of the ponies themselves are protected from blows and flying balls by soft bandages. Their tails are tied to prevent entanglement with the mallet. Light saddles without knee rolls are used; tack consists of a double rein preventing loss of control if a rein snaps, and helping the pony maintain balance. The breast girth and standing martingale prevent the saddle from slipping and guarantee support for the rider during sudden changes in direction or abrupt stopping.