What is Polo? All you need to know…

History of Polo

One of the oldest known sports in the world, Polo originated in Persia over 2000 years ago. The game as we know it today originates from India in the 1800s, where British soldiers saw the game being played locally and adapted it for training cavalry riders. The sport is now played across the world, and was an Olympic sport from 1900 to 1936, with Argentina being the reigning champions.

Types of Polo

In the summer polo is played on grass fields measuring the size of three football pitches (274m x 146m) and is called polo! Polo played in the winter is called ‘arena polo’ and is played in outdoor boarded arenas. The arena at Westcroft is one of the largest in the UK, measuring is 100m x 50 x 1.83m .

Polo Ponies

Termed ‘ponies’, these are in fact horses measuring above 14.2 hands. Most are of the Argentinean Criollo breed or pure or cross thoroughbreds. Their main qualities are speed, stamina, steadiness and strength; the ability to accelerate, stop and turn quickly; and temperaments that are amenable to the game. There is no height limit for the ponies, although most are between 15 and 15.3 hands. Bandages or leg wraps are used for support and protection. Players admit that the pony can account for as much as 70% of their overall performance. Polo ponies generally begin their training as yearlings and start playing at the ages of 5-7 depending on the pony. The breeding and training program at Westcroft is at the forefront of the club supplying ponies worldwide for patrons and professionals as well as for the club itself, members and out polo school and academy.

Pony Equipment

Known as tack, the polo pony wears a bridle over its head, attached to a bit in its mouth.  There are two types of bits, a gag bit and pelham bit. A gag bit is a circular bit used at the side of the horse to pull the head up during stopping. A pelham bit acts like a lever and chain arrangement that is used to pull the head down while stopping.

The martingale is a strap attached from the bridle to the girth and the girth and is used to hold the saddle on the horse. The double set of reins are attached to the bridle positioned in between the riders left hand and the saddle. The player sits on the saddle which has stirrups attached to it, ideally the player keeps their feet in the stirrups! Polo ponies also wear bandages or tendon boots for support and protection. They have their tails braided so there is no danger in being tangled in the polo stick and have their manes hogged (shaved).

Player Equipment

Polo helmet, protective glasses, white polo jeans for tournaments (anything goes for practice chukkas), gloves, knee and elbow pads, sticks (mallets) and balls. The shaft of the sticks are made from bamboo cane and the head from a hard wood, The wide face of the stick head is used to strike the ball and not the ends, as in croquet. Sticks range in length according, principally, to the height of the pony played, and extend from 48 to 54 inches. Summer polo balls are white and made of plastic, arena polo balls are larger and orange more like a small football.


The Basic Rules of Polo

The aim of the game is to score more goals than the opposing team. Scoring is simple, a point (known as a goal) is scored when the ball is hit through the goal. If the game is drawn, an additional chukka is played and the first goal wins. If nobody scores in this, another chukka is played in which the goalposts are widened and the first to score wins. Each team has four players, made up of attackers and defenders.


  • Position 1 is an attacking position, whose primary aim is to score, when defending they have the responsibility of blocking the opposition’s position 3 player.
  • Position 2 plays important roles in attacking and defending.
  • Position 3, often filled by the best player in the team, is a tactical attacking position; players must accurately hit the ball up field to the position 1 and 2 players.
  • Position 4 is a defensive position, tasked with defending the team’s goal.
  • Realistically all members of the team are expected to be flexible and make play whether offensive or defensive as necessary. 


  • The goalposts are 8 yards apart and open at the top so goals can be scored at any height.
  • A Polo match consists of 4 to 8 chukkas (determined before the match), each chukka lasting 7 minutes of actual play.
  • To begin the umpire throws the ball in between the two teams (in a line up). This is how play is restarted after a goal is scored too.
  • When a goal is scored teams change ends, which helps to equalise any ground or weather advantages.
  • The fundamental rule in polo is the line of the ball, which establishes who has right of way, to keep the game safe. This line changes when the ball changes direction and players can only cross the line if deemed safe.
  • Players may challenge opposing players by ‘riding them off’, where a player rides their pony alongside their opponent’s and attempts to move them away from the line of the ball or even take them out of play.
  • Players may also hook an opponent’s stick when they are swinging to hit the ball.
  • Following a foul, a free hit to the opposition may be awarded.
  • Ponies can play two chukkas, however, must have a break of at least one chukka in between.
  • Players are handicapped on their ability (-2 – 10 goals), teams with a lower overall handicap are given a goal advantage to start.

Can you learn to play? YES, book yourself in for a lesson with one of our HPA qualified coaches and begin your polo fun!

Polo Terminology

Hired Assassin 

A professional player!


An amateur player who pays to put a team together, which is usually made up of at least two professionals and is normally named by the patron.


There are six chukkas (periods) in high handicap matches, each lasting seven minutes plus up to 30 seconds of overtime. If, during the extra 30 seconds, the ball hits the sideboards or goes out of bounds, or if the umpire blows his whistle for a foul, the chukka is over. There is no overtime at the end of the final chukka unless the score is tied. Players return to the field each chukka with a fresh pony. Chukka comes from the Indian word for a circle or round.


1 -2 mounted umpires who regulate the game usually wearing black and white striped shirts.

Goal Judge

An unofficial goal observer appointed to signal a goal (flag over head) or no-goal (flag under waist). Goal judges are positioned behind each goal to signal whether a goal has been scored. Hard hats are worn for protection.


All players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (the higher the better). Although the word ‘goal’ is often used after the rating, it bears no relation to the number of goals a player scores in a match, but to his overall playing ability. A player’s horsemanship, range of strokes, speed of play, team and game sense are the factors considered in determining his handicap. The team handicap is the sum of its players’ handicaps. (2 x 4 ÷ 6) In handicap matches of six chukkas, the team with the lower handicap is awarded the difference in goals at the start of the game. For example, a 26-goal team would give two goals start to a 24-goal team. For matches other than six chukkas, the side with the lower handicap starts with a number of goals start according to the following formula. The difference in the teams handicaps is multiplied by the number of chukkas to be played and then divided by six. Fractions count as half a goal. For example, a 26 goal team would give a 24 goal team 11/2 goals start in a four chukka match.

Low goal 

Teams with a total handicap of 4-8 goals.

Medium goal 

Teams with a total handicap of 12-15 goals.

High Goal 

Teams with a total handicap from 17-24 goals. It is the highest level of official tournament polo played in the United Kingdom

Line of the Ball 

‘Crossing the line’ is the most frequent foul in polo. The line of the ball, namely the imaginary line along which the ball travels, represents a right of way for the player following nearest that line. There are strict rules governing opponents entry in to the right of way, in order to minimise the risk of collisions.

Your Line” 

Words often heard shouted by players to a team-mate indicating that he has, rather than an opponent, the principal right of way to the ball.


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!


The back lines of a polo pitch. Teams change ends, i.e. switch the halves they defend, each time a goal is scored in order to equalise wind and turf conditions.


The left-hand side of the pony


The right-hand side of the pony.


When the umpire starts or resumes play by rolling the ball down the centre of a line up of players.


Two riders may make contact and push each other off the line to prevent the other from striking the ball. It is primarily intended for the ponies to do the pushing, but a player is allowed to use his body, but not his elbows.


A player is permitted to ride off another to spoil his shot or to remove him from the play. The angle of contact must be no more than 45 degrees. The faster the pony travels, the smaller the angle must be.


The move whereby a player uses their mallet to block or interfere with an opponent’s swing by hooking the mallet of the other player with their own mallet. A player may only hook if he/she is on the side where the swing is being made or directly in front or behind an opponent.


A ball which is hit under the pony’s neck.


Hitting the ball behind and under the pony’s rump.

Millionaire’s Shot 

A shot at the ball by an inexpert player, when the ball is very close to the legs of the pony or under the belly of the pony. So called because a high degree of skill and timing is required for both shots, if the legs of the pony are to avoid being struck and in turn injured.


When a ball goes over the sideboards in summer polo, it is considered out-of- bounds. The umpire throws the ball in between the two teams lined up at the point at which it left the field of play.


Called by an umpire when a foul is committed, an accident occurs or at his discretion. A player may call time-out if he has broken a key piece of tack or is injured. Time-out is not permitted for changing ponies or for replacing a broken mallet, although a player may do so at any time.


A free hit towards 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 as follows:
Penalty 1: Automatic goal
Penalty 2: 30 yards to an open goal
Penalty 3: 40 yards to an open goal
Penalty 4: 60 yards to a defended goal
Penalty 5: from anywhere on the ground
Penalty 5B: from the centre of the ground

Penalty 6

This is awarded when a defending player hits the ball over his own backline, the shot is taken 60 yards out from the backline, opposite the point at which the ball went over. It is equivalent to a corner in soccer and no defender can be nearer than 30 yards from the ball when it is played.


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.


Three- minutes long rest periods between chukkas. Half time is five minutes.

Extra -Time 

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 a fresh mount before beginning a sudden-death chukka. The first team to score wins. In extra time, the goal area is usually widened by moving the goal posts an extra 8 yards apart.

Bell or hooter 

This is situated off the side of the field and is rung by the timekeeper to inform umpires when seven minutes of play in a chukka have elapsed.


Divots are turf kicked up by ponies’ hooves on the polo fields, which are traditionally trodden in by spectators during half-time.  


These are the titles awarded to Best Playing Pony and Most Valued Player in a tournament, for which traditionally the pony receives a rug and the player a prize.


Polo Terminology

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