Polo, often referred to as “The Sport of Kings” is played on a large grass field measuring 300 yards long by 150 yards wide (nine American football fields would fit in one polo field!) Each team consists of 4 players and their horses. The game (or match-both terms are used) lasts about two hours and is divided into six 7-minute periods called chukkers (or Chukkas outside the U.S.).
The horses are referred to as ‘polo ponies’, even though they are full-sized horses, ranging from 14.2 to 16 hands high at the withers, and weigh 900–1100lbs. Most are Thoroughbreds or Thoroughbred crosses.
Each player brings 6-8 horses to the field per game, so there are anywhere from 48-64 horses present at any high-goal match-more when you include the 4 umpire horses (the two umpires on the field each change horses at half-time). Typically, players change horses in between chukkers, before that if the horse is fatigued.
Tournaments are assigned goal levels. In a 20-goal tournament for example, this means that the handicaps of the four players on each team add up to 20 (or below). This keeps teams competitive and even, but because player handicaps change from year to year, team members also change frequently.
The "throw- in" by an umpire puts the ball in play, and once a goal is scored, play changes direction so that no team has an unfair advantage (i.e. wind, sun, etc). There are rules about how play is conducted, and the umpires are there to regulate the play. Players must hold their mallets in their right hands. Goals can be scored at any height as long as the ball is between the two goal posts. A “flagger” standing behind the goal either waves a flag back and forth up in the air (this mean a goal has been scored), or the flagger waves the flag back and forth near the ground (which means the ball went over the back line outside of the goal mouth). The score at the end of the sixth chukker determines the winner. If tied, a seventh chukker will be played until either team scores a goal, at which point that team wins.
The highest level of polo played in the United States is 26-goal, and is played during March and April at the International Polo Club in Palm Beach. Argentina is the mecca for polo and Buenos Aires hosts the highest level and most prestigious tournament in the world, the Argentine Open, a 40-goal tournament played during November and December of every year.
BUMP: A player is permitted to ride into another player so as to spoil his shot. The angle of collision must be slight, posing no serious danger to horses or riders.
CHUKKER: There are six chukkers, or periods, in a full-length outdoor game, four in arena polo. Each lasts seven minutes. There is no overtime at the end of the last chukker unless the score is tied, in which case a seventh period will be played.
GOAL: Any time the ball crosses the line between the goalposts, it is considered a goal-regardless of whether the ball was knocked by a mallet or kicked by a pony. The teams change sides after a goal is scored.
HANDICAP: Handicaps in polo range from -2 to 10 “goals,” with 10 being the best. A player who is playing above his handicap level (i.e. 3 playing as a 5) is known as a ringer and is a very valuable but short-lived commodity, as handicaps are assessed and revised twice a year.
HOOK: A player can interfere with another’s shot by putting his mallet in the way of the striker’s swing. If the player reaches across his opponent’s mount to hook, it’s called a cross-hook and considered a foul.
LINE OF THE BALL: This is the concept governing traffic on the filed: The ball creates an imaginary line as it travels, and the player or players established in this line have the right of way.
NEAR SIDE: The left-hand side of a horse.
OFF SIDE: The right-hand side of a horse.
PENALTY: When a foul is committed, the fouled team gets a free hit toward the offender’s goal. The type of penalty shot awarded depends on the severity of the foul.
RIDE-OFF: This is when one player makes contact with another and attempts to push him off the line of the ball to prevent his hitting the ball.
SAFETY: (Penalty 6) When a defending player hits the ball across his own back=line, the other team is awarded a free hit 60 yards from the back line.
SIDEBOARDS: These 9- to 11-inch boards along the sides of the field are optional; they contain the ball to an extent. A player can cross the boards and remain in play, but if the ball hops over them, it’s out of bounds.
THIRD MAN: If and when the umpires disagree on a call, they refer to the “third man,” or referee sitting on the sidelines.
THROW-IN: A chukker begins (and sometimes play resumes) with the umpire bowling the ball between the two teams.
TIME-OUT: An umpire calls a time-out when a foul is committed, when an accident occurs or at his own discretion. A player may only call a time-out if his tack is broken or he is injured. No time-out is allowed for changing mounts or replacing broken mallets during a chukker, although the player may do so whenever necessary.
UMPIRES: Two mounted umpires control the game, enforce the rules and guard the safety of players and ponies.