The 2500 year-old game of polo is one of the fastest, exciting, and most skillful sports played today. It is gaining increasing popularity as a premier spectator sport and can be an easy game for the first-time spectator to enjoy. Imagine the excitement of seeing players on thoroughbred horses bumping and jostling with each other, like hockey on horseback, racing at top speeds down the field while striking a small ball with the precision of an experienced golfer. Here are a few basic facts to help you watch the game:
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.
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 six 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.
Although there are many rules to the game of polo, the primary concept to which all rules are dedicated is safety, for the player and his mount.
The right-of-way rule is defined by a player’s position relative to the direction of travel of the ball when hit. Once hit, an imaginary line is drawn from the player to the ball, and extended ahead of the ball in the direction that it is traveling towards. This imaginary line can not be crossed by other players. In general, play will flow backward and forward, parallel to the imaginary line extended ahead of, and behind, the ball. This rule creates safe traffic patterns that enable the participants to play at top speeds and to avoid dangerous collisions.
The line of the ball may not be crossed except under special circumstances and only in such a way as to legitimately gain control of the ball. When a player has the line of the ball on his right, he has the right-of-way. This can only be taken away by “riding off” and moving the player off the line of the ball by making shoulder-to-shoulder contact.
Strategy and anticipation are two of the most important elements in polo and usually come with experience. For the spectator, keep an eye on the horses. The speed and athletic abilities of both the horse and rider are spectacular. All of these elements combined, make the fast-paced action of polo one of the most exciting and demanding sports in the world.