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Des Moines Polo Club

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Equipment and Protection

The Basics of Polo


Many standards and rules used in the game of Polo have evolved over time. Often time those standards are based on keeping the game safe for both the players and their polo ponies. Initially, the speed of the game was kept in check, and there was also a height limit of 14.2 hands for the polo ponies. Both of these rules have been abolished.


Four- player teams were established when it was found to be the safest number on the field. Seven minute chukkers were established after veterinarians determined that most injuries to horses were happening after that length of time. There are six chukkers in a game. The rules allow 3 minutes between chukkers and a 10-minute break at half time, but this can vary if it's really hot outside. If all players agree, they'll take longer breaks between chukkers as needed. An average game will last about 1½ hours.


In the upper Midwest, the polo season runs from May through September. Detailed rules for the Game of Polo can be found at the U.S. Polo Association website.


The horse equipment (tack) consists of an English saddle, a saddle pad, heavy-duty girth straps, stirrups, a breast strap, a bit and bridle, and two sets of reins. The horse’s tails are braided and tied up to avoid getting caught in the mallet, and their manes are usually shaved to keep the player’s left hand from tangling in it. Players are required to wrap the pony’s lower legs to protect them from contact with the ball and mallets, and for tendon support. Many people also use support boots on horses.


The importance of horseshoes and the kind worn is widely debated in the world of Polo, but they are worth mention. We won’t go into the many type of shoes there are, nor the way a horse's hoof is trimmed, but there aren't many people who ride horses for any reason who won’t agree that a horse is only as good as it’s feet. Every polo player we know pays close attention to, and takes vigilant care of his or her horses feet and legs.


The player’s equipment consists of a helmet, face guards, tall leather riding boots and knee pads are worn as protection from the ball. Knee pads are important for protection from bumps or ride-offs. Helmets are rated for concussion protection, and to withstand the weight of a horse rolling over one's head in the event of a fall. During games and tournaments, most players wear white pants or “whites”, and in competition each team member will wear shirts or jerseys of the same color. Polo mallets range in length from 48 to 54 inches long. The shaft of the mallet is usually made from bamboo and the head is made from a hard wood. The ball is 3 to 3 ½ inches in diameter, 3 ½ to 4 ½ ounces in weight, and is made of a hard plastic. It isn’t unusual for a good player to hit the ball over 150 yards in the air – at over 100 mph.


The field is a 300 x 200 yard field which covers 12 acres (although a field can be as narrow as 160 yards and still be considered regulation.) A polo field is equal to 12 football fields.


The object of the game is to hit the ball through the opposing team's goal posts. Many people see similarities between polo and soccer or hockey, but in polo you DON'T chase the ball. You must have the right to go to the ball because you were first to establish yourself on the line the ball makes as it travels. You must beat someone to the ball, or "take a man out" to earn the right to go to the ball, or you must establish yourself where you think the next hit is going to go. Once a polo ball is hit, or even kicked by a horse, it forms a line– all rules revolve around the line. Each team has a handicap (see Glossary for a better explanation). If one team has a higher handicap than the other, the team with the higher rating must give the team with the lower rating the difference between them to start the game. (i.e.: A four goal handicapped team must give a two goal handicapped team 2 goals to start.) Conditioning of the horses is critical. Stopping and turning is more important than open field speed. Those who keep themselves and their horses in good shape during the playing season not only play better, but are less likely to be injured. A player who rides in all six chukkers of a game will ride a minimum of 3 different horses, and many players will use up to six different mounts. A player will gallop between 11 and 15 miles during a polo game, but the starting, stopping, and ride-offs use more energy than galloping. In the heat of the summer this can be hard on horses and riders alike, so its helpful to have more horses if you want to keep up. To reduce the risk of accident or injury, a player should save his horse by slowing down when it shows fatigue. Polo is a sport requiring good riding skills. Even with years of practice, the horse is still a 75%-80% factor in your ability to be a good player. The horse makes all the difference!









A polo ball is about 3 1/4 inches in diameter and weighs around 4 ounces. Though originally made of bamboo root, most balls today are made of plastic.



A swing taken using a backward motion.



A player is permitted to ride into another player to spoil his shot. The angle of collision must be slight, causing no more than a jar. The faster the horse travels, the smaller the angle must be. 



Also called a period. There are 6 chukkers in a polo game, each lasting 7 minutes. A horn is to sound when 30 second remain in the chukker, and again at the end of the period when the Umpire is to blow his whistle.


Flagger/Goal Judge

A person who observes the goal area and signals whether the goal is good or not by waving a flag over the head if a goal is scored, or under the waist if no goal has been made.



Officially 300 yards long by 160 yards wide if it is outlined by side boards. If there are no boards, the field can be up to 200 yards wide. The field requires approximately 9 acres. Goal posts are 24 feet apart, and should be collapsible upon severe impact. The field should be marked in the center, as well as at the 30, 40 and 60-yard lines.



A shot hit forward or laterally using a forward swing of the mallet.



Any infringement of the Rules of Polo in which an umpire may stop the game and impose a penalty. Some things considered fouls might be: Crossing the line of the ball in such a way that one interferes with the Right of Way of another player; reaching over or under another players mount; stopping on the ball in a way that interferes with play; bumping at a speed or angle which could endanger players and horses, etc.



When a ball crosses completely over the line between the goal posts, it is considered a goal regardless of who (including ponies) knocks it through. It must also be completely within the inner vertical line of the goal post. To equalize wind and turf conditions, teams change sides after every scored goal.



All registered players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (the higher the better). The word "goal" usually follows the number when stating a player's handicap, but it bears no relationship to the number of goals a player might score in a game. Each player's handicap is determined yearly by a governing board in his/her Circuit, following USPA guidelines. A team's handicap is the sum total of its player's ratings, and if one team's handicap is higher than their opponent, they must give the difference in their rating to the other team. A 6-goal team would give a 4-goal team two goals to start the game.



A player may spoil another's shot by putting his mallet in the way of the striking player. A crook hook occurs when the player reaches over his opponent's mount in an attempt to hook and this is considered a foul.



When the opposing team hits the ball across the opponent's backline, the defending team knocks the ball back into play from their backline.


Line of the ball

An imaginary straight line created by the ball when it is hit.



Also known as a "stick", the shaft is usually made from a bamboo shoot, and the head from bamboo root or a hard wood such as maple. Mallets vary in length from 48 to 54 inches and they are quite flexible. The ball is struck with the side of the mallet head, not the end of the head as in crochet.



The left-hand side of the horse.


Neck shot

When a player hits a ball under the horse's neck from either side.



The right-hand side of the horse.



Penalties are identified by numbers from 1 thru 10 and are determined by the Umpires based on the severity of the foul. 1-An automatic goal. 2-A free hit from 30 yards to an undefended goal. 3-A free hit from 40 yards to an undefended goal. 4-A free hit from 60 yards to a defended goal. 5-A free hit from the point of infraction or from midfield. 6-Safety (see Safety)



The best polo ponies are thought to be of Thoroughbred blood and whose qualities are heart, speed, wind, stamina and the ability to accelerate, stop and turn quickly, and whose temperament is amenable to the rigors of the game. There are no longer height limits for the horses, though most are between 15 and 15.3 hands. The ponies are generally between 5 and 15 years old. Bandages (polo wraps) and often boots are used on the horses legs and feet for support and protection. Many players think that the ponies account for up to 80 percent of the game.



Each of the four team members plays a distinctly different position. Since polo is such a fluid game, the players may momentarily change positions, but will try to quickly return to their initial assignment. No. 1 is the most forward offensive player. No. 2 is just as offensive but plays deeper and works harder. No. 3 is the pivot player between offense and defense and tries to turn all players to offense. No. 4 or Back, is the defensive player who principal role is to protect the goal.


Right of Way

Between 2 or more players in close proximity to the ball, there is an area ahead of each player in the direction he is riding which is his Right of Way.


Ride off

When two players make contact and attempt to push each other off the line to prevent the other from striking the ball. The horses are the ones intended to do the pushing, though a player may use his body but not his elbows.


Safety (Penalty No. 6.)

When a defending player hits the ball over his own backline, the other team is awarded a free hit from the 60-yard line at a point equal distance from the sideline as where the ball crossed the backline.


Sudden Death

In the event of a tie score at the end of the last chukker, there is a 5-10 minute intermission to allow players to change mount before beginning a "sudden death" chukker or chukkers in which the first team to score wins the match.


Tail shot

Hitting the ball behind and under the horse's rump.


Throw-in/ Bowl-in

A chukker begins, and many plays resume when the umpire bowls the ball between the two ready teams.


Timekeeper and Scorekeeper

Official games will have a timekeeper and a scorekeeper though they are often the same person. The timekeeper starts the clock when the Umpire bowls in the ball at the beginning of the chukker. Time does not stop unless the Umpire blows the whistle, nor does it stop when there is a goal or when the ball goes out of bounds. A stopped time clock will not resume again until the Umpire throws the ball back into play, a player hits it in from out of bounds or a player hits a penalty shot.


Time out

An umpire may call a time out by blowing his whistle, when a foul is committed, an accident occurs, or at his/her discretion. A player may only call a time out if he has broken tack or is injured. No time out is allowed for changing horses or replacing broken polo mallets, though a player may do either at any time.



Two mounted officials, one for each side of the field are the Umpires. The Referee, often called the Third Man sits at the sidelines near center field. If two umpires are in disagreement on a foul or penalty, the third man or referee makes the final decision.


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