The ultimate bluffer’s guide to polo

  • Heading to a polo match is a wonderful way to spend a sunny summer’s afternoon, especially when a glass of chilled Champagne of Pimms is involved, but few equestrian disciplines can cause as much confusion as polo.

    For everyone who may be heading to a game for the first time this season, or even thinking about giving it a try themselves, we bring you a bluffer’s guide to the basics…

    1. How many riders make up a polo team?

    In normal grass polo, played in the summer, a team consists of four players (in the winter version, played in an arena, there are three). There will however, be 10 riders and horses on the field during a game – the two wearing black and white are the umpires.

    The pro-am format, where a lower-ranked team ‘patron’ employs three professionals to play alongside, is common for the major tournaments of the British season, with the Queen’s Cup and the Gold Cup the most prestigious two. For international games, such as the Coronation Cup, held on the HPA’s International Day in July, national teams comprise four professionals.

    2. What on earth do handicaps mean?

    Every player is ranked from -2 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest), and handicaps are referred to in ‘goals’, even though they bear no relevance to the number of actual goals a player might score. The vast majority of players in the UK are ranked zero goals or below, with the top British pros holding handicaps up to seven. Very few players reach the lofty echelons of a 10 — there are currently just eight 10-goalers worldwide, and all of them are South American.

    In 2017 the Hurlingham Polo Association introduced a parallel handicapping system, allowing top players to hold a normal handicap, and a handicap specifically for the highest level tournaments, which may be different.

    The team handicap is the aggregate of the four players’ handicaps, which determines the level of the match, eg 22-goal.

    3. So, how does a polo match work, exactly?

    A match is split into seven-minute playing intervals, called chukkas. The number of chukkas that make up a match vary depending on the level of the game — at the very top level a match can comprise eight chukkas, but in UK polo six are more common at the higher levels. Breaks between chukkas are just three minutes long, with five minutes at half-time.

    The aim of the game is to put the ball between — or above — the opposing team’s goal posts. There is no restriction on which players are allowed to score goals. If you’re not sure whether a ball went in or not — it can be hard to tell — look out for the goal judge standing behind each set of posts, who will wave a flag if a goal has been scored.

    4. Hang on, but which direction are each team aiming to score in?

    Teams change ends after every goal that is scored, to account for advantages due to wind or terrain. If no goals are scored by half-time, teams will change ends then. Make sure you pay attention!

    5. Wait, why have the horses changed?

    Firstly, in polo all horses are known as ponies despite their size (there is no height restriction; most will be around 15.2hh). Players will ride several ponies during the course of a match, with each pony allowed to play a maximum of two chukkas in total, with a chukka break in between. At the higher levels, players will change ponies midway through chukkas too, such is the intensity of the action. Look out for players swapping swiftly from one to the other without dismounting!

    6. Are the players really allowed to ride into each other?

    The ride-off is a classic, recognizable polo move where a player will attempt to push an opponent and his pony off the line of the ball — which gives them right of way. A ride-off may only take place when the ponies are travelling at the same speed, and are shoulder to shoulder with each other. Pulling in front of another player or riding across the line on which the ball in travelling is not allowed, and nor is “sandwiching” an opponent between two players.

    7. I never realised how big a polo field is!

    Most people don’t! A full size polo field measures 275 x 146m — for comparison, a football pitch has a maximum size of 120 x 90m. You might want to bring binoculars…

    8. So, what time is Ricky France-Lynch going be arriving?

    Sadly, we can’t guarantee the presence of Jilly Cooper’s dashing polo hero, but we’re sure you’ll enjoy the day nonetheless.

    For all the latest news analysis, competition reports, interviews, features and much more, don’t miss Horse & Hound magazine, on sale every Thursday.

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