The Game of Polo

Polo is played in over 15 countries in Africa namely South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Botswana, Uganda, Lesotho, to name but a few. South Africa is the dominant polo playing country in the continent. Polo is a sport synonymous with luxury, but that doesn’t mean only the rich and famous love the game. A full match is typically an hour-and-a-half, divided into seven-minute time periods called chukkas. At the end of each chukka play continues for an additional 30 seconds or until a stoppage in play, whichever comes first. The players – four per team – get three-minute breaks between chukkas and a 15 minute half-time and typically use 2 ponies each in a game. The objective is to put the ball between the goal posts using a mallet, which can be used only on the right side of the horse (sorry left-handers). Players have a handicap that indicates their ability, ranging from minus two (the worst) up to a maximum best of ten. Games are played where both teams’ sum handicaps are weighed up against each other and the team with the lower handicap is given a few goals which will be calculated according to the number of chukkas being played.

As a spectator, you’ll be prompted to take part in the interactive “stomping of the divots” during half-time. This involves walking out to the field and using your shoe to return turf into the holes created by the horses’ hooves. Beware of the “steaming” divot – fresh pile of manure. A polo match is fast and the playing field is large – greater than four rugby fields – and keeping your eye on the ball is difficult at far ends of the field, so if you have binoculars, bring them. The dress code for polo is typically smart casual. For ladies, slacks, skirts and sundresses are the norm, with flat or wedge-heeled shoes – high heels are not recommended, as your heels will sink into the turf, making walking difficult. For gentlemen, a sports jacket is required for those viewing the game from a formal seating area. Hats, sunglasses and binoculars will come handy at a polo match so feel free to bring them. For some ideas on what people are wearing to polo games, search #whattoweartothepolo on Instagram.

The Language Of Polo

Mallet

The shaft is usually made from bamboo cane and the head from a hard wood, although plastic composite shafts are increasingly common. The wide face of the mallet head is used to strike the ball and not the ends, as in croquet. Polo mallets range in length according, principally, to the height of the pony played, and extend from 48 to 54 inches.

Line of the Ball

The imaginary line created by the ball as it travels across the field. The line of the ball may not be crossed or infringed except in exceptional circumstances. This is a pivotal concept on which many fouls or infractions are based and is usually what the umpires are discussing after they have blown the whistle.

Chukka

This is the term used to describe the basic period of play. In polo, each chukka is seven minutes long. At the end of each seven-minute chukka, play continues for an additional 30 seconds or until a stoppage in play, whichever comes first. There are between six and eight chukkas in each match.

Handicap

The comparative rating of polo players awarded by the Polo Association. Handicaps are expressed in goals but do not describe the number of goals the player is expected to score, but rather the player’s value to the team.

Safety

Also known as a Penalty 6, a safety 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.

Time-Out

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.

Goal

A point is added to the score each time the ball travels between the goal posts, whether hit in by attacker, defender or pony. The team’s direction of play changes after each goal is scored.

Foul

This constitutes an infraction of the rules as laid down by the Polo Association. Most fouls govern safe riding and the concept of the line of the ball.

Knock-In

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. It is equivalent to a goal kick in soccer.

Penalties

Fouls result in the umpires awarding a shot at goal (a penalty) to the offended team (the more severe the infringement, the closer to the goalmouth the penalty is awarded).

Hook

One of the two defensive manoeuvres allowed in the rules. In this case the mallet is used to block or interfere with another player’s swing at the ball.

Out-of-Bounds

When the ball is hit out of bounds the clock continues to run and the ball is thrown in by the umpires at that spot.

Ride-Off

A ride-off is used to break an opposing player’s concentration, move them off the line of the ball or spoil their shot.

Referee

The referee is off-field and has the final word in the case of a dispute between the two mounted umpires.

Sideboards

These are nine to eleven inch high vertical boards along the sidelines only. Such sideboards are optional.

Umpires

These are the on-field officials. Mounted on horses, umpires are usually active players responsible for enforcing the rules.