For thousands of years, polo was the game of the elite class, essentially, those who were skillful, lucky or rich enough, owned a horse, and, were invited to compete in prestigious events. This competition was often a practical assessment of finely-honed military skills, but, over the millennia, the bravery, spirit and tactical excitement of the gameplay changed this cavalry spectacle into an entertaining sport.
Polo has grown from its martial past into the elegant, refined and sophisticated sport we see today, but, without a doubt, the goal of this team sport is to win, win, win! Once the game starts, it’s a pure rush of adrenaline energy for the horses, the riders and even the spectators.
There are two teams of four set against each other. To win, your team must score the most goals. The goal posts are 8 yards wide on both ends of a 300 yard by 160 yard field. Goals are scored by hitting a wooden or plastic ball through the opposing team’s goal posts using a long handled polo mallet. The game is played outside, so, to avoid unfair advantages due to the weather or terrain, the team’s goal is switched after every goal is made. There are 6 rounds, or chukkas, in a game, each chukka lasting 7 minutes , with a 4 minute break between chukkas, and a 10 minute halftime. During these breaks, fresh horses are prepared to go for the next chukka, and the rider takes a well-deserved rest, for the gameplay is non-stop and requires relentless effort from both horse and rider.
The game begins with the two teams facing off against each other at the midline of the playing field. The action starts when the umpire throws the ball out between the two teams. The four members of a team traditionally have these unique roles: (player 1) purely offensive, riding near the opposing team’s goal, (player 2) offensive and defensive, providing support for both scoring and preventing goals, (player 3) the team captain, providing roving tactical support, usually the best overall player with the best swinging power, and, (player 4) purely defensive, guarding the team’s goal.
Obviously, some equestrians are better at the game than others, so, to even the odds, a handicap number between minus 2 and 10 is assigned to every player, thus, a player with a score of 10 would be virtually unstoppable. Each team’s handicap is totaled. The team that has the lowest handicap is awarded the difference in team handicaps – it’s as if they already scored those goals before the game began.
During chukkas, gameplay is continuous, except for occasional timeouts for penalties, broken equipment, injuries or out-of-bounds replay. Penalties are using your mallet to interfere with an opponent’s swing, or, using your horse to bump an opponent away from the ball at too direct an angle (anything more than 45 degrees is too dangerous). A penalty shot is given to the fouled team, taken at a variety of distances depending upon the severity of the foul.
To the beginning spectator, the game appears to be centered on the moment-to-moment tactics of chasing after the ball. This is often true enough, but with more observation, one can see that success in the game also revolves around the subtleties of long-range strategies, such as maintaining correct positioning on the field. Polo games have fast-paced and unpredictable action, as well as clever preplanning, all contributing to the enjoyment of playing or watching an undeniably exciting game.