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  • Writer's pictureNWA Polo

Polo 101 and FAQ's

By The United States Polo Association

Polo is one of the oldest team sports in history. Its origin is unknown, but it is said that Persia or Central Asia had a hand in placing the sport on the books about 2000 years ago, using polo as a way to prepare warriors for battle. Polo came to America in 1876 thanks to James Gordon Bennett. The United States Polo Association (USPA) was created in 1890 to coordinate games, standardize the rules and determine the handicaps of players across the country. Today, over 250 active clubs are part of the USPA and host some of the best polo in the world. More information at

The Game

A match consists of 4 to 8 chukkers (periods) that last seven and half minutes. A horn is blown at the end of seven minutes to signal to the players that 30 seconds remain in the period called a "chukker." Each time the whistle is blown the clock stops, signaling that a foul has been committed or that it’s the end of the chukker. During the breaks players switch ponies. After each goal the teams change direction in outdoor polo on grass. Polo is the only sport you must play right handed for safety. Mallets are held in the right hand, reins in the left. Checkout this Polo 101 video!

The Players

There are four players on each team, assigned positions on offense and defense. The number 1 player is the offensive forward, and the number 4 player is the defensive back. Numbers 2 and 3 are considered to be the strongest, most experienced players, number 3 often being the quarterback or field captain, and number 2 being responsible for pushing the play both on offense and defense. Player number 1 covers number 4, and player 2 covers player 3. In arena or stadium polo teams consist of three on three.


A handicap in polo is similar to a rating. The higher a person is rated, the better the player is. Handicaps range from B for beginners to 10. There are only a handful of 10 goal players in the world. Teams are composed of players with certain handicaps to equal the level of the tournament they’re playing in starting at 0-2 goal to 26 goal in S. Florida, and up to 40 goal for the Argentine Open in Buenos Aires.

“A polo handicap is a passport to the world.” - Winston Churchill


Safety on the field can easily be forgotten when your adrenaline is rushing and you’re in the heat of the play. It takes umpires with full knowledge of the game to keep the horses and riders safe. Dangerous plays are the foundation for most fouls, such as crossing in front of the player with the ball or committing an illegal ride-off. Each time the ball is hit, it creates an invisible line, known as “the line of the ball.” The line changes each time the ball is hit, and the players must pay attention and follow that line to avoid fouls.

If a foul occurs, penalty shots are awarded depending on the location where the foul was committed or the severity of the foul. There are usually lines painted on the field to indicate where penalty shots may be taken: midfield, the sixty-yard line, forty-yard line, and thirty-yard line.

Polo Ponies

Webster’s dictionary defines a polo pony as “a horse trained for use as a mount in playing polo and characterized primarily by endurance, speed, courage, and docility. The ponies must be able to release bursts of speed, stop on a dime, turn quickly and accurately, and have the confidence to push another pony to the side. Many polo players describe their best mounts as having big hearts and a feel for the game.

“A polo pony has got to have the speed of a race horse, the tough, quick response of a cow pony and the agility of a show jumper. Then he’s got to have more stamina than any of them.”

- Cecil Smith (10 goals, USA) (1904-2000)


Behind the scenes of polo, a great deal of work needs to be done, and that’s where the grooms come in to help players. Grooms take care of day-to-day responsibilities, such as exercising, feeding, cleaning, tacking, prepping, doctoring, transporting, and simply caring for the polo ponies. During the games, you may find up to five grooms at one trailer. Each groom must be familiar with the horses, have a quiet demeanor, and possess an understanding of tack and the polo players’ preferences. With these skills, polo players are able to focus their energy on the game and know that the next horse will be ready to go out onto the field.

Is Polo a contact sport?

Contact between horses and players is allowed in the form of a ride off or bump as well as a hook to stop the opponent’s mallet from connecting with the ball. There are hundreds of rules in polo to protect the horse and rider. Penalties are made against violators based on the severity of the infraction.

What is the basic strategy?

There are no set plays and each time the ball is hit if creates an imaginary line. Players can’t cross the line at any angle and can be penalized for running over the ball. The rules of the road when driving a vehicle are similar to the rules of playing polo.

Do Women and Children play in exclusive leagues or matches?

Yes and no. Polo players receive a rating or handicap similar to a gold handicap but on a scale of B to 10 goals. Most amateurs are A or 0 goal players. Competitions are offered at various levels and teams made among

friends both amateur and professional to meet a specific need so knowledge of the game, skill and horses/mounts are taken into account over gender or age. There are some specific events for juniors at the middle school, high school and college level, as well as for female players such as the Women’s Championship Tournament. See for more info.

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