Polo for the Spectator – An Insight into the Rules

What makes polo such a special spectator sport is that you don’t have to be familiar with the rules, allowing you to take in the thrill and excitement of one of the fastest team sports in the world. The following information is designed to give you an insight into the finer parts of the game of polo.

The Game

The aim of the game is to score more goals than your opposing team! Play starts initially, and after each goal, with an umpire throwing the ball among the players in the middle of the ground. Ends are changed after each goal – this has been found to be the fairest way for teams not to be disadvantaged by wind or slopes on the pitch! When the ball goes out of play over the sides of the ground, teams line up side by side five yards back and the ball is thrown in.

If the ball crosses the back line, being last touched by the attacking team, the defending team takes a free hit from where the ball crossed the line. Should the defending team hit the ball over the back line a penalty is called and the attacking team is given a free hit from the 60 yard line opposite where the ball went out. There is no ‘corner’ or offside as in football.

The Ground

The ground is 300 yards long (274m) long and 200m (182m) wide, or if there are boards down the side (to help keep the ball in play) then 160 yards 182 wide. The goal posts (collapsible on severe impact for safety) are eight yards (7.3m) apart. There is a line at the centre of the ground and penalty lines, 30, 40 and 60 yards from each back line. A polo ground is roughly the size of 6 football pitches!

Duration of Play

The game is played over four, five or six periods of 7 minutes each which are called by the Indian name “Chukka”. At the end of the Chukka the first bell is rung, but play continues until the ball goes out of play or the second bell is rung after 30 seconds.

Players & Officials

There are four players in each team, two mounted umpires on the ground and a referee in the stand, who acts as an arbiter in the event of the umpires being unable to agree. There are also goal judges who signal goals by the waving of a flag behind the goal.

Polo is very much a team game with each of the four players having different roles, although like any team sport, these are interchangeable:

No. 1

Forward. The number 1 should have fast ponies to quickly turn defence into attack, slip the opposing back and with accurate rather than powerful hitting score goals.

No. 2

Forward basically. The number 2 should be well mounted to mark the opposing number 3. In defence but support his number 1 in attack.

No. 3

Similar to a centre half in football. He controls the speed and direction of the game and usually his passes to the forwards start an attack.

No. 4

Back. In defence the back should be able to hit strong backhanders to his members of the team and in attack likely to be seen somewhere behind waiting to snap up any chance of loose balls that come his way


Each player has a handicap from minus 2 up to 10, which reflects his or her ability. There are currently less than twelve 10 goal players in the World, most of whom are Argentine. The highest handicapped English players are currently 7 goals.

In handicap tournaments the number of goals start is obtained by multiplying the difference between the two teams total handicap by the number of chukkas to be played and then dividing by 6. Any fraction counts as half a goal.


The sticks are made of bamboo shafts and hard wood heads. The length of the stick varies according to the height of the pony being played and varies from 48 to 53 inches. The ball is hit with either face of the head and not with the ends as per croquet! The ball traditionally either bamboo or Willow is made of plastic.


There is no height limit but most ponies are between 15 and 15.3 hands (a hand being 4 inches high). Much of their schooling is devoted to stopping and turning quickly and being able to accelerate and ride-off another pony and to face a fast approaching pony. Ponies usually only play two chukkas in an afternoon with a rest of at least one chukka in between. Bandages or boots for support are compulsory and a pony blind of an eye, showing vice or not under control may not be played.

Fouls & Penalties

The most common foul occurs as the result of a player having ‘the right of way’ being crossed by another player which would be very dangerous.

A player has a ‘right of way’ when he is following the ball on its exact line or is closest to it; he must not cross this line if by so doing there is any possibility of another horse having to check in order to avoid a collision.

Players may ride-off an opponent using his/her body (not elbows) and pony to push their opponent off the ball, although this must not be at an angle and that the ponies are level. A player may use his stick to hook an opponents stick to spoil a shot, but not above shoulder height. Dangerous riding, rough handling or misuse of the polo stick are not allowed. Penalties vary according to the degree and place of the foul.

Tips for enjoying your day at the Beaufort

1. What to wear

Being an outdoor sport, it's obviously best to dress according to the weather. Spectators at polo wear everything from jeans to a blazer and tie – it's very difficult to be under or over dressed!

If you are attending one of the bigger polo tournaments or a Charity Polo day, people do tend to dress up a bit more. Don’t forget that if you want to go treading in divots at half time to wear flat shoes.

2. Bring a Picnic

Make an afternoon of it. Most polo starts at 3pm (check the fixture list or call the club) so why not bring a picnic and have lunch in the beautiful surroundings of the Cotswolds. Take food that will travel well and please remember to take home all your rubbish.

3. Viewing

Nine times out of ten, the action takes place on the opposite side of the field! If you have binoculars they can be useful to pick up all the action. On bigger days the commentator will help explain the rules and give you background on the players. Programmes can be bought at the Clubhouse.

4. Half Time

At half time spectators are invited to help tread in the divots made by the ponies. It not only helps the players (and ground team!), but is a great way to meet people and see some of the players and ponies close up. Please remember to wear shoes when treading in.

5. Players to Watch out for…

The Beaufort has amongst its playing members a number of International players including two England Internationals in Luke and Mark Tomlinson. Up and coming stars include Max Hutchinson, Freddie Dear and Mark Baldwin.

A ride off
A ride off