A match consists of 6-8 chukkas, each lasting seven minutes plus up to 30 seconds of overtime. A horn is blown at the end of 7 minutes to signal to the players that 30 seconds remain in the chukka. During the 30 seconds, play continues until a team scores, the ball goes out of play or a player commits a foul. During the breaks players are able to switch ponies.
Play takes place on a field of about 300 yards (275 metres) long by 160 yards (150 metres) wide. In theory, that is about the same size as six soccer pitches. The goal posts, which collapse on severe impact, are set eight yards apart.
There are 4 players on a team with each player assigned a distinctly different role according to their position. The Number 1 player is essentially a goal striker whose primary role is to score goals. The Number 2 player is also a forward, but plays harder, especially on defence. Number 3 is the pivotal player between offence and defence who tries to turn all plays to offence. He is usually the highest rated player on the team. The Number 4 player (or back), is essentially the most defensive player whose primary responsibility is to protect the goal area.
All players are rated on a scale of -2 to 10 (the higher the better). Although the word ‘goal’ is often used after the rating, it bears no relation to the number of goals a player scores in a match, but to his overall playing ability. A player’s horsemanship, range of strokes, speed of play, team and game sense are the factors considered in determining his handicap. The team handicap is the sum of its players’ handicaps. the team with the lower handicap is awarded the difference in goals at the start of the game. For example, a 26-goal team would give two goals start to a 24-goal team.
Any time the ball crosses, at any height, the line between the goal posts, it is considered a goal regardless of who knocks it through, including the pony. After each goal, the teams change ends (i.e. switch the halves they defend). This allows both teams equal opportunities to score in case the field or weather is working to one direction’s advantage (equalise wind and turf conditions). The game is continuous and can only be stopped if a foul is called, an injury occurs to either a polo pony or rider, or if a player’s tack is broken.
The key to a novice understanding the game of polo is to appreciate the importance of the line of ball. The line of the ball, namely the imaginary line along which the ball travels, represents a right of way for the player following nearest that line. All strategic plays are based on the line of ball and you will notice that players always approach the ball along this line, either in the direction it is travelling or directly against it. There are no T-junctions in polo. This ensures fair play, flowing play and, most of all, the safety of the players and their ponies.