A beginner’s guide to playing polo

By Agnes Stamp on |

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Polo action at the Jaeger-LeCoultre Polo Masters
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As the British polo season kicks in, why not learn to play and join the action? Polo is a fascinating sport that has been played for more than 2,500 years. The earliest written account of a game describes a game that took place between the Persians and the Turkomans around 600 BC. The game of polo we see today, is derived from Manipur in India, and was popularized in the 19th century by British cavalry officers.

Despite a reputation as an impenetrable sport reserved solely for the upper classes, it is open to everyone willing to have a go. And although polo can be expensive, it is possible to find beginner lessons at a reasonable price on a hired pony.

How to find a polo school

There is no requirement to join a club in order to have lessons, but it is important you find a reputable outfit to begin your education. For a full list of approved and insured polo schools visit The Association of Polo Schools and Pony Hirers.

Your first lesson will take you through the very basics of the game (riding and stick work) and may well include a session on a wooden horse, before you mount the real thing.

As you progress in the sport, you will take private or group lessons with a qualified instructor and take part in instructional chukkas (entry level chukkas for beginners). When you feel ready to play proper chukkas, and eventually take part in matches and tournaments, you will need to join a polo club. The UK has more than 70 clubs under the auspices of the Hurlingham Polo Association (01367 242828).

Tip: Consider starting lessons in winter and take advantage of the arena polo season. It is cheaper than grass and being ‘contained’ in an arena is reassuring for a complete novice.

What you need to know

Courage and physical fitness are both needed to play polo. It is a physically demanding game that requires a good standard of aerobic fitness and a mobile style of riding. Unlike other disciplines, where the rider shows little movement, over time, good polo players develop exceptional balance, flexibility and strength, which allows them to lean out and take shots without unbalancing the pony.

How to develop your polo riding style

Like any equestrian discipline, the key to success is developing a strong, balanced and secure seat. However, there is a technique that is integral to the polo riding style:

Your upper legs (from knee to groin) should be the primary source of stabilizing your seat. Polo saddles don’t have knee rolls and correct technique requires you to be out of the saddle when you take a shot, so you must grip with your thighs to make a stable hitting platform. An easy way to put yourself into this position is to make a conscious effort to turn your heels out and push your feet away from the horse’s side, before flexing your ankles and turning your little toe up and out to the side.

Understanding polo basics

The aim of the game is to strike the ball up the field and through the goal posts —easier said than done when you’re also controlling a pony and wielding a 52” stick.

Players hit the ball with a mallet and the basic shots are named for the side of the polo pony from which the mallet swing is made. The “near side” is the left side of the mounted pony, and the “off side” is the right side.

Off side forehand

Swing the mallet forward on the pony’s off side. This shot will be one of the first you learn.

Near side forehand

Swing the mallet forward or laterally on the pony’s near side.

Offside backhand

Swing the mallet in the opposite direction of travel (backward) on the pony’s off side.

Near side backhand

Swing the mallet in the opposite direction of travel (backward) on the pony’s near side. A difficult shot to execute properly!

Neck shot

Swing the mallet under the pony’s neck on the offside or nearside of the mount.

Offside tail shot

Swing the mallet behind and under the pony’s bottom.

Offside belly shot

Hit the ball on the offside so that it travels underneath the pony’s belly.

What to wear

There is no point in splashing out on specialist kit when you’re an absolute beginner. If you already ride and have jodhpurs, riding boots (or boots and chaps) and your own helmet, definitely wear these. Alternatively, jeans or comfortable trousers will suffice, worn with boots with a small heel. Gloves are also recommended.

As you improve, and you start playing chukkas, matches and tournaments, you will need to invest in proper polo whites, polo boots (these should be triple layered to offer protection from bumps and balls), knee guards and a polo helmet. Some like to invest in a face guard or goggles too, to protect against direct facial impact.

Polo glossary

Chukka

A seven-minute period of play with up to 30 seconds ‘overtime’ for all but the final chukka. High-goal matches are typically played over six to eight chukkas and low to medium goal matches are played over four to five.

Handicap

A player’s rating, based on their ability. Players are rating on a scale of -2 to 10, with 10 being the best. Those new to polo will start on ‘S’ (starter) until they have sat their rules test through the HPA.

Hook

Catching an opponent’s mallet in the act of a swing, stopping him from striking the ball.

Pony

Speed, agility and mental soundness make the ideal polo pony. Historically, the height for polo ponies was limited to 14.2 hands, but this limit was abolished in 1919. Today’s polo ponies are predominantly Thoroughbred.

Ride-off

Pushing another player off the ball by using your horse to barge theirs out of the way.

Rules

Polo is a fast and dangerous game and the rules are there to ensure the safety of both players and ponies. The main rule in polo is that the player on the line of the ball, or the imaginary line along which the ball travels, has the right of way and may only be challenged by being ridden off, or having his stick hooked.

The season

The main polo season in the UK is from May to September and indoor or arena polo is played throughout the winter.

Top image: players in action at a past edition of the Jaeger LeCoultre Polo Masters, by Clément Bucco-Lechat, CC BY-SA 3.0

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