Each polo match consists of four to six chukkers (periods) that last seven and a half minutes with a warning bell at seven minutes and a final bell thirty seconds later (unless a team scores after the warning bell which stops the chukker immediately).
The game is played on a field with goal posts on each end. The players try to hit the ball between the posts (no matter how high), to score one point. After each goal, the teams change sides. Two mounted umpires accompany the players, (four on each team in outdoor polo, three on each team in arena polo) and a "third man" sits near the middle of the field to referee in case of a disagreement between the mounted umpires. The whistle is blown to indicate a foul (scroll down to learn more about fouls), and stops the clock. At the end of the chukker, the players change horses.
Each team consist of four players.
#1) An offensive player
#2) The offensive midfielder
#3) The pivot, often the highest rated player
#4) The defensive back
Each player is expected to cover his/her man (or woman) who is the numerical opposite on the field. In arena polo, each team consists of three players.
The horses traditionally called ponies, are well trained equine athletes. Able to stop and turn on a dime, they are considered faster than racehorses over short distances. Polo ponies are the most essential part of the game.
"A polo handicap is your passport to the world." Sir Winston Churchill
In polo, a handicap is required and considered a good thing. Players are rated from minus two to ten. Ten is the best. Each team's handicap is the sum of the players' handicaps. In an Open tournament, teams play "on the flat," meaning that no scoring advantage is given to the weaker team. In a handicap tournament, points are given to the weaker team based on the difference of handicaps between two teams. For example, if a 16-goal (handicap) team plays against a 17-goal (handicap) team, then one point is awarded on the scoreboard for the 16-goal team at the start of the match.
To the layman, fouls in polo are very hard to see. Even professionals have a hard time, but one can usually tell a foul by listening to the players after the whistle blows. A foul is basically a dangerous play, mostly stemming from crossing in front of the man with the ball. When the ball is hit, it creates an invisible line and the players must follow it as if they are driving on a make-believe road.
Each time the ball changes direction, the road changes as well. Penalty shots are awarded depending on where the foul was committed, or upon the severity of the foul. Lines on the field indicate where midfield, 60-, 40- and 30-yard penalties are taken from. If the ball is hit past the back line by a defending player, a 60-yard shot facing the spot where the ball went across the line is awarded.