Everything You Need to Know to Enjoy a Polo Match
“A polo handicap is a passport to the world.” -Winston Churchill
Equestrian polo has been called the “game of kings”, “the movable feast”, and the most addictive sport in the world. It is fast, furious, dangerous, expensive and utterly fascinating. It can also be confusing if you find yourself field-side and don’t know anything about the game. And of course for the ladies, knowing what to wear is essential!
So here you go. Your Insider’s Guide to Polo!
Polo is called the movable feast because the circuit moves around the world following sunny weather that is suitable for the horses and players. The polo community is a tightly knit group of patrons* and pros who play with and against each other in matches and tournaments all over the world. They travel with their families so the sidelines are often as busy with rambunctious children twirling foot mallets* as the field is with players and horses. Depending on the time of year you can find the highest level of play in Palm Beach, England, Buenos Aires, and in the summer, right here in Santa Barbara. This month kicks off the Pacific Coast Open, arguably the most prestigious tournament in the world every summer, boasting a trophy cup commissioned in 1908.
Click here for more info and scroll down for game times at Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club.
Care only about polo etiquette and what to wear? Scroll down to see what you need to know.
Players come from around the world. The best polo pros are widely believed to be Argentine although polo legends, Memo, and Carlos Gracida, hailed from Mexico. Top players can be found in England, South America, South Africa, and the United States. Players must hold the mallet* in their right hand regardless of handedness.
Polo is called a gentleman’s sport in part because teammates change and morph according to the tournament. A player could be playing with and against another player within the same season depending on the makeup of the teams and the handicap of the tournaments. Teams are made up of 4 players. Typically a team is made up of 3 pros and the patron or sponsor, the ‘owner’ of the team. Teams made up of 2 sponsors and 2 pros are not uncommon. The most amazing polo in the world is the 40 goal Argentine Open held each year in Buenos Aires. Each of the four players on both teams holds a 10 goal handicap. Perhaps no other sporting event on the planet features the top 8 players in the world competing against each other.
It is essential to understand the polo handicap as it determines the level of games, the makeup of teams and tournament levels.
The handicap system ranges from -2, a true beginner to up to 10 goals- think Lebron James. Only a very few amateurs or patrons achieve higher than a 2 handicap, which, while it sounds low it is quite accomplished for someone who plays polo as a patron* or a hobby.
The National Handicap Committee holds handicap meetings twice a year to review the players’ handicaps. There is always a hunt for that up and coming young phenom who is called a ringer *.
The handicap committees review the player on the basis of his talent, his string* of horses and the quality of the tournaments he has won that year. The governing bodies of polo are the USPA the Federation of International Polo (FIP) the Hurlingham Polo Association (HPA) founded and based in the UK and of course the Associación Argentina de Polo (AAP) home of most polo legends.
Each tournament is set up on a handicap level. If a tournament is a 20 goal tournament the four player’s handicaps can not exceed 20. So you could have a team made up of a 10 goaler, a 7 goaler, a 3 goaler and a 0 goaler playing against a team of 2 9’s, and 2 1 goalers. This is why players are constantly changing teams. As the tournaments change to a 16 goal tournament or a 26 goal tournament the players need different handicaps.
Low goal polo is considered 0-8 goals
Medium goal polo is considered 8-16 goals
High goal polo or professional polo, that most exciting and rare of sports, is 16-26 goals in the US but can go to 40 goals in Argentina.
Polo pros, like the horses they ride, are quick, athletic, smart and agile. They work out for flexibility and strength. They are from many nations and are frequently friends and even relatives playing with and against each other. Some patrons will play with a specific player for years building teams around that player. Others change players and teams every season. Pros are paid by the patron or the sponsor of the team. Very few tournaments are money tournaments so patrons field teams simply for the love of the sport and competition. Patrons might have been riders for their entire lives or they may have come to the game later in life. Polo can be played at the highest goal level, an expensive proposition, or at a club level costing far less.
Professional polo players with a handicap over 7 are few and in great demand. 10 goalers have reached the pinnacle of the sport. Currently, there are fewer than eleven 10 goal players in the world.
Each of the four players is given an area of responsibility designated by a jersey number that indicates that area. The forward is #1; the most defensive player is #4, or the Back. (There is no goalie.) The middle players are #2 and #3. The #3 is usually the highest-rated player on the team and the de facto captain. This is the player who leads the offense and coordinates the defense.
A polo field is 300 yards by 160 yards or roughly 9 football fields put together. The boundaries are marked with wooden boards. When the ball goes over the boards the play stops. Horse and rider frequently and nimbly jump the boards while continuing to follow the play. Goal posts are 2 padded posts on each end. It is not uncommon for horse and rider to knock over a goal post which is padded for protection and easy to put back in place.
Games are made up of six periods or chukkers* of 7 minutes each. The players line up center field and the ball is thrown into the lineup – think of hockey on horseback. Goals switch with each goal scored. This can be confusing to novice spectators. Penalties are called for fouls ranging from mild- Penalty 6 to severe- Penalty 1. Penalties are primarily to protect the safety of horse and rider. You will frequently see players raise their mallets trying to call for a foul. Helicoptering (or aggressively twirling) your mallet is dangerous to other horses and riders and cause for a stiff penalty. There are 2 on field umpires and a third man* sitting off the field with a good overall view of the field and play.
WOMEN AND POLO
Polo is a rough sport, 8 horses weighing up to 2000 pounds running at speed and turned quickly by their mounts. There are not a lot of women in polo but those who do play are just as passionate about the game as the men. Some women play with and against men in high goal polo. Being atop a horse levels the playing field somewhat. Polo lost one of its finest women players ever, Sunny Hale, this last year. Sunny was an extremely talented player who could hold her own on any high goal field and rode off and earned the respect of many tough male players. There are lots of leagues for women to compete in both all women’s teams and mixed teams.
Tailgating is one of the oldest ways to watch polo. Before there were viewing stands there were chairs lined up at the side lines for spectators to watch their favorite teams gallop down the field. Polo tailgating shouldn’t be confused with the equally fun but more raucous football tailgating. Tailgating at polo could be as simple as sitting on the tailgate of your pick up truck sipping a Bud to an elaborate picnic lunch under Veuve Clicquot’s sunshine yellow umbrellas.
A blanket tossed on the grass and simple fare such as sheep’s cheeses like Midnight Moon or Lamb Chopper with a crusty baguette, dried fruits and a chilled glass of rosé or a light Grenache is all you need to enjoy the outdoors and the exciting sport of polo. Feeling the ground rumble underneath you as the horses fly down the field is one of the thrills of sitting field side. Be sure to keep your eye on the ball and the horses so you can jump out of the way should a ball sail your way or the horses cross the boards.
WHAT TO WEAR
Because polo is, on the inside, a family activity, you will find most players, their wives, and children in casual clothes, jeans, hats, casual shorts, and dresses. If you are the guest of someone going to a match ask if this is a dressy match. You can never go wrong with a cute sundress and cowboy boots, khaki pants, and a button down with flip flops or loafers-no socks. A definite no is high heeled shoes which sink into the grass during the all important divot stomp*. For finals games or games with luncheons sport coats, ties, dresses, and hats may be more appropriate. Leave sequins and night club outfits at home, polo games are casually elegant affairs.
JULIA ROBERTS AND THE ART OF POLO SPECTATING
Polo is a thrilling and heart-stopping game of athleticism, power, and speed. There is nothing like sitting on the side lines and feeling the earth literally thunder under the horse’s hooves. Spectators range from those in Argentina who are so enthralled with the game they need no announcer to tell them the play, to the Pretty Woman champagne sipper who hovers inside a tent the entire game. Both are absolutely fine. Just be aware of where the horses are and where the ball is. Don’t turn your back to the game if you are field side. If you are sitting on a blanket or near a tailgate be ready to jump out of the way of a play that has come across the boards. Players definitely feel your energy and hear the cheers so feel free to whoop it up! Don’t go talk to players in between chukkers or at half time. They are strategizing and tweaking their game plan and need to stay focused. Instead be sure to head out to the field yourself at halftime. You can be a big help to the players by participating in the halftime divot stomp*! Do go up to your favorite team after the game- win or lose! In a finals game, the winning patron is expected to open the clubhouse bar to all the fans so stick around and enjoy a drink on the ecstatic winner.
Patron– sponsor or owner of the team, pays the pros to play, the team is usually named after a business or farm owned by the patron.
Mallet– often called taco, the stick that is used to hit the ball, made of bamboo cane, slightly “whippy” and flexible, usually about 52 inches long.
Foot mallet– smaller mallet used by kids and grown ups alike to hit the ball while walking or running on the field.
Ringer– a player who is playing far above their handicap.
String– the group of horses used to play polo “my string is getting old”.
Hands– the measurement of a horse 1 hand= 4 inches.
Spare– extra horse or mallet held on the sidelines in case the player needs to change in a hurry.
7-Up– a polo groupie who will only date players rated 7 goals or higher.
Divot stomp– the spectator’s half time activity. Spectators flood the field at half time to stomp down clods of turf kicked up by the horses during the play. This really helps to smooth the field for the next half. May or may not involve champagne.
Chukker– or Chukkar or Chukka- the 7 minute period of play.
Bump– when a player directs his horse into the side of another horse in an attempt to ride off another player.
Ride off– making contact with another horse and rider in an attempt to change the line of the ball.
Line of the ball– the imaginary line produced by the ball as it is hit or deflected.
Appealing– player raises his mallet calling to the umpire for a foul.
Third man– 2 umpires are on the field, the 3rd man sits on the sidelines and makes a final decision in case of disagreement on a foul.
Time out– time outs are called only for an injury to horse or rider or broken tack.
Safety– also known as a penalty 6, a defending player hits the ball over his own back line.
Near-side– the left-hand side of the pony, the side the player mounts, near side shots are more difficult because the player’s mallet is in his right hand and must cross over the body of the horse to hit the ball.
Off-side– the right-hand side of the horse, and easier shot to make for the player.
Neck shot-the mallet swings to hit the ball under the horse’s neck.
Tail shot– the mallet swings near or under the the tail of the horse.
Side boards– the boards along the field that keeps the ball in play, horses may go over the boards but the ball may not.
Stick and ball– personal polo practice time.
Yellow flag– a warning to the player for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Red flag– automatic ejection from the chukkar for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Wraps– cloth wrapped around the horse’s lower legs to protect them.
Braid– each horse’s tail is braided and wrapped neatly to prevent the tail from getting wrapped up in other players mallets or other horses legs.
Roached mane-horses in season have their manes clipped to prevent their manes from getting tangled in mallets and tack.
Rule 19- Players slang for a winning strategy, “score more goals”.
General Admission Tickets $10 each
Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club
3300 Via Real
Pacific Coast Open Tournament Schedule
Thursday, August 17
2:00 pm Lucchese v. Sol de Agosto
4:00 pm Klentner Ranch v. Santa Clara
Friday, August 18
11:00 am Farmers and Merchants Bank v. Restoration Hardware
Sunday, August 20
10:00 am Klentner Ranch v. Sol de Agosto
12:00 noon Santa Clara v. Farmers and Merchants Bank
3:00 pm Lucchese v. Restoration Hardware
Thursday, August 24
TBD games at 1:00 pm and 4:00 pm
Sunday, August 27 Pacific Coast Open Finals
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