Gear Riding

Horse Polo Terminology: Talk the Talk of this Fast-Paced Sport

Horse polo
Written by Kim H.

Mind the steaming divots!

If you are a horse lover like me, then you have probably heard of polo. However, many of us horse people know what polo is, but we may not know about polo terminology and how the game of polo works.

We will discuss the game of polo, the game’s history, rules, and answer additional questions you may have about the sport. You will soon be speaking like an expert.

History of the Sport

Polo is often referred to as one of the oldest team sports in history. It is believed that polo is a game that originated in Central Asia. Furthermore, it is thought that polo was first played in Persia as early as the 6th century BC to the 1st century AD.

The Rules: A Basic Overview

Polo is a game that is played on horseback consisting of two teams that have four players each. Each player has a mallet with a long handle that they use to push a wooden ball down a long grass field.

Each end of the grass field has goal posts and the idea is to get the ball between the two goal posts.

What is a Polo Pony?

A polo pony is a horse that is used for the game of polo. They can be any color or breed, but it is very common for a polo pony to have a large amount of Thoroughbred breeding.

Although they are called a pony, a polo pony is a full-sized horse and the term pony is used to refer to the horse’s agility, and not size.

Polo wraps

Photo Cred: Canva

Game Terms


A chukker is a 7 ½ minute period in polo. A polo game is usually 1 ½ to 2 hours long and it will be divided into chukkers instead of quarters or periods.


Divots are the mounds of earth churned up by horse hooves during the polo match.


A goal is when one team uses their mallet to push the ball through the goal posts at one end of the field.


Penalties in polo can occur if someone gets a foul so the offending team will have a disadvantage in the next play. The penalties will range depending upon how serious the foul is and what officials believe is necessary.


There are several fouls that can occur when playing polo. The main one refers to the right of way, which is when a player hits a ball and another player interferes with the path that the ball is moving on.

Another common foul is hitting a ball between a horse’s legs. This is frowned upon and the team that does so will receive a penalty if this occurs.


A handicap in polo refers to a rating of a player’s levels of horsemanship, knowledge of the game, the game’s strategy, and of horses in general.


This is anytime that a mallet is used to interfere with another player’s swing.


If a team hits the ball across the opponent’s backline then the defending team will get a free hit from the backline where the ball went over.


There are four players on the field and each of them has their own role.

The number 1 position is an offensive position. Number 2 is one of the most difficult positions to play because this player is playing both offense and defense. Number 3 is considered the leader and is usually the best player.

They will play both offense and defense as well. Number 4 is going to be the main defensive player on the field.

Referee/Umpire/Third Man

There are two mounted umpires during the game of polo who track everything, but there is also a referred or third man on the side of the field that assists in decision making if the umpires cannot agree on a call.

Palomino polo pony

Photo Cred: Canva

Polo Swings

Back Swing

This means the ball is being hit in a direction opposite of the way that the player is moving.

Neck Swing

A neck swing is a ball that is hit right under the neck of a polo pony.

Tail Shot

This is when the ball is hit right behind the polo pony.

Off-side Swing

This is a hit that is off of the right side of a polo pony. You can perform a forehand shot or a back shot swing to the off-side.

Near-side Swing

A near-side swing is hit off the left side of a polo pony. As with the off-side swing, you can have both a forehand shot and a back shot swing to the near-side.

Polo Gear


This is the stick that polo players carry to hit the wooden ball down the field. The handle is usually made from bamboo, while the head of the mallet is made from a harder wood such as ash or maple.

Braided Tail

Polo ponies have their tails braided and wrapped to prevent their tails from getting tangled in anything. They also have roached manes to avoid their manes getting in the way as well.

Polo mallet and helmet

Photo Cred: Canva

Protective Wraps

Most polo ponies will wear what we refer to as polo wraps. These are bandages that are wrapped around the horse’s legs to protect them during the game of polo.


The protective piece of headgear that most equestrians wear to prevent severe head injuries in the event that the rider falls.


Polo players will wear gloves to protect their hands while they are holding the reins as well as carrying and swinging the mallet.

Gag Bit

A gag bit means the cheek piece and reins are attached to different rings on the bit, which means that when used correctly by polo players, it creates more leverage and control for polo players.


The reins are what connect the rider’s hands to the horse’s mouth. The rider will use the reins to maneuver the horse down the field.


The wooden ball is what polo players hit down the field using their mallets. The goal is for them to get the ball into the two end goal posts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long does a polo match last?

A polo match is typically one and a half to two hours in length.

Q: Why are the horses called polo ponies?

Although the horses are called polo ponies, they are full-sized horses. They have been referred to as polo ponies due to their ability to be so agile, but not because they are actually the size of a pony.

Q: How big are the horses that play polo?

Horses that play polo can be any size. There is no size requirement for horses so you may have horses that are 16 hands or taller playing polo.

Q: What are polo mallets called?

Polo mallets are called mallets or referred to as sticks in the polo industry.

Q: What is a chukka in polo?

A chukka, also spelled chukker, is a term used to refer to a seven-and-a-half-minute period in polo.

Winter polo

Photo Cred: Canva

Parting Thoughts

Polo may have seemed slightly overwhelming, but now you know all about the game of polo and the polo terminology. Maybe one day you will get to catch a game of polo yourself and you will have all of the information to understand exactly what is happening!

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About the author


She began riding at eight years old and now has over twenty years of horse experience. She grew up showing at local horse shows and moved on to riding and showing paint horses on the paint horse show circuit throughout the state of California. She then went on to show at the APHA World Show. She has two OTTBs and is training them for hunter/jumper shows.