It's that time of the year. Springtime, when new players pick up mallets for the first time and old players dust off their 'field polo skills' from a winter of hibernation or migration.
For all those new players out there we've compiled the ultimate polo alphabet, a crash course in all things polo and the polo lifestyle, so that next time you're field side you know exactly what to say and what everyone else is talking about.
A – A is for Argentina and Asado.
Argentina because it’s the mecca of modern polo; home to arguably the best high-goal tournament in the world (the Argentine Open), the place where many pros and grooms originate from and the location of the annual fanatics and players pilgrimage each November.
Asado, because no polo related celebration is complete without piles of meat being slow cooked over an open fire in traditional Argentine style.
B- B is for Ball or Best Playing Pony.
As a ball game, there is no game without the ball. It is thought that word polo actually means ball in some languages, notably the Tibetan Language of the Indus Valley called Balti.
Best Playing Pony: Self-explanatory; it's the award given to the best playing pony after a match.
C- C is for Chukker or Clones.
A chukker is a period of game play in polo. Chukkers last between seven and eight minutes (depending on the stop watch and who is timing) and matches can consist of anywhere between 4 and 8 chukkers depending on the level of match (low-goal polo matches generally have 4 chukkers while high goal matches like the Open in Argentina often have 8 chukkers, other high goal tournaments notably those in the US and Britain often have 6 chukkers).
Clones are a reasonably new addition to the world of polo and refer to a technique employed by top high goal players like Adolfo Cambiaso whereby they genetically clone their best horses so that they can play an entire match with effectively the same horse making their game more consistent. This year (2016) Cambiaso played clones of his horse Cuartetera during the Argentine Open and a few won BPP (best playing pony).
D – D is for (La) Dolfina (the team that’s won the Triple Crown four times).
La Dolfina is an Argentine high goal team created by Adolfo Cambiaso and Bartolome Castagnola in 2000 and is one of the most successful teams in the sport having won the Argentine Open ten times and the Triple Crown (the trio of Argentine high goal tournaments) four times. Recently, the final of the Argentine Open at Palermo has always come down to Ellerstina and La Dolfina.
E – E is for Equipment.
Equipment, something polo players can never seem to get enough of. From helmets to face cages, jerseys, elbow pads, wrist guards, gloves, boots, knee pads, whites, whips, mallets, spurs and yep… ponies…we just can’t get enough.
F – F is for Field.
A polo field measures 300 yards by 160 yards and is approximately the size of nine football fields. It is one of the largest fields in organized sport and covers nearly 10 acres.
G – G is for Goal or Groom.
Goals in polo are scored when the ball passes (with no height limit) between two upright goal posts located at each end of the field.
A Groom is a crucial component to any polo operation; grooms are the ones who spend hours caring for the horses and perform duties such as feeding, exercising, mucking out, cleaning tack, tacking up and manning the pony lines during the games. Have a question or concern about a horse? Ask a groom. And remember to thank your groom for helping to keep your ponies in tip top tournament shape.
H – H is for Handicap or Hook
The polo handicap system is the scale on which a player’s abilities are rated. Ranging from -2, for a complete beginner, to +10 for the best players in the world. Despite the fact that players often to refer to their handicap in a measure of goals (i.e. 2 goal player) it is not related to the amount of goals that player can score but to their value to any team they play on which takes into account their offensive skills, defensive skills and horsemanship among other things. Teams are also assigned aggregate handicaps and these aggregate handicaps must align with the accepted team handicaps for specific tournaments i.e. a 26-goal tournament.
A hook is a defensive maneuver where one player uses their mallet to stop another player from hitting the ball by reaching out and ‘hooking’ the other player’s mallet with their own.
I – I is for Injury (horses or humans)
While injury is not always present in polo there is a certain element of danger to the sport and many say that it is the second most dangerous sport next to motorsport. In a contact sport with hard flying balls, clashing mallets and huge animals with their own minds galloping at top speed there’s bound to be some risk and injury involved…but maybe that’s why we love it so much. No risk no reward right?
J – J is for Janeiro (one of the ponies at Bancroft Farm)
Janeiro is a 13-year-old chestnut gelding polo pony at Bancroft Farm that currently makes up part of owner and president Brian O’Leary’s string of ponies.
K – K is for Knock in or Knee Pads
A knock-in is when a player brings the ball in usually from out of bounds (often from the end of the field but occasionally from the side). This is how our casual games and progression league matches begin at the Toronto Polo School/Polo Management Services.
Knee-pads constitute part of a polo player’s equipment. Leather made, they cover a players knee and protect it from any impacts including those from other horses, mallets or the ball.
L – L is for The Line.
The Line refers to the imaginary line of the ball that is created every time the ball is hit. The line of the ball must be respected at all times and forms one of the central rules of the game because the player who last hit the ball or who successfully rides another player off the line is the only one with the right of way over the ball (with some exceptions)
M – M is for Mallet or Malbec
Mallets are what players use to hit the ball, they are always carried in the right hand and have a sling which loops through the player’s thumb and across the back of their hand. They range in length, from 49 to 54 inches, and weight, depending on personal preference, and are handmade from bamboo and hard wood. Many players have their mallets made to their exact specifications.
Malbec, the wine of Argentina. No polo trip to Argentina or Asado is complete without some Malbec. It’s a simple as that.
N – N is for Nearside and Neck Shot
The nearside of a horse is their left side and it is also the name of two of the harder basic polo shots; the nearside forehand and the nearside backhand. Nearside shots require players to cross their mallet over a horse’s neck (while maintaining their balance and a gentle grip on the reins in their left hand) to hit a ball. Nearside shots can be ways to circumvent the line of the ball rule…though not always.
A neck shot is a shot where a player must hit the ball underneath the horse’s neck and there are both off-side and nearside variations of this shot. It’s not an easy shot to master, especially the nearside version, but it can be very useful out on the field.
O – O is for Offside or Open Back shot
The offside of a horse is the right side and is also the name of two basic polo shots; the offside forehand (the first one players learn) and the offside back of which there are two variations. If two players are on the line of the ball, the player with the ball on their pony’s offside has the right of way over the player with the ball on their near-side.
An open-back shot is one of the variations of backhand shots players use and it means that the shot is angled back and away from their pony. Players simply refer to the shot as ‘OPEN’ and it can often be heard shouted between players on the field as they call to their teammates to pass them the ball.
P – P is for Palermo, Pony Goal or Ponies
Palermo is a neighbourhood in Buenos Aires and home to a stadium, the Campo Argentino de Polo, which has two polo fields and is located right in the middle of the city. The fields at Palermo are where the finals of the Triple Crown; the Argentine Open, are played each November. Players and fans often simply refer to those matches as ‘Palermo’. As in, “Are you going to Palermo this weekend?”
Ponies, what would polo be without ponies? Nothing (or water polo). The ponies account for 80% of a player’s ability to play the game. And while we call them ponies they don’t always fit the standard definition of a pony (i.e. 14.2 hands or shorter). Today polo ponies are often between 15 and 16 hands but they can be even larger. Players all have their personal preferences when it comes to pony size and personality…don’t get a player talking about their ponies or you’ll never hear the end of it.
Pony Goal is the term for what happens when the ball is knocked into the goal by a pony. Sometimes it can work in a player’s favor and other times against it.
Q – is for Questions
You’ve got the questions and we’ve got the answers. It really is as simply as that. There are no silly questions so feel free to ask away.
R – R is for Ride Off or Ringer
A ride off is a defensive maneuver where a player lines up their pony with another player’s pony (shoulder to shoulder) and pushes into them to move them off the line of the ball and take the line for themselves. This is where the full contact aspect comes into the sport. And the trick to winning a ride off? Keeping your knee in front of the player’s that you’re riding off, that way you have complete control over them.
A ringer is the term used for a player (or pony for that matter) that plays above the expectations set by their handicap.
S –S is for Stick and Ball
Stick and Ball is the term for practicing. It can be a solo activity or sometimes done with other players and just means that a player is riding and practicing his/her mallet and ball skills outside of a game setting.
T – T is for Tail shot or Throw in
A tail shot is backhand shot (either on the near or offside) that crosses beneath a player’s pony’s tail, in other words, angling across the back of the pony. Players refer to it simply as ‘TAIL’ during games.
Throw-In in the official way for tournaments and formal games to start. At the throw in, all the players line up at midfield near the boards with each player facing their counterpart on the other team (number 1 vs. number 1 etc.) in the direction that they want to score and stick their mallets out while someone on the other side of the boards (usually an umpire) tosses the ball into the middle of the eight horses. The players then proceed to clash mallets and swipe at the ball until someone makes contact with it and takes it up field.
U – U is for Umpires
Umpires are the referees of polo and most tournaments have three umpires; two mounted umpires that follow the players on the field and watch for penalties from a safe distance and one extra on the sidelines who can be called to in the event of ambiguous calls or need for consultation. When a player fouls (i.e. crosses the line etc.) the other team is awarded a penalty shot of which that are variations depending on the severity of the offence.
V – V is for Vet
The vet plays an important role in keeping polo ponies in tip top tournament shape and many high goal teams employ their own vets. While polo is generally a pretty safe sport for the horses, accidents do happen especially given that full contact nature of the sport and the flying mallets and a hard little white ball. Many rules in the game are created to ensure the safety of the horses but having a vet on call is never a bad idea. Just in case.
W – W is for Whip or Whites
Whips are important part of a player’s equipment and many players admit that they won’t get on a horse without one. They are longer than the English riding version and are carried in a player’s left (rein) hand.
Whites is the term used for the white jeans that player’s wear for matches and tournaments. The tradition of wearing white pants originated when the sport was played in India and players preferred lighter coloured fabrics to keep them cool while playing. While many companies make technical polo whites with technology ranging from stain resistance to reinforced seams, good old fashion Levis work just as well. And forget about keeping them clean, real players wear their dirty white with pride and will sometimes even point out the various stains and marks on them like battle scars (‘and this is where another horse’s head hit my thigh’)
X – X is for X-ing the Line
It’s a bit of a stretch, we know, but crossing the line is one of the most common fouls in the game and occurs is when one player crosses the imaginary line of the ball and the right of way held by another player. There are many nuances to this rule and it’s a tricky one to spot on the field sometimes as a beginner but the best advice we can give you is to always look behind you before you do anything the field and err on the side of caution. If you don’t think you have the right of way…don’t take the shot.
Y – Y is for Yelling, something players often do on the field
Polo is a team sport and because of that communication between players is key. With a field that’s nearly ten acres and players reaching speeds of nearly 40 miles an hour sometimes the only way to be heard is to yell. All the good players do it so don’t be shy…yell at your teammates next time you want them to leave you the ball or tail it to you.
Z – Z is for Zebra
Last but not least, Zebra is one of the ponies at Bancroft Farm. She’s a favorite because she knows her job and does it well. She’s been playing for so long that she knows the game better than the beginners and her one blue eye, crooked legs and white and brown coat make her a sight for sore eyes. On the plus side, you’ll never confuse her for another horse on the pony lines.