I know the game of polo can seem complicated. There are a lot of rules coupled with lots of confusing terminology. I’ll try to make it clearer for you, starting with the term chukka (or chukker in the US). What exactly is a chukka?
A chukka is a period of play during a polo match, and each chukka normally lasts seven minutes. An extra thirty seconds of overtime is permitted at the end of each chukka except the final one of the match. During overtime, if the umpire blows his whistle, if the ball goes out of bounds, or if it hits the sideboards, the chukka ends.
In practice a chukka may last a little more than seven and a half minutes because if a player is awarded a penalty the timer is stopped until they have taken their penalty shot. A chukka starts and ends with a bell or a hooter being sounded.
Where Does The Name Chukka Come From?
There are believed to be two origins of the word but both have almost the same meaning. The first is the Hindi word cakkar meaning circle or round. This word seems closest to the American spelling chukker.
The second is the Sanskrit word cakra meaning circle or wheel and matches the UK English Chukka. As another word for circle is “round” this word makes sense. A round, about, a period, etc.
How Many Chukkas Are There In a Polo Match?
In a standard high-goal game of polo, there are six chukkas. If it is an outdoor or field polo match, the number of chukkas is between 4 and eight. If it’s a low-goal game or if it’s arena polo, then there are only 4 chukkas.
The game can last more than the set number of rounds if, at the end of the final chukka, the score is tied. As explained, overtime is not permitted in the final chukka even to break the tie.
An extra chukka is played on these occasions to decide the winner of the match. This additional chukka is a sudden death round and ends as soon as a goal is scored by either team. The scoring team then wins the match. If neither team scores, then another chukka is played. This time the goalposts are widened to make scoring easier.
How Long Is There Between Each Chukka?
In the arena or low-goal polo, there is a three-minute break between each of the chukkas. The only exception to this is in the middle of the match, where the break extends to 5 minutes. This constitutes half time. Infield polo because it is a longer match and play is faster, the breaks are four minutes, and half-time lasts 10 minutes.
The field of play is usually very churned up by the halfway point. Spectators enjoy the tradition of walking out onto the field and stomping divots (tufts of earth knocked loose by the polo players’ swings) back into the ground to smooth it again. It adds an element of fun to the match.
During each break the players change to new horses and the teams swap to opposite ends of the field. Players also use this time to grab a quick drink and possibly change their shirts if they need to.
Why Are Chukkas So Short?
I agree that 7 minutes doesn’t seem very long. After all, in soccer, baseball, or football game, players play for much longer. Surely a trained athlete could play for longer? Chukkas are not short in polo for the players. The players would certainly be fine to play for longer than 7 minutes. The issue is that polo is extremely physically demanding for the horses.
The horses have to carry a rider while riding at full gallop for virtually the entire chukka. Riding them for too long would exhaust them. This could lead to them being injured or even killed in extreme cases. It is believed 80% of a player’s success is down to the performance of their horse. They are the player’s top priority.
It is not acceptable to risk a horse’s health both from the point of view of animal cruelty and also money. A top-class horse can cost a polo player as much as $250,000. To lose a horse puts a player greatly out of pocket. Most players care deeply for their horses and care more about their safety than they do about the financial implications.
Do players Ride The Same Horse For The Entire Match?
No, as explained previously, due to each chukka’s demands on the horse, it would be far too exhausting for a single horse to be ridden for an entire match. This is why polo rules require each player to switch to a new horse at the start of each chukka. In practice, with a reasonable amount of time to rest, a horse can ride in more than one chukka.
The normal practice is to let the horse rest for at least two chukkas before riding it again. This means that the polo player will ride at least three different horses in a standard six chukka game. They may ride more horses than this if additional chukkas are needed, or the horse they are riding is injured during a chukka.
It has been argued that as arena polo is played in a smaller area and is slower, there should not be the same requirement, but at this time, the rule stands.
I hope these explanations have demystified the game of polo for you a little, and you now understand what a chukka is. Polo is a fast and exciting game, and if you take a little time to learn the rules, it can be an absorbing sport to follow. In no time at all, you’ll know all about chukkas, divots, penalties, and goals.
If you’re a rider, you may even decide to try playing the game yourself. It is challenging, but lots or]f fun and very rewarding. Give the game your time and attention, and you’ll be hooked before you know it.