The Polo Handicap

By Alex Webbe

Although polo can be played and enjoyed at all levels, it is a difficult game to play well; three or four years are usually required before reasonable proficiency can be achieved. After the basics of horsemanship have been learned, the fundamentals of ball control and hitting at speed must be mastered. Only then can the intricacies of the game be approached.

At any one time, great discrepancies of skill may exist between players on a team. Because of that, a method that would enable players and teams to compete on an equal footing was needed. This was one of the purposes for the formation of the United States Polo Association in 1890.

A system of handicapping each player was devised by the newly-formed USPA which has continued, with minor modifications, to the present day. Each player is awarded a handicap rating, expressed in goals, that is an indicator of the value of that player to his team. Handicap ratings range from C (minus 2 goals) – the so-called beginner, to 10-goals – theoretical perfection. The rating number has nothing to do with the number of goals a player is expected to score.

Polo players are evaluated twice a year by local committees and the National Handicap Committee of the United States Polo Association, using the criteria of general mastery of the fundamentals, horsemanship, sense of strategy and conduct, and quality of ponies.

In play, the handicaps of each player on the team are added together; resulting in a handicap rating for that team. A lower rated team is then awarded the number of goals separating its total from the higher rated foursome. For example, a 6-goal team playing a 7-goal team would start out with one goal on the board.

All players, male and female, are rated under the same system. About two-thirds of the rated players carry a rating of 2-goals or less; few ever advance beyond 3-goals.  A rating of 5-goals and above usually belongs to professional players.

Since the inception of the system in 1890, less than 100 players have ever been awarded a perfect handicap of 10-goals.   At the present time, there are 7 active 10-goalers registered with the United States Polo Association, none of them are Americans.

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