The most beautiful thing about the sport of polo is that it can be played by anyone, regardless of age, sex, nationality or background. If a player shows up with a good attitude and a willingness to play, they are welcomed onto the polo field. One of the reasons the United States Polo Association was created was to create a unified handicapping system; allowing more even matches and international competition. Because a handicap is stated in ‘goals’ it’s often confused to mean how many goals that player is expected to make during a game. The two types of “goals” are unrelated.
Each player is denoted a handicap based on ability, horsemanship, understanding of the rules, use to the team and sportsmanship. Handicaps range from -2 to 10. A -2 goal player would be one that had basic control of his horse, make contact with the ball, and understands the rules enough to begin to play. A 10 goal player is an absolute master of the sport. Since the inception of this handicapping system, less than 50 players have ever been awarded a 10-goal ranking. About 2/3 of all USPA handicapped players carry a rating of 2-goals or less. A 5-goal handicap or above usually implies a professional.
The total handicaps of the members of a team are combined to create the team’s handicap. The team with the lesser handicap is then awarded the difference in goals at the beginning of the match, to level the game.
In an “open” tournament, teams play “on the flat”, meaning no handicap advantage is given to the weaker team. You’ll commonly hear games or tournaments being described as low, medium or high goal. Low goal is generally below 10 goals. Medium goal polo is normally between 10 and 18 goals and high goal polo is anything over 18 goals. This is important because there is another USPA rule that says “in any USPA event with an upper handicap limit of 4 goals or above, the handicap of any player may not exceed ¾ of the upper handicap limit.” Players with a -2 handicap cannot play in any USPA events, the reasoning being that they simply do not have the experience or ability to play safely. A player with a -1 ranking may not play above the 12 goal level for the same reason. There is also a rule stating “there shall be no more than one -1 rated player per team in any USPA event above 4 goals.” This is to avoid having the team’s ability too far spread.
In the 1930s, in a highly publicized game, both number 3s were at one point knocked unconscious, but later returned to finish the match. In the same game, another player’s leg was broken during a ride-off. As a result, the USPA changed the rules to severly penalize rough play and ensure that injured players could be substituted for if they were unable to play. According to the USPA rule book, an unlimited number of substitutions “shall be permitted at the end of any period, except…relating to an injured player.” The substituting player needs to carry a USPA handicap and the team’s new total handicap must not exceed the limit for that event. For example, in a 10 goal tournament, if the player subbing in for an injured player is ranked higher than who he is replacing, the total handicap for the team cannot exceed 10 goals. Running with that example, the highest handicap a team holds at any point during the game will be the handicap recorded for the game. If a substitute cannot be found, the team will play on with one less player, but the team’s handicap will stay the same.
It can happen that a player is grossly under-handicapped. Sometimes, a player improves dramatically in a short period of time, playing at a much higher level than his USPA handicap reflects. This most often happens when a player improves the horses in his string. Coincidentally, a player’s handicap could be higher than his skill. The USPA does it’s best to eliminate the use of ringers on the field. One of the best ways it does this is by reassessing a player’s handicap twice a year. That being said, if it becomes painfully obvious that a player is under-handicapped, the USPA can change a player’s handicap at any time. If a player’s handicap is raised during a tournament, which forces the team’s total to go above the tournament limits, the team must reorganize unless the tournament organizers and both teams agree.
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