Try something new in 2019 — horseball

Described as a mixture of mounted rugby and basketball, horseball is a relatively new team sport which is fast gaining in popularity in the UK.

It involves a special ball fitted with handles, and mounted players lean down to pick up the ball, pass it to each other and attempt to put it through the goal hoops without being tackled by the opposing team. It’s fast, furious, and — according to players — tremendous fun.

British Horseball Association coach Hayley Garner (pictured on the grey below) has been riding since she was 11 and has competed in dressage and showjumping as well as horseball. She’s been playing since she was 12 and has competed in the first (pro elite) division as well as representing Great Britain.

“Picking up the ball is actually a lot easier than it looks — once you have the initial confidence to slide down the side of the horse, it soon becomes second nature and before you know it, you’re picking the ball up in canter,” says Hayley. “Over the years I’ve trained a lot of riders who have lost their confidence, and playing horseball has in fact really helped and encouraged them to keep riding.”

Sarah Hudgins has ridden since childhood and competed in multiple disciplines. She was always heavily involved with ex-racehorses and first discovered horseball at a Retraining of Racehorses (RoR) ‘have a go’ day. Four years later, she now plays in the second division with The Nottingham Knights. She agrees with Hayley that initially horseball can take a bit of getting used to!

“Many people find the hardest thing is letting go of the reins completely to throw and catch the ball, my coach can still often be heard shouting ‘two hands’ at us,” she laughs. “Also, the first time you see the huge, inflatable barrier you wonder how on earth your horse is going to cope but somehow, they just do!

“The key skill you need is balance and it’s actually surprisingly easy to get the hang of. The strap that goes from stirrup to stirrup under the horse is what makes collecting the ball from the floor possible and you’re pulling against yourself rather than the horse. Once you feel how secure the strap is, pick ups aren’t nearly as scary as they sound! Tackling is great fun, and even the quietest rider gets competitive when they try to snatch a ball from an opponent.

“The best horseball horses tend to be forward thinking, brave and receptive to the rider’s aids. It makes a fantastic second career for ex-racehorses, but you will see absolutely every type of horse and rider combination. In our team alone we have thoroughbreds, a coloured cob, a Connemara and an Irish Draught. You’ll also see children of only four or five years old playing on Shetlands and Welsh section As! Horseball is so much easier and enjoyable on a well-schooled horse so often the more different disciplines your horse has done the better. From a personal point of view, the improved balance, flexibility and bond from playing horseball has improved my dressage enormously, and my horse and I competed at the RoR National championships at Aintree last year.”

Hayley agrees: “It’s great for improving dressage, as it’s definitely an advantage to be able to manoeuvre your horse around the pitch while constantly changing pace. You don’t always have contact on the reins so you soon learn to ride with your seat!

“I love that it’s such a great spectator sport as well as team sport. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years and am still in touch with many of them now.”

Sarah adds: “If anyone thinks it’s too hard, I would simply tell them that if I can do it, anyone can! I’m short, round, fast approaching 40 and the horse I ride is a 17.2hh ex- racehorse who stopped racing due to severe tendon injuries. Three years ago I had a bad arm injury (not horseball related!) and lost all my riding confidence, yet horseball with my team mates was the one thing that I could still do. When you’re concentrating on trying to go in the right direction and catch a ball, there’s no room for being scared! It’s also incredibly good fun.”

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If you’d like to have a go at horseball, a number of coaches now host ‘have a go’ days as well as working with the Pony Club to do taster sessions.

“We have a number of riding schools that offer horseball taster sessions and would like more on board,” says Hayley. “We’ve also linked up with the Association of British Riding Schools (ABRS) to offer all their members the opportunity to introduce horseball into their schools. For more information, visit the British Horseball Assocation website.

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