It's not quite the Wildcats, but Horse Ball combines two Ky. loves: horses and basketball

awilson@herald-leader.comOctober 3, 2010 

  • See a game of Horse Ball.
  • If you go

    Canadian Horseball Team Demonstration

    Where: The Equine Village's North Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park

    When: 10 a.m. Monday, 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, 12:30 p.m. Thursday, 10 a.m. Friday, 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Natacha Brunet and Candy combined for more than enough points to help the Rouge beat the Bleu Sunday on what may the first Horse Ball game played on Kentucky soil.

The fans went wild for any points, any maneuver, any strategy, anything. For this was the penultimate Kentucky experience: Horse basketball.

"It's fascinating," said Marcia Taylor of Lexington. "I couldn't imagine this combination of things. But it's us, isn't it?"

On Sunday, it was the combined services of three Canadian teams showing us how it was done. A small crowd weathered the rain and cold to watch and listen as the French-Canadian referee whose English, she said, "was not well," explain it all.

The object: Get the ball in the basket.

The basics: Pass the ball three times to three different players before making a shot. Don't hold the ball for more than 10 seconds.

The trick: You're on horseback. You mostly don't have your reins in your hands. You're not paying attention to the horse. You're talking to him and to your teammates at the same time.

Lest you grouse that there was no basketball involved — it was a soccer ball covered by leather strapping and six handles — it was everything else you'd could possibly want in the Commonwealth's game. It was fast. It was complicated. It required athleticism. It required a horse who could run like a banshee while unconcerned that a ball was coming at his head or a person was hanging off and under his middle.

There was muscularity under the basket. There was a lot of muscularity under the basket. Doing the math it was like maybe 10,000 pounds of horse and some people muscle under there. There was grabbing and stealing and picking and rolling. The fast break was more like a stampede.

Brunet, of Ontario, half apologized after the exhibition that the horses "are usually more aggressive. But they've traveled a long time and they're tired. We're tired, too."

No one noticed. Brunet, who is nicknamed The Hoover by teammates for her ability to slide almost completely off her horse to scoop up the ball when it has fallen to the ground, rode hard the entire game.

Candy used to be a barrel racer and is used to the long leaning down that has to be done, she explained. In fact, Candy used to be "too fast at the beginning for this game."

It's a real sport, played professional in Europe and Canada. Originally an African, then Argentinian game, it was revived once in France in the 1930s and seemed to have been re-revived 35 years ago.

What's important to understand in this game, said Julie Bourbeau of Montreal, who helped found the Canadian team, is that you have to be a good rider first. All riders on the team are accomplished dressage or eventing riders. For them, the hardest part of Horse Ball is learning to let go of the reins, something they never do in their other disciplines, and to learn that they don't have to sit up straight.

Terry Sparrowhawk, also of Montreal, plays the game but also coaches it. On the field with him Sunday were two teen-aged boys. That's great, he said, because in equine sports, there's a huge drop off in interest around 16. That's because they want "the adrenaline that a lot of things in this sport don't provide like going fast and banging around does"

Charles Bastien, 15, who wowed the crowd Sunday with what a woman in the audience called "great monkey agility," has been on horses almost all his life. His horse knows what to do, he said, that is why he can fly around on the saddle going after the ball

It is a sport he is anxious to help build.

In the stands Sunday, a bevy of polocrosse players from the United States anxious to spread word of their sport.

"We need all these crazy horse sports to support each other," said Sara Cifelli of New Jersey.

The polocrosse bunch comments on the English saddles the Horse Ball team is using, the knee pads, the horses, the agility, the trust in their animals.

They were the ones yelling for the "Rouge" and the "Bleu," the ones screaming "dunk it."

The ones who, when it was over, wanted to see it again.

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