Rugby on Horseback

(from the Economist, 11/4/95)

RACING apart, equestrian competitions can be terribly dull to watch. It is rare indeed for show-jumping or dressage or even polo to excite more than warm applause from onlookers. True, horses are good to be around and always easy on the eye, and the social pleasures of spectating can more than compensate for any deficiencies in the spectacle. But what a treat it would be if sometimes the watchers', and not just the players', pulses raced and blood stirred. A new sport might make it happen: horseball.

Invented in the late 1970s by Jean-Paul Depons, a rugby player and riding instructor, horseball (le horse ball, not cheval ballon) combines riding with elements of rugby and basketball. It is a rugged contact sport that demands great horsemanship, balance and ball-handling skills from the human combatants. It also demands enormous energy from their mounts, which charge about at breakneck speed, usually at close quarters. At its best, the game has the appearance of a cavalry battle, minus swords and lances. Its popularity is growing, particularly in Europe; the fourth annual European Cup, held near Brussels on October 26th - 28th, was the most fiercely contested yet.

As in polo, horseball pits teams of four players (who can be of either sex) against each other. They compete in halves of 10 minutes each - enough to tire both horses and riders - on a pitch that is no more than 70 metres by 30 metres. The smallness of the pitch ensures that players are always in close contact, much as in forward play in rugby-and in contrast to polo in which excessive space limits thrills to short bursts. The aim of the game is to win the ball (a small soccer ball, fitted with six leather handles); make a minimum of three consecutive passes of the ball (forward as well as backward, unlike in rugby) between at least three team-members, without dropping it; and to shoot it through a hoop 1 metre in diameter and 3 metres off the ground.

In a game of reasonable quality, the teams would expect to share perhaps 15 goals. After each score, or if the ball goes out of play, play restarts with a line-out contested by two players from each side. This is one of the clearest opportunities to gain control of the ball, so teams work hard on tactics to help win on their own throw in, as in rugby. Otherwise, possession changes either in the tackle or when the ball goes to ground. (There are no scrums, alas.)

Tackling usually involves physical contact, though technically a player must grab the ball without grabbing its carrier. The carrier must hold the ball in one hand only while being tackled, but a challenge can often be evaded simply by holding the ball on the side away from the tackler. Effective tacklers overcome this by shoulder-barging the carrier to knock him off balance-at which point his natural instinct is to steady himself by pulling in the extended ball-carrying arm, giving the tackler a chance. When the ball is dropped, the player has to slide from the saddle and sweep it up, connected to his charging steed only by the stirrups - an act that requires much courage and is thrilling to watch, especially when two opponents race side-by-side to win the ball.

Apart from line-outs, tactics are mostly about attack. Passing the ball within a loose diamond formation is the best option. If the attackers ride too closely together, defenders can force them as a pack away from goal; if they are too spread out, interceptions become easy-as they do if the diamond collapses into a straight line across the width of the pitch. But, ultimately, games are won by superior horsemanship. A horseballer must keep his hands free, and rely almost entirely on his legs to control his mount-to stop, turn and vary its speed. This, say horseballers, requires more skill than polo, in which players rely on reins and a whip.

The game was invented when the French Equestrian Federation hired Mr Depons to create interesting ways of acquiring and developing riding skills to complement traditional, and deadly dull, dressage exercises. Horseball has become an integral part of riding instruction in France, and the federation is energetically promoting it at home and, more recently, abroad. The country now boasts some 450 horseball clubs, which compete in national and regional leagues. France has won the European Cup on each of the occasions it has been contested so far, including this year.

Elsewhere, progress has been slower, although it is now gathering pace. Portugal and Belgium have the strongest teams after France and the most players. The game has grown in England during the five years since the French introduced it in an exhibition tournament at the Horse of the Year Show in 1990 and it is also starting to win converts outside Europe, including in Australia, parts of the Middle East, and the Americas.

The game's development has been hampered by the reluctance of national equestrian bodies to follow their French counterpart and throw their weight behind horseball. Why is not clear. Initially, there were legitimate questions about safety, both for rider and animal but, so far, the game's safety record is impressive. Horsey-types are often conservative, and prefer sticking to their old ways of riding. Snobbishness, too, may have played a part, both because of horseball's origins (Brits are not the only Europeans liable to turn their noses up at things French) and because of those who play it-unlike polo players they need own only one horse to take part, not a fleet of at least four. Moreover, those responsible for the more traditional equestrian sports may have feared losing players to one that is particularly exciting to play as well as to watch.

Nevertheless, the game has now been recognised by the International Equestrian Federation, which is considering including it as a core discipline. Leading horseballers reckon that this could pave the way for eventual Olympic recognition, perhaps starting off as an exhibition event in the Sydney games in 2000.