You’ve probably heard of polo, or maybe you played in casual gymkhana games at horse camp. But did you know there are many different ball sports that involve horses? Here are 11 different equestrian sports that use balls – how to play, and where to find them.
One of the oldest team sports in the world, polo is known as “the sport of kings.” Originally played in Persia, polo developed as a training method for the cavalry. Today, polo is professionally played around the world in 16 different countries – and it was at one time an Olympic sport!
In this sport, two opposing teams try to smack a small hard ball through a goal using a long wooden mallet. It’s kind of like field hockey – but on horseback. Teams consist of four riders per side, and the game lasts around 1-2 hours (divided into short periods called chukkas).
The horses used in polo are called “polo ponies,” although they are technically horses. Most polo ponies in the US have a lot of Thoroughbred or Quarter Horse breeding, because they need to be fast, agile, and have excellent endurance. Riders have several horses in their “string,” as mounts must be changed after each chukka.
There are several versions of polo that are played around the world, depending on climate and culture.
- Arena Polo. Often played indoors, arena polo features 3 players per side and the playing field is often smaller and more enclosed. This is the most common variant played in the US.
- Beach Polo. Closely related to arena polo, beach polo is played on hard-packed sand – or on the actual beach!
- Cowboy Polo. In this variant, polo is played in rodeo arenas in western tack, and cowboys use a larger rubber ball as opposed to a small standard polo ball. Yee-haw!
- Snow Polo. A relatively new form of polo, this winter sport is played on a tightly packed field of snow. Often played at higher altitudes (at ski resorts), the field is smaller than with standard arena polo.
For polo events in the US, check out the United States Polo Association for more information.
Polocrosse is an equestrian sport that combines polo and lacrosse. Players use a stick with a net attached to pass a soft ball back and forth. They move down the field this way toward the opposing team’s goal. Unlike in polo, polocrosse players may only ride one horse for the entire game.
An international sport, polocrosse events are held all around the world in South Africa, The US, Canada, Australia, and the UK. The World Cup is held every four years.
For polocrosse events in the US, check out the American Polocrosse Association for more information.
This sport is recognized by the International Federation of Equine Sports – it combines rugby, basketball, and polo. Riders handle a fairly large ball that is covered in six handles. They must pass it between 3 different riders at least 3 different times (teams are made up of 4 players) before scoring a basket.
If a player drops the ball, they must retrieve it – while remaining mounted and moving! Players score by throwing the ball through large vertical netted hoops that resemble butterfly catchers. It’s colloquially called “Quidditch on horseback” by Harry Potter fans.
For horseball events, check out the International Federation of Horseball for more information.
If you’re looking for something a little more lighthearted to suit any skill level or horse breed, consider equine soccer. This game is played between two teams of 3-4 riders in an arena. It’s a lot like human soccer – except the horses are doing all the kicking!
The ball is a specially made and over 40” in diameter (a large exercise ball is around 30”, for reference). Players encourage the horses to kick the ball forward between the opposing team’s goalposts, which generally consist of two barrels or flags.
For equine soccer events in the US, check out America’s Equine Soccer League for more information.
There are several ball handling events that are common at pony club competitions, 4-H shows, and rodeos. These are also called mounted games, and can be played competitively or just for fun!
- Relay races. Relay races may take many different forms. In this iteration, a rider may have to retrieve a ball and hand it off to a team member, either while mounted or on foot. The team with the fastest time wins.
- Ball and Cone. Tennis balls are placed atop traffic cones at one end of the arena, and riders are positioned at the other. An empty cone is placed at the midway point. Riders begin with a tennis ball, race to the center line and deposit it on top of the empty cone. Then they race to the second cone, remove the ball, and bring it back to the next rider in their team. The team with the fastest time wins.
- HiLo. Riders begin at one end of the arena, and a stand with a net attached is positioned at the other. Four cones topped with tennis balls are placed at separate intervals between the riders and the HiLo stand. The first rider begins with a tennis ball and deposits it into the HiLo net. They then retrieve another tennis ball to give to the next rider, and so on until all the balls are in the net.
- Socks and Buckets. While this is generally played with socks, it could also be played with foam balls. Riders begin at one end of the arena, holding a ball. A bucket is placed on the centerline, and more balls are placed at the finish line. Riders head for the centerline, drop their ball into the bucket, race to the end and retrieve another ball to bring back to the next rider.
- Obstacle courses. In some of these events, balls are used as obstacles – riders must dismount, retrieve a ball from one place and bring it somewhere else while mounted.
For gymkhana events in the US, check out Mounted Games Across America or the Mounted Games Association International for more information.
Horse Ball Sports Around the World
There are several equestrian ball sports that are extremely popular in other countries, but are less common in the United States.
Pato is the national sport of Argentina. In early versions of this sport, teams of riders from neighboring ranches would retrieve a live duck, and the first team to make it home would win (if a knife fight didn’t break out first). Nowadays, they use a ball – and the ducks are grateful.
“In modern pato, two four-member teams…fight for possession of a ball which has six conveniently-sized handles, and score by throwing the ball through a vertically positioned ring (as opposed to the horizontal rim used in basketball).” (source)
The rules and equipment are similar to horseball, but they are technically different sports. For more information, check out the Federacion Argentina de Pato y Horseball (page is in Spanish).
Kok-Boru (and the similar Buzkashi)
One of the most dangerous sports in the world, this traditional game comes from the nomadic tribes of Central Asia. It’s sort of like rugby on horseback, except a headless goat is used as the ball. The goal looks like a large round well, and riders are often falling off their horses into it.
For practice, teams may use a heavy round sack with 4 rope handles – similar to an actual goat carcass. These normally weigh as much as a goat – around 100 pounds!
In 2016, a group of Americans dubbed the “Nomad Cowboys” were invited to play Kok-boru in the World Nomad Games. They filmed a documentary about the experience, which you can check out here.
A similar version of the game called Kav Kaz (which more closely resembles horseball) was played in Ohio in the 1940s, except players used a sheepskin covered ball instead of a decapitated goat carcass.
Whether you aim to be a professional player, or you’re just looking for something new to try with your horse, consider an equestrian ball sport for your next discipline. Although, if Kok-Boru is more up your alley – consider practicing with a ball, first.
There are many ball sports played with horses and riders. Some require a whole team and others can be practiced by just a single horse and rider. If you are looking for new avenues to explore with your horse, a ball sport is definitely something to consider trying out.
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