No Matter Your Age, Learn to Play Polocrosse Today
By Kathryn Selinga
Modern day polocrosse—or "horse lacrosse," as some people like to call it—originated in Australia, which means it is sure to be a few things: daring, fast-paced, and a whole lot of fun with friends. All you need is a stick, a ball, a horse, and two friends to get started—and anyone can play, even those who are just starting to ride.
"There are many people that pick it up and start as an adult. From what I find, with adults and kids, even if you're just starting to learn how to ride, you're having fun trying to catch, pick up, and bounce a ball, and without even knowing it, you're learning how to balance…it helps people become better riders. Adults pick it up very quickly, and we have every level. If you want to do Walk-Trot, there's a division for you at every tournament. There are also parents playing on the same team as their kids," says Ryan Murphy, who has played in numerous Polocrosse World Cups and is the Chief Umpire of the American Polocrosse Association (APA).
So what exactly is polocrosse? "I call it lacrosse on horseback because there aren't too many qualities that are the same as polo," says Sally Batton, former international polocrosse player, coach of the Dartmouth College Polocrosse Team, and author of the book, Polocrosse: Australian Made, Internationally Played. "A lot of people describe it as a mix of polo and lacrosse, but it's really much more similar to lacrosse as far as the actual game. It's played on a field that is just about half the size of a polo field—regulation size is 160 yards long by 60 yards wide."
A polocrosse field is divided up into three areas. There's a goal-scoring line that's 30 yards out from each end, and there's a center area that is 100 yards in length. There are goal posts set eight feet apart within each scoring area, with an 11-yard semicircle in front of the goal. The ball must be thrown from outside the semicircle, through the posts to score a goal.
A game is divided up by chukkas—six- or eight-minute periods—whereas in polo they're called chukkers. "I think because that's how the Australians say it," laughs Batton. Most games have four or six chukkas, according to the American Polocrosse Associatiom.
A team is made up of six players, with two sections of three. "Each section of three goes on the field for a chukka, and then they come off and the other section of three goes on, so they can rest," says Batton. Because of this, only one horse is needed, as opposed to the string of ponies needed in polo, making polocrosse much more affordable and earning the sport the nickname, "the king of one-horse sports."
Player positions consist of ones, twos and threes. A "one" is the offensive player. They are the only players allowed to score goals and the only ones allowed in the opposing team's defensive area. A "two" is the midfield and can play offense and defense. And the "three" is the defenseman.
If you're afraid polocrosse sounds dangerous, you may be surprised. "In my opinion, it's much safer than a cross-country course or even a jumper course. It's pretty rare that a horse gets injured from being bumped…although it might look a little scary," explains Murphy. "And all the rules are based on safety. You can only swing upwards at other people's racquets. [Umpires] can give a free goal for someone swinging wild."
Batton agrees, saying, "In every game there's at least one umpire, sometimes two, and they are all trained and they have to go through an umpire certification program, so they really need to know the rules. And they are polocrosse players themselves, so they're familiar with the sport and any kind of thing that could lead to a dangerous situation, such as crossing the [goal] line with the ball, are really watched carefully and stopped before they happen.
"The fact that you have horses galloping and you have six horses on the field at one time—it is more dangerous than going out and riding around by yourself with no one else in the arena, but the rules of the sport and the APA work as hard as they can to make it as safe as they can."
There is safety gear for both horse and rider as well. Four polo wraps or sports medicine boots and four bell boots are required for the horses. You also cannot use any bit that protrudes, and the horses' tails are usually braided so that racquets can't get caught in either. Riders must wear a helmet that's ASTM/SEI approved, and it's optional to wear a facemask and/or kneepads. Plus, the ball is made of foam covered with rubber, so it doesn't hurt if horse or rider gets hit.
Due in part that it's conducive to riders of all levels, relatively safe, and a team sport, polocrosse is also very family-friendly. "I enjoy the family aspect—I've been able to play with my dad, my sister has been on World Cup teams, and my mom breeds Australian stock horses (which are heavily used in the sport)," says Murphy. "And it's all very affordable. A weekend entry to a tournament ranges from $50-75, and that includes a Saturday night meal."
Even if not played with family, many participants enjoy the camaraderie that isn't found in most equestrian sports. "I had never played a team sport in my whole life, so I really love that whole aspect. And I think it's a great horse activity…you're having fun with your horse, working on your racquet skills, and having fun with your teammates," says Batton.
Not sure where to start? The United States Pony Club offers polocrosse, and it is the biggest feeder organization into the APA, according to both Murphy and Batton. For those that aren't Pony Club members, "Make contact with the APA. You can find local clubs there. Hopefully you can find one nearby, but if not, there are people that are very willing to travel. If you get a group of 10 together, you can do a starter clinic. And the local clubs will just invite you to practice and let you ride on their horses—everyone's very welcoming," says Murphy.
The sport is still relatively small in the U.S., with just 450 players, many of whom are Pony Clubbers located on the East Coast. If there isn't a club in your area yet, fear not. "In the last year we've increased by 40 players, and I think it's going to grow exponentially…I really see us in the beginning of a growth spurt," says Murphy.
Once you've found a club and learned the basics, you can start to compete. "Every level can play on weekends. It goes from A-grade down to F-grade—those are the brand new beginners," says Murphy.
A player can move up grades within a club, or together as a club, and any team can attend nationals. If you decide you really want to be competitive, there are traveling tours and even World Cup contests. For those that want to reach the top level, Murphy offers his advice: "Be seen, take coaching, and just have good character. If you really want to take it to the next level, it requires riding lessons, learning how to get used to riding different horses, and spending a lot of time throwing the ball against the wall and practicing with your racquet."
Like any other team sport, polocrosse has its challenges. "You're playing with other people, so you have to manage [your emotions]. You have to stay positive. There are going to be calls against you—keeping a cool head is one of the biggest challenges, and so is being able to play as a team and managing your teammates—because some may have fragile egos and some may not play well with others, but it requires so much teamwork," says Murphy.
"When you're running with the ball, you're not just running alone down the field. There are three other people trying to get that ball out of your racquet and keep your progress from getting down the field. So you not only have to use your riding ability and your athletic ability, but you have to use your mental abilities to think ahead and get the job done that way," adds Batton.
But as our experts tell you, for each challenge there's an even bigger reward. "It's really quite exhilarating because I could gallop down the field, and I could play strategically. It's awesome to play, and the camaraderie and friendships are too," says Batton.
"You're basically just letting it all out there on the field. You're playing as hard as you can in that eight minutes of time, and it's an adrenaline rush when you score. After
every goal you trot back to the lineup and you're clicking racquets with your teammates…it's the thrill of the
hunt—that ball is out there and if you don't have it, you've got to get it," concludes Murphy.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of Equine Journal, and is reprinted with their permission. For more information on the magazine, please visit www.equinejournal.com.