Horseball is wizardry on four legs

Fast, furious, slick and sassy. This is how devotees of Quidditch describe the high-flying game beloved of wizards in the magical world of Harry Potter.

Fast, furious, slick and sassy. This is how devotees of Quidditch describe the high-flying game beloved of wizards in the magical world of Harry Potter.

Those four words could also apply to the earthbound, but no less exciting sport, of horseball.

The nearest Muggles will ever get to taking part in the fanciful Harry Potter contest, it's easy to see why horseball is likened to Quidditch without the broomsticks. A rough-and-tumble equestrian mix of rugby and basketball played at the gallop on a tiny pitch, riders pass and tackle, shove and pull, to gain possession of the game's equivalent of the winged Golden Snitch - a football wrapped in leather straps.

Using little more than knee pressure, proponents will stoop to the ground at the canter to retrieve a fallen ball before attempting to shoot it through a hoop.

It's just the sort of crazy trick that Harry Potter would pull off on his Firebolt 2000 (maximum speed 100mph) to propel Gryffindor to Quidditch victory at Hogwarts.

A furiously exciting spectacle involving four riders a side plus a referee, you would expect horseball to be giving more established sports a run for their money.

And while in British riding circles it is taking off, with a national league, horseball participants and supporters can be counted in their hundreds rather than thousands.

Which is surprising. Because not only is this French-invented game the ultimate adrenaline rush for spectators and players alike, unlike polo which is seen as elitist, horseball is open to all-comers with a modicum of riding ability and the basic kit.

The North-East currently has one group - South Causey Horseball Club. Set up in May last year with an initial four players by GB team member Emma Lowther from Birtley, Gateshead, 25 riders aged between 12 and 75 now train regularly with her.

Nearly 12 months on the club has expanded to include one senior team and two junior competing at national level.

Easter Saturday marks the start of the British Horseball Association League which will run until October and finish with the Open Championships.

Emma is confident her charges will acquit themselves well over the coming weeks. But it will be a tough ride. The nearest competitors are in Leeds, with the majority of clubs existing in the London commuter belt - something Emma is keen to change.

Time and commitment are needed beyond weekly training.

But enthusiasm is something neither Emma nor her charges are lacking, with coaching sessions every bit as action-packed as full blown games.

It's Saturday morning at Holmside Park Arena in the heart of County Durham, and the junior squad going through their paces. Aged between 12 and 15, they are cantering around the indoor arena throwing a lime green tennis ball to each other, controlling their ponies with their knees.

Emma has set the girls a target of 40 consecutive throws. They keep stumbling around 20, the ball falling to the ground. But rather than picking it up for them, Emma makes them retrieve the ball themselves, each rider leaning out of the saddle at an alarming angle, heads almost touching, as at the canter they try to snatch it back up.

It's easier said than done. Fingers almost grasp the ball only for a pony to overshoot or a flying hoof kick it out of reach. Eventually one of the team manages to scoop the ball heavenwards with a whoop of joy.

Emma insists her charges continue their practice. If they can successfully handle a tennis ball on the move, then grasping a football wrapped in leather straps should be easy.

There is no dissent. The riders all respect their 22-year-old coach. A regular in the GB women's horseball team since the age of 16 (they're currently ranked third in the world with the men fourth), Emma is one of the best players on the circuit.

The accounts clerk fell in love with the game as a 12-year-old, but with no team in the North-East joined Nottingham. Her younger sister, Jenny, 19, later followed her.

But two years ago with interest in horseball growing, Emma decided the time was right to set-up a club on home soil. Jenny - currently studying law at Sunderland University - has again rejoined her sister and rides alongside her in both the South Causey and GB senior teams.

Meanwhile, the juniors have reached their ball throwing target and it's time to up the ante. Emma throws a full-size horseball into the ring and the riders immediately take it up.

The game involves sudden spurts, rapid stops, half turns, acceleration and saddle-wobbling shoulder charges as the opposition attempts to wrest the ball from a player and prevent them scoring by shooting it through a 3.5m high hoop.

Games might only last 20 minutes, split into 10-minute halves with a short break, but scores of 10 goals plus are common.

This is physical stuff that requires well schooled mounts, reasonably confident riders, and, at the top level at least, a high degree of fitness.

And if you aren't fit, you very soon will be. "There's no need to go to a gym if you ride and play horseball," Emma says. "I ride three horses seven days a week, and that's how I keep fit. Riding uses all your stomach and leg muscles. No horse is going to go on its own. You are always going to be asking it to go forward. Your horse won't carry you unless you are equally fit.

"In the case of horseball you're also throwing and catching and leaning out of the saddle. A horseballer must also keep their hands free, and rely almost entirely on their legs to control their mount to stop, turn and vary its speed. It's exhausting but exhilarating."

Horseball requires more skill than polo, in which players rely on reins and a whip.

Despite the speed and physical nature of the game, Emma maintains it is not only fun to play, but also safe. "Out of all the equestrian sports, horseball has the lowest accident rate. It is not dangerous at all.

"It's a fantastic team sport and is great for kids as it encourages them to exercise in a fun way. It's not boring and we find that once people have tried it, they don't want to stop playing. And unlike the past when riding was seen as an elitist pastime, horseball is something that anyone can enjoy. It doesn't require any specialist equipment except for a safety strap which costs about £35. All you need is use of a horse and normal riding kit."

Emma hopes more North-East riding schools will take up horseballing. "There are hundreds of teams in France, and I would love to see that replicated in the UK. Once seen horseball is never forgotten. It's been described as Quidditch without the broomsticks, and that's a pretty accurate picture."

* For more information of horseball visit www.horseball.org.uk

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