Galloping hands-free, standing in stirrups and hanging off your horse are scenes usually associated with westerns – but for the Team GB horseballers, this is their sport.
Described as “Quidditch on horseback”, two teams of six shoot balls through hoops, avoiding tackles from the opposition. At the highest level, you can score up 20 goals a game.
“Confidence is key,” Jim Copeland, 68, founder of the British Horseball Association, tells me as I clip on my helmet. “You are leaning off a moving animal and hoping you don’t die in the process.” Gulp.
Invented in France by a former riding instructor and rugby player, the sport was brought to England by Copeland in 1991. The six-month season begins next month with matches taking place at Onley Grounds Equestrian Centre in Warwickshire.
“It is a partnership with your horse,” Copeland says, as I visit Lee Valley stables in north London. “It was designed to develop trust and rapport. The moment you develop that, you are more relaxed and play better.”
My riding credentials consist of the occasional leisurely hack in the Devonshire countryside, hardly the fast-paced tussles of horseball.
The sport uses a junior football, bound with six leather handles – easily thrown, not so easily caught. Players pass the ball along the pitch to shoot at the hoop, suspended on a 3.5-metre pole at each end.
Balance is key as riders stand up in their saddles for force – no hands, just complete trust. My body ached within minutes as my thigh muscles clenched desperately to my horse Mister (short for Mr Motivator), but veteran rider Kev Burton, 38, insisted the sport attracts “those too lazy to run and not good enough at football”.
As the horses raced up and down the pitch, their riders indulged in tug-of-war with the ball. However, like a toddler playing netball with her older sisters, I plodded behind, clapping the air when the ball was passed in my direction.
After several guided attempts, I scored, but in my shock I lost balance, flew forward and only narrowly avoided the goalpost. Collapsing onto Mister’s neck, I turned to the ball on the ground.
Horseball rules mean riders are not allowed to dismount during play, so they swoop down while riding to collect the ball. They make it look so easy. A belly-strap underneath the horse holds you in the stirrups but, as I stretched, I wailed in pain.
My 5ft 4in frame was on the verge of snapping, blood rushing to my head, and I was left suspended upside-down like a possum. With a lot of encouragement, I wrapped my fingers around a handle and exhaled in relief.
“Now get back up,” Copeland said, with a look of sadistic pleasure. But, after all that, a shove to my backside was now necessary to get back on the horse.
It might be a challenging sport but horseball does not discriminate, attracting humans and horses of all ages and backgrounds. Among Copeland’s 18 horses aged up to 30, only four do not play.
“We have had everything from Shires to Shetlands,” he says, after I spot their shaggy mascot, an elderly horse called Pickles, grazing in a field. Indeed in France, where there are more than 450 clubs, children as young as four are started on Shetland ponies.
Also popular in the stables are retired and rehomed flat racehorses – with 60 per cent of horseballers preferring to ride thoroughbreds.
Burton, whose racehorse never made it to the track, says a lot of horses bred for racing would be “dog food” if not adopted by horseballers.
He added: “There is an abundance of mediocre racehorses, and a massive over-breeding problem in racing. Everyone wants a winner and won’t pay for horses that lose.”
But playing alongside the failed fillies are success stories. One steed, Mabait has run 57 races – including at Ascot and Epsom – winning £194,772 in prize money. His owner, Team GB player Ben Berry, 26, is on his fourth racehorse.
“Thoroughbreds learn easily, they’re brilliant to have,” he says. “They like the freedom to go flat out and that’s what horses were born to do.
“Even if a horse has done terribly in racing, it will have a better life in horseball. If you look after your horse, he will look after you.”
All of the squad seem utterly devoted to their horses but are concerned about the future of abandoned racehorses in a sport that is struggling financially. “If we can’t afford to play, the horses suffer too,” Berry adds. “They won’t have a home or a job.”
The male and female teams, trained by Copeland and his son Stuart, competed at the World Cup in Portugal in August, coming sixth and seventh respectively. Self-funded, it cost each player £2500 to enter, facing rivals, such as Belgium, who receive government backing.
Jim Copeland has launched, played and watched the sport develop from his family stables, sacrificing work, time and money. Yet he is not defeated.
“You win, you lose, but you have a beer and laugh after. We are all that keeps the game going,” he says as I stagger up the dusty path to the gate. “Horseball is the hobby that becomes the obsession.”