A unique sport

Think lacrosse is a challenge? Try playing on a horse.

Freshman Vanda Niemi tells of her adventurous experiences while competing in this uncommon activity

By Dominique Hlavac

Talon staff writer

It was her first tournament. The sky was cloudy, and the heat of the game was on. With just seconds left, Minnehaha freshman Vanda Niemi galloped back to the starting lineup after a goal was scored on her team. The score was 6-7 with Niemi’s team down by one point. It had just rained that morning and there were little divots all over the field.

Suddenly, she felt her horse trip in one of the divots. He started bucking. She pulled on the reins and tightened her leg muscles to try to slow him down.

She saw his neck, then his shoulder and then the sky, followed by a THUMP. She felt the cool, soft dirt under her as she landed on the ground.

“Get back on!” Voices yelled. “The game is about to end!”

In a split second, she jumped back on her horse, Goldie and was back in the game.

“The fall didn’t effect me much, but sadly I let the last goal in beforehand,” Niemi said.

Sandstorm, Niemi’s team, lost the game by one point.

Little falls like these are inevitable in the fast moving game of polocrosse, a  combination of polo (played on horseback) and lacrosse.

The English style riding sport, which originated in Australia in the 1930’s and came to America by means of college students, is a growing pastime and a greatly enjoyed activity among youth and adults in the United States.

According to the American Polocrosse Association (APA)  more than 6,000 people play the game in 44 clubs through the APA, and many more through Pony Clubs across the United States.

The game is played on horseback, in English style saddles, on a field 100 yards by 60 yards. Each match is divided into two, eight minute time periods called chukkas. There are six players on a team, two groups of three, that alternate playing chukkas. So there are six players on the field at any given time, three from each team.

There are three positions on a team;  #1, the #2 and the #3 players. The #1 is the offensive player and is the only one on the team allowed to score. The #2 player is the midfielder, often called the swing player, because they can play offense or defense but are not allowed to leave the middle area. The #3 player is the defensive player or the goalie.

“Even though my jersey says #3, I like playing the number two because its more of an assisting role. You’re kind of the relay between the one and the three,” Niemi said. “But my ball handling skills aren’t so great, so it’s kind of a challenge for me.”

Each goal is worth one point and, the object of the game is to score as many points as possible on the opponent’s goal before the end of a match.

To play polocrosse, one has to be in good physical condition.

“It’s a lot of fast paced work and you’re moving around a ton on the horse so you do get worn out,” said Niemi, who started playing polocrosse last spring when she heard about it through her riding instructor and polocrosse player Dori Johnson and was interested in trying it out.

There are many polocrosse clubs around Minnesota. The closest to the Twin Cities are: the Croixside Pony Club in St. Croix and the Minnesota Extreme Polocrosse Club that has locations across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The leagues aren’t determined by age, but rather skill level. There are four levels of polocrosse: A, B,C and D. A is the most advanced while D is the least advanced.

During the regular season, which is from spring to about midsummer, players practice at the beginning level, at least once a week.

During practice, the players work on several different skills, but the practice starts with stretches for the players to avoid muscular injury, then warming up the horse by walking, trotting and cantering (a slow gallop).

Then the players work on their skills.

“[Skills like] picking up the ball and throwing, a few different strategies, sort of like you would practice for basketball,” Niemi said.

Just as the riders need to develop their physical fitness, so do the horses.

“The horses are incredible athletes,” said Johnson who is also on the world cup polocrosse team. “Anything you can do you on your own two feet, you can do on horseback.”

A good polocrosse horse needs to be able to move with the rider and respond to commands given by the rider’s body language. They also need to be able to be in close proximity with other horses while staying calm. Speeding up and slowing down quickly are also ideal.However, this is not the case for Niemi’s leased horse named Goldie,

“He is fairly good at speeding up, not so good at stopping.” Niemi said. “He’s a lot of fun, but he’s not the best polocrosse horse.”

If horses or other riders don’t behave properly, they pose potential risks for the safety of the other horses and players.

One such example was when Johnson suffered torn tendons and ligaments in her ankle last April. Another rider didn’t see her, hit her horse at a dangerous angle and knocked her horse on top of her, but she didn’t let this injury set her back. She had surgery done and was back playing within a matter of weeks.

“The risks are always kind of in the back of your head,” Niemi said, “they’re not always preventable, but you can try if you learn skills that make them less likely.”

Although there are risks involved, they don’t keep people away from the game. It is a very family friendly sport, played by parents, children and spouses alike.

Whether you’re looking for a competitive sport, a way to get involved with horses, a great way to stay in shape, a way to have fun with your family and friends, or just a good time, then polocrosse is a great option.

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