A new mane event

Unique soccer games harness horsepower

Christina Lyon, a lifelong cutting horse rider, laughed as she handed over a magazine article about horses playing soccer.

“What the heck are they going to think up next?” said the 42-year-old Wellsville resident who also coaches youth soccer.

But a day at a horse soccer clinic in Overland Park last summer and a dozen friendly matches later, Lyon is hooked on a sport that, she said, makes horses more confident, more sociable and less likely to spook.

Although the sound and sight of several horses crowding and bumping each other for what looks like a swollen exercise ball can be odd, the 11 riders who range from age 10 to 56 have become comfortable with the ball and the other horses. They play at Classic Tango Stables, southwest of Edgerton.

“It’s not natural for horses to run at each other. It’s natural for a horse to run away,” said Janise Elder, of Overland Park, owner of Snickers, a 12-year-old quarter horse. “But what horse soccer brings away – and that’s why I do it – is confidence and teamwork, listening to me and overcoming his fears to do what I want him to do.”

Lyon recently demonstrated how each horse becomes comfortable with the blue ball that otherwise might scare it.

She first rolled the ball slowly back and forth in front the horse. Then, to get the horse comfortable with the feel of the ball, it’s rolled and bounced against all its sides.

Christina Lyon, Wellsville, and her horse Thunder score a goal that gets out of hand as the ball breaks through the gate during a recent game of horse

Though an overcast game on Dec. 17 was hampered by light winds that pushed the ball to one end, it didn’t stop several dominant four-legged players from passing, stealing and scoring on saddled goalies.

Lyon’s horse, Thunder, took immediately to the sport that puts faster, better-controlled horses in the forward-scoring positions and newer, less-skilled horses in the defensive back.

“He’s a great soccer player because he throws himself into it,” said Lyon of her aggressive 6-year-old quarter and working cow horse. “He’s so great because he has all of the skills. He side-passes. He backs. He goes forward. He listens to the rider.”

But she’ll rein him in if he violates one of several rules: No biting or kicking other horses, and no lifting the legs higher than the ball when dribbling.

Touch of Prince, a 19-year-old Arabian and veteran of a dozen soccer games, “likes to dribble the ball,” said owner Hope White, of Bonner Springs. “When another horse gets near it, he puts his ears back and shows his teeth.”

Most horses do take to the game right away, Lyon said, though it may take a couple of outings. But there are exceptions.

Janise Elder, Overland Park, and her horse Snickers dribble an inflatable ball along the fence line of a corral during a game at stables near Edgerton.

One is Skya, a 16-year-old Arabian who would only nudge the ball with her nose without ever demeaning herself with an unladylike kick.

“She’d (rather) be drinking martinis by the poolside,” said owner Christine Abbott, of Lenexa. “She thinks it’s below her.”

Jeff Rodgers, of Lenexa, was there recently with his 10-year-old daughter Bailey and her 16-year-old paint, Flash.

“It’s good for Bailey and Flash to experience different things. It’s good exercise, and it’s good for them to bond,” said Rodgers, who estimates the two get out twice a month during winter compared with once a week for barrel racing in summer.

The games are open to all ages of riders, and safety is an issue.

“It’s not dangerous. But anything with a horse, somebody could get hurt. And then you throw in a bunch of horses with a big ball, and wow, somebody could get hurt real quick,” Lyon said.

No one has been injured or fallen off despite some horse-rearing when the $50 ball has been trapped beneath its legs.

“The balls fare a lot worse than we do,” said Vickie White, of Bonner Springs, whose 9-year-old Arabian, My Knightmare, enjoyed her fourth soccer game as much as her first.