If you were lucky enough to grow up with horses, you probably know what fun it was to hang out, play games with your friends, and bond with your horse over long days in the saddle. As we get older, our "adult" tendencies are to slow down, let the kids have the fun, and watch longingly at the county fair as the 4-Hers do their games on horseback.
Thousands of riders across the country, young and old, are saying "phooey" to letting the kids have all the fun. They're going back to the basics with their horses, remembering what it's like to laugh and cheer on horseback while playing mounted games.
Mara Trudgen, a 20-year-old Michigan State University student, started playing mounted games in the late 1990s as a member of the United States Pony Clubs. She remembers it as a fun way to have a good time with her pony. As she progressed with her riding, she competed in dressage, eventing, and show jumping, but even today she continues to return to mounted games.
"I really like mounted games, because it's that time when you can have fun," she says. "You don't have to worry if everything is perfect and everything is right."
All you need to participate in mounted games are a willing horse and a few friends who are looking for fun.
There are several organizations dedicated to promoting mounted games and providing educational and competitive opportunities: U.S. Pony Clubs (USPC), Mounted Games Across America (MGAA), and the U.S. Mounted Games Association (USMGA).
Not Just for Kids
- Mounted games are gaining popularity all across the United States and even internationally.
- Different competitive levels offer a place on the team for every horse and rider, regardless of skill level.
- Both horse and rider build skills as they progress-especially in the areas of balance and control.
The USPC is the only one with age limitations. The other groups are open to all ages, all breeds, and all levels of riders. All these associations can assist you with organizing teams, learning the rules, and making or finding the equipment you need to play the games.
If you just want to have some fun in your backyard, you don't need to memorize all of the rules, but be aware of safety issues. Helmets and riding boots are required by the organizations, but casual clothing is acceptable. At competitions, many teams even wear team colors.
English tack is preferred, and many competitions require it in the upper-level divisions. With a lot of bending over from the saddle and quick dismounts, there's some concern that a Western saddle horn can get in the way or get caught.
Out-of-control horses are quickly removed, and people aren't allowed to ride in a division above their skill level.
"In the upper divisions, you'll have people running 20 to 30 feet apart at full speed and not coming into contact with each other," so safety and well-matched horses and riders are at the forefront, says Liz Englert, a member of the USMGA board of directors.
Even in riding mounted games for fun rather than competition, common sense is the best safety rule.
Competitions are all team based, with four or five riders with similar riding skills per team.
As a rider in the USPC, Trudgen knows what it's like to be on a team with others. Because there aren't a lot of opportunities for team activity in the horse world, this appeals to many mounted games riders.
With her teammates behind her, Trudgen says there's not a lot of pressure to perform: "We all make mistakes, and no one's going to hate you if you forgot to bend a pole or missed a dunk during a game."
In many instances, family members will ride on the same team, or parents will ride on an adult team and kids will ride on a youth team. Sometimes they'll share horses. They may even come head-to-head in open-team competition.
Family members who don't compete often tag along to clinics and competitions. After attending just a few events, even the non-riders find their way into the saddle.
Mounted games are easier to get started in than other equine-performance sports, such as jumping or reining. While horsemanship know-how is important, there's a level of play that matches every rider. "You should be able to trot and stay balanced on your horse," Englert notes.
Riders without a team are encouraged to go to competitions and clinics to be matched with others. The organized groups have barbeques, family and friends pitch in to set up games equipment, and people get to know each other on a non-competitive level.
Because many games require riders to mount and dismount quickly and reach down to retrieve items, ponies are the preferred mounts for serious gamers. Still, horses of all sizes are capable of learning the ropes. "It really doesn't matter what kind of horse you have," Trudgen points out.
Join the Club
Organizations' websites include membership, competition, and clinic information, as well as the rules and instructions for the selection of mounted games: United States Pony Clubs (www.uspc.org); Mounted Games Across America (www.mountedgames.org); United States Mounted Games Association (www.usmga.us).
Popular breeds tend to be Arabians, Quarter Horses, Pony of the Americas, and Connemaras. But there's no reason why Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, gaited horses, or horses and ponies of any other breed wouldn't be suitable.
"Besides the camaraderie you develop among your team, you walk away with an incredibly well-broke pony," says MGAA vice president Linda Caddel.
Horses need to be skilled at responding to riders' aids for stopping, speeding up, slowing down, and turning. Hot-headed, dominant horses that don't deal well with a lot of activity and new objects aren't the best choices for mounted games though. Horses with willing personalities that are new to games often will come around after some exposure time.
Riders, too, can benefit from mounted games for some surprisingly serious horsemanship workouts. "Because your hand is frequently busy, you can't rely on riding just with your hands," says Englert. "Rather, you learn to use your seat, legs, and weight more effectively."
A former hunter equitation and jumper rider, 15-year-old Kristen Anderson agrees that her balance has improved since starting to ride in mounted games three years ago.
While most of the games are based on who can complete a task the fastest, speed isn't usually the deciding factor. Instead, accuracy takes the win. "It teaches riders some bravery," Trudgen says. "It takes a lot of guts to lean off the side of your pony and know you're not going to fall off."
Englert agrees: "We've seen kids who are kind of timid get to be bold riders from doing games."
Trudgen says she has also learned perseverance, has strengthened her bond with her pony, and has an incentive to continue to work on the basics of horsemanship. "There's a challenge every time you go," Englert says. For some riders, it's not knocking over any poles during a race. For others, it's having better team communication. Every skill is a building block for the next, so any rider can experience success on her own level.
"You don't see people sitting alongside the ring, upset that they didn't do as well as they thought they should," Englert continues.
Mounted games are catching on in the United States, with organized activities scheduled in many states across the country. But they're even more popular in England, Australia, and other foreign countries. There are opportunities for riders to go overseas, borrow ponies, and compete there, as well.
Anderson has gone to France and Germany. "The people are really great everywhere I go. They're all really friendly and welcoming." She and her mother competed in a pairs competition in Germany, making the trip a great family experience.
Riders from other countries come to the United States' largest competitions, too. "It gives people the opportunity to meet people from other cultures," Englert says.
There are few chances for a rider to compete on a national or international level in other disciplines without having the most expensive horse and the highest level of training.
Big Bang for the Buck
"I think it's a very affordable sport compared to other disciplines," says Caddel, whose two daughters also competed in the USPC.
Riding in one division at a show will cost approximately $30 per horse and rider team. The price, of course, varies based on the show but remains reasonable. Even international travel can be aided by sponsorships and team contributions.
Riders interested in the sport are welcome to attend clinics and competitions to watch the action, but Caddel suggests instead: "Don't waste time watching. Come ride. We learn as we go."