Horses cantering near-collision-close, riders leaning, scooping a ball and flinging it to the only teammate allowed to send it to the goal.
What’s happening on this field between Frederick and the nation’s capital?
It’s polocrosse, which borrows from polo and lacrosse, sports that each have a strong following in the region.
“Think of polo played with lacrosse rackets and a soft ball,” the team playing, Sugarloaf Mountain Polocrosse Club, suggests on its website.
The club draws players from around the state to play on its international- to beginner-level teams.
It is one of two Maryland clubs, among 46 in 21 states, listed as members of the American Polocrosse Association.
The club’s tournament over Labor Day weekend in Boyds drew competitors from as near as Pennsylvania and as far as Oregon and Washington state.
‘They drink champagne,
we drink beer’
On the field, polocrosse seems akin to its tony relative, polo.
But, on the sidelines, players and followers tell another story.
“The biggest difference between polo people and us is they drink champagne and we drink beer,” polocrosse player Terry Gray said during a recent Sunday practice.
“And chocolate milk,” added club treasurer Kathleen Balogh, referring to the drink of choice for many children who play.
Coach Nick Balogh, her son, is a top-level player who has competed nationally and overseas. His three siblings and father also play.
Many polocrosse players learn the game through their local chapters of the U.S. Pony Club, which includes it among the many horse sports in its program.
For the whole family
Like many Pony Club activities, polocrosse tends to be a family affair.
Gray treks from Highland, in Howard County, to Boyds with his children Molly, Sean and their horses for practices and play on Potomac Pony Club’s property, which serves as the team’s home field.
Club members Sarah Broadhurst and her son Kevin, 13, travel from Urbana to Boyds to play.
Sugarloaf Polocrosse’s 32 members range in age from spunky 9-year-old Sabine “Bean” Hatcher to an Eastern Shore man who will soon be 71.
“It’s an activity the whole family can do — you don’t have to be a top equestrian,” said Broadhurst, whose brother plays, too.
“It takes thought, agility and it draws a lot of boys because it’s a fast-paced sport,” Broadhurst said.
Like lacrosse, polocrosse is played “with a ball and a stick” Nick Balogh said.
Yet for skills, it has more in common with polo, said Nick Balogh, 26, who played lacrosse in middle school and high school and also has played polo.
A key difference is polocrosse’s shorter field, 160 yards long by 60 yards wide, about half the size of a polo field.
And, per player, polocrosse only takes one horse — usually a quick, versatile medium-sized mount sometimes used for other equestrian pursuits.
Unlike polo players, who are allowed to change mounts, polocrosse players are allowed to ride only one horse, unless theirs gets injured.
That one-horse rule alone makes polocrosse much less costly than polo, which can require a “string” of pricey equines for each player.
Norms for competing and traveling also make polocrosse more affordable.
Entry fees are lower, and “I actually find it to be cheaper” and “much more relaxed” than most horse sports, said Broadhurst, whose family polocrosse mounts include a quarter horse formerly ridden western-style and a former top show jumping pony.
She and other players said a big draw is the camaraderie, even between opponents.
“When you get there it’s like a big family reunion,” Broadhurst said.
At several-day events — such as tournaments and a recent clinic in Boyds taught by renowned Australian polocrosse coach and racket maker Graham Bennett — most players and their families avoid the expense of hotels, overnight stabling and restaurant meals.
They usually camp overnight, on site, with their horses lodged in temporary pens and themselves in tents or hammocks in horse trailers, sharing meals.
Although the horses have to be conditioned and fit to compete, watching them — heads dropped low, blowing softly between chukkas and munching hay in their pens — it’s clear these horses generally are a cool-headed lot who, nonetheless, know how to turn up the heat.
Rules of the game
Play does get hot, but rules and penalties are structured to prevent riding and racket handling that could injure a rider or horse.
“Riding off” opponents to move them sideways and advance the ball is common. However, crossing in front of or clipping a horse from behind is forbidden, as is sandwiching an opponent between horses.
Umpires can eject a player for dangerous behavior, including hitting another player in the head or helmet or hitting a horse.
While a polocrosse team includes six players, just three from each team are on the field at a time.
Each team is organized into two sections of three players.
Sections alternate playing six- or eight-minute chukkas, which gives players’ horses time to rest until their section is called back to play.
As in polo, polocrosse horses are often former racing thoroughbreds. Some are former polo horses.
Horses used for “cutting” cattle from a herd also can make good polocrosse horses, Nick Balogh said.
That’s because much of the game involves matching the moves of another animal.
Horses bred and tested for working cattle in Australia — where polocrosse developed as a sport after starting in England as a riding school exercise — have also proven good at polocrosse.
Sugarloaf Mountain Polocrosse Club welcomes riders who want to try the sport.
The club encourages anyone who thinks their horse might not like the game to come learn and practice first on foot.
Many horses adapt, players said.
Still, thoroughbreds, with strong legs, short pasterns and good temperaments make some of the best polocrosse horses, equine veterinarian Dr. Javier Donatelli said.
Donatelli, a seasoned polo player, counts many polocrosse horses and players among his clients in Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Personally, Donatelli said, he prefers mares, because they are “smarter,” more sensitive and can pass those qualities on if they become broodmares.
Polocrosse season winds down through the fall and after a winter break, practices start again in March.