The ways to ride a horse seem endless: chasing cows, trail riding, racing, polo, horse shows, pleasure rides, drill teams, barrels, reining, jumping, endurance, even war.
Now horse soccer is catching on across the U.S. and getting a hoof hold in Montana.
In a Lockwood arena on a dusty, steamy August afternoon, riders from Laurel to Roundup played a match.
Riders controlled their ponies with reins and leg cues, but only the horse can touch the 50-inch soccer ball. Only their nose nudge, leg push or kick can move the ball through the goal posts for a point.
Blocking another horse is legal. Stealing the ball is prized.
A colorful, tall American Saddlebred named Zorba was this game’s equine David Beckham.
“He lives for this game. He knows how far the goal is,” said his rider Chelsea Picchioni, of Roundup, during their warmup. “He’s figured the game out, and I don’t think there are many horses like that.”
Appaloosa breeder and trainer Lesli Glen was on the sidelines that day, laughing, teasing and keeping score.
“Don’t let him lay down! Don’t let him roll with my saddle,” she yelled at a rider using her tack.
As the match started, the dust whirls, the shouts and cheers, whinnies, snorts and drumming hooves started flying.
Friendly insults were as central to the character of the match, as in a cribbage game.
“Ride him, ride him to it,” Glen yelled at her student, Aspen Willems, 13, the youngest rider. Her sorrel, Appy, won fourth place for versatility in the Youth World Show in Texas last July. But Max was just learning soccer and hung back from the action.
Lockwood veterinarian Jody Anderson dashed down the field, scoring the first goal in under a minute.
“One point for the A Team,” Glen shouted, naming one team for the Appaloosa, the spotted horses first bred and treasured by the Nez Perce tribe.
“Did you see how nice I was? I let her score,” said Mark Anderson about his wife’s goal.
He spent the match blocking shots by Jody and their daughter, Markee, in a friendly family free-for-all.
No sooner had her mother scored, than Markee’s mare, Omni, took control of the ball and started dodging defenders. But her father’s horse, Pepper, blocked her shot.
At one point, Mark pulled his horse to a quick stop by the fence. Pepper’s bridle had snagged one of his wife’s reins and pulled it loose, leaving her vulnerable.
“This is really tough because it’s my wife, and I’m not going to run her over,” he joked.
As Jody picked up up her rein, Glen teased Mark, “It’s not a branding, Mark. It’s soccer.”
Willems got her horse to control the ball in one downfield rush, but his final shot rolled wide.
Watching her daughter intently from outside the corral, Kim Willems said, “A little crazy, huh? But the horses seem to know what they are doing.”
The action got faster. Dust was so thick that the horses’ legs were hidden by clouds of dust.
Then Zorba and Chelsea, stole the ball, galloping downfield.
“Score! A tie! Misfits 1. The A Team 1,” Glen shouted.
Horses were sweating. Riders breathing hard, but still cracking nonstop jokes.
“Get it! Get it! Get it!” a few spectators shouted.
Amanda Mock was riding Wyatt, her 2-year-old horse, in their third soccer match, a game she started playing with him on just his 10th ride.
“For him, it’s like a kid taking a break from his studies. ‘Oh, it’s the soccer ball. I get to have fun now,’ ” she said.
Ten minutes into the match with the horses starting to tire, Glen shouted, “It’s sudden death time.”
Mark Anderson reined Pepper into position, grabbed the ball and started galloping down the field – his wife, the goalie, right in his way.
With a quick dodge to the right, Pepper pushed the ball, barely clearing the inside of the orange cone.
“Score! Score! Misfits 2. A Team 1,” Glen yelled. “Nice match, you guys!”
As the horses cooled down, the riders exchanged more jokes and tips about where to buy the best soccer balls. The ones with the toughest skins cost $185.
“I’ve got a little mule at home I’m trying to acclimate to the ball,” said Kathi Ferguson, of Laurel, competing on her Morgan, Buggsy. “He’s popped 10 of these cheaper balls so far.”