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It is always reassuring to find that the Old West's appetite for horsemanship remains unappeased, and that fresh tournaments of slam-bang skill are being invented all the time. For the past three years down in Arizona, the good deputies of the Maricopa County sheriff's posse and their hard-hitting Quarter horses have been taking on all challengers in a rough-and-tumble game with the innocuous name of pushball. The object of Arizona pushball is simply to push the ball down the field across the opponent's goal line, but as can be seen from the pictures on the preceding pages, pushing the pushball is no pushover.
Indeed, explains Ernie Collier, a Maricopa County posse-man who wisely referees, there is nothing on horseback quite like pushball. "I've played polo, and there is no comparison for both speed and roughness on both horse and rider," Collier says. "Pushball is rough and tough, and the spectators eat it up. Of course men get hurt at every match, but that just makes the game more exciting. Just so a horse doesn't get hurt—the people don't like that."
The only difficulty is that while all 14 sheriff's posses in Arizona play pushball, no one has got around to standardizing the rules. In fact, no one has yet got around to finding the rules. However, the Maricopa County team, unbeaten to date and scheduled to defend its state title at Flagstaff on July 24, has made a start toward drawing up a set of rules. In brief, it calls for a rectangular field with end goal lines and a center line where play starts, four men on each side, and an air-filled ball, made of either rubber or leather, seven feet in diameter (the ball used to be four feet in diameter, but the horses jumped over it).
Once the referee toots his whistle, both teams charge forward at 1) the ball and 2) at one another much in the manner of Russian cavalry intent upon routing the enemy host in an Eisenstein movie. As one might expect in a melee of this sort, there are no offensive plays and no defensive plays. For three periods of 12 minutes each, it's just one big push. And the matter of fouls is left to the discretion of the referee. The horses themselves do most of the heavy work, sometimes so enthusiastically that they inadvertently throw their riders. This will happen when the eager horse works up a good sweat. He'll start sticking to the ball and then, in all likelihood, roll his rider off under the ball.
According to Referee Collier, a good horse will "train in" for pushball after only about three hours of training. First the rider works the horse in short takes, getting him used to the ball, then he trains the horse to push the ball.
The history of pushball, short as it is, has almost as many twists and turns as does the style of play itself. Colonel L. T. Godfrey, since 1919 the athletic director of the New Mexico Military Institute at Roswell, is able to recall that the game was first introduced to train doughboys during World War I. It was then a dismounted mass exercise, and how Army authorities learned of the game isn't known, though the chances are they picked it up from freshman-sophomore rushes at Yale, Columbia and other colleges, where a sort of pedestrian pushball has been played since the days of turtle-neck sweaters and hair parted in the middle. In any event, Army cavalry units took up pushball from the infantry, pausing only to convert it to a horseman's pastime. The cavalry, which dispossessed the infantry at the Institute in 1920, brought along the game, plus a copious supply of balls.
Pushball has enjoyed spurts of popularity in California, though subject naturally to the variations which residents of that state are wont to invent. In other words, in California horses are not often used in pushball. Hot rods, equipped with cowcatchers, are the rage for the game. But this does not mean that the horse has lost its foothold in California. The state is naturally strong for rodeo, and also contains plenty of U.S. devotees of that imported miscellany known as the gymkhana. One brisk gymkhana center is the Thacher School in the Ojai Valley, where the students have been charging about the grounds since 1900 in the event and give no sign of letting up. The gymkhana (from gend-khana, Hindustani for ball house or racquet court) at first consisted of pony and horse races at catch weights staged by the British in their Indian outposts. Later on the British added the pagol or "funny races," some of which were on horseback, others on foot or bicycle.
The gymkhana in vogue at the Thacher School includes such exerting events as tilting, in which the rider, armed with a lance, attempts to spear three rings in a row; bending, in which the horse and rider wind through five stakes trying to keep from upsetting them; and broom polo. It's a pretty hectic program, so much so that one would expect the gymkhana to be dying out in this soft age of golfmobiles and ski lifts. The gymkhana isn't, though. It's spreading. Only last week a gymkhana took place at Montauk Point, Long Island, and it's reported that everyone, including the horses, had a dandy time.