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Horseball in France
By: Christina Couch (justin) 2011.12.13

lets goLET'S GO With it's lavish chateaux, lavender fields, medieval streets, and sidewalk cafes, France conjures up any number of postcard-ready scenes. To the proud French, it is only natural that outsiders flock to their history-steeped homeland. Although France may no longer manipulate world events, the vineyards of Bordeaux, the museums of Paris, and the beaches of the Riviera draw more tourists that any other nation in the world. Centuries-old farms and churches share the landscape with inventive, modern architecture; streets posters advertise jazz festivals as as as Baroque concerts. The country's rich culinary tradition rounds out a culture that cannot be sent home on a four-by-six. Buy the Let's Go France


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In the city of love, light, and romance, Christina Couch falls for a sport of a different breed.

"YOU are the chef," my instructor tells me, but we're not standing anywhere near a kitchen. We're in the middle of a pile of dirt, a rarity in a city built on shiny shoes and crisp, tailored suits. We're both staring at the same thing, a radiantly stunning creature I will later stand on as it gallops at full speed toward our ultimate destination. Horseball in France, means boss, and my instructor, Nicolas Theissard, a member of the top horseball team in the world, is trying to tell me that in order to master Europe's newest "in" sport, I must first become a master of my own horse. Easier said than done.

I learned about horseball lessons at La Grange Martin Equestrian Center at a time when I was most open-minded to new adventures: I was totally broke, totally lonely, and the opportunity to do anything for free was too good to pass up. Interning for a small publication in the City of Light, I was set up with a free lesson in exchange for an article on the subject. So what that I didn't really speak French? Who cares that I had never actually ridden a living mammal, much less stood on one? This was an opportunity not only to expand my microscopic writing portfolio but also to do something on a Friday afternoon besides watch wrinkled rich ladies with small dogs stroll past my embarrassingly expensive tenement apartment.

I spent the 30-minute train ride to the outskirts of Paris reviewing my notes. Okay, two teams of four players (eight if you count their horses) race across a dirt, sometimes mud, pitch passing a leather-strapped ball between one another in hopes of slinging it into the other team's elevated hoop. To score points, the ball must be passed at least three times between at least three different players without touching the ground; to keep their arms free, players stand in stirrups and guide the horse with their bone-crushingly strong thighs. Got it. Pass, shoot, score, don't sit down. The concept sounded easy enough. Glancing over the rules and keeping in mind the unspoken Parisian law of never getting even the slightest bit soiled, I imagined a polite cross between polo and basketball, with well-coiffed hair and golf applause. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Pulling up to La Grange Martin, I immediately saw the stark contrast to the trendier-than-thou boutiques and nightclubs of the capital of romance. La Grange Martin was...well...dirty, smelling - as most stables - do of manure and sweat. Instead of the Gucci bags and Armani sunglasses, men, women, and children wore stained riding gear and were huddled around a vending machine selling one-euro hot chocolate. The scene turned out to be indicative of the spirit of the game. Easy to learn, coed, and open to all ages, horseball in France is played on a predominantly local level, with more than 600 teams spanning the country and 18 in Paris alone. Though horseball in its current form surfaced 20 years ago in Bordeaux as a way to make riding instruction fun, it owes much of its structure to bizarre foreign influences: Both the Argentine game of pato (played by gauchos tossing around a dead duck in a bag) and the Afghan game of buzkashi (in which teams raced through the dessert, using a headless goat corpse instead of a ball) have helped shape horseball into what it is today.

Unsettling as its ancestry may be, the sport is undeniably fun; it takes but a few minutes at full gallop to see why it has spread through France so quickly. A horseball game is short (only 20 minutes total), fast (on average, one point is scored every 90 seconds), aggressive (ramming your speeding mammal into someone else's speeding mammal is an acceptable way to steal the ball), and completely negates everything you thought you knew about the laws of French etiquette. During an intense game, players covered in grime routinely sideswipe one another and wrestle mid-gallop for the ball, creating a constant air of excitement and impending danger. Somehow just knowing that at any moment a player could be trampled to death by a team of steeds gives the game that edge-of-your-seat quality that makes contact sports addictive.

Even with zero linguistic skills and the physical coordination of a drunken rhino, I managed to have a fantastic afternoon fumbling my way to the hoop and using wild gestures to communicate. The riding instructors are patient and will adapt to your ability level, making an hourlong lesson in a foreign tongue whiz by faster than Theissard heading to the goal. When leaving the stable, I pulled the master himself aside and asked in my superbly fractured French, "Does you believes there is chance for me in number one world horseball squad?" And with a mixture of both pity and even more pity, he shrugged and said, "You are the chef."


LOWDOWN
Lessons at La Grange Martin Equestrian Center cost 20 Euros per hour and can be booked from the U.S. by calling +33-1-69-07-51-10 or via e-mail at lagrangemartin@aol.com. For more information, check out La Grange Martin online at grangemartin.com (only in French), or read up about horseball at horse-ball.org.

Photos by Marco Proli

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