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Original Issue


Out in Arizona they're keeping alive the tradition of the Wild West with a game that's so new—and rough—there is only one rule: anything goes just so you don't hurt the horses

It is alwaysreassuring to find that the Old West's appetite for horsemanship remainsunappeased, and that fresh tournaments of slam-bang skill are being inventedall the time. For the past three years down in Arizona, the good deputies ofthe Maricopa County sheriff's posse and their hard-hitting Quarter horses havebeen taking on all challengers in a rough-and-tumble game with the innocuousname of pushball. The object of Arizona pushball is simply to push the balldown the field across the opponent's goal line, but as can be seen from thepictures on the preceding pages, pushing the pushball is no pushover.

Indeed, explainsErnie Collier, a Maricopa County posse-man who wisely referees, there isnothing on horseback quite like pushball. "I've played polo, and there isno 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 moreexciting. Just so a horse doesn't get hurt—the people don't like that."

The onlydifficulty is that while all 14 sheriff's posses in Arizona play pushball, noone has got around to standardizing the rules. In fact, no one has yet gotaround to finding the rules. However, the Maricopa County team, unbeaten todate and scheduled to defend its state title at Flagstaff on July 24, has madea start toward drawing up a set of rules. In brief, it calls for a rectangularfield with end goal lines and a center line where play starts, four men on eachside, and an air-filled ball, made of either rubber or leather, seven feet indiameter (the ball used to be four feet in diameter, but the horses jumped overit).

Once the refereetoots his whistle, both teams charge forward at 1) the ball and 2) at oneanother much in the manner of Russian cavalry intent upon routing the enemyhost in an Eisenstein movie. As one might expect in a melee of this sort, thereare no offensive plays and no defensive plays. For three periods of 12 minuteseach, it's just one big push. And the matter of fouls is left to the discretionof the referee. The horses themselves do most of the heavy work, sometimes soenthusiastically that they inadvertently throw their riders. This will happenwhen the eager horse works up a good sweat. He'll start sticking to the balland then, in all likelihood, roll his rider off under the ball.

According toReferee Collier, a good horse will "train in" for pushball after onlyabout 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 ofpushball, short as it is, has almost as many twists and turns as does the styleof play itself. Colonel L. T. Godfrey, since 1919 the athletic director of theNew Mexico Military Institute at Roswell, is able to recall that the game wasfirst introduced to train doughboys during World War I. It was then adismounted mass exercise, and how Army authorities learned of the game isn'tknown, though the chances are they picked it up from freshman-sophomore rushesat Yale, Columbia and other colleges, where a sort of pedestrian pushball hasbeen played since the days of turtle-neck sweaters and hair parted in themiddle. In any event, Army cavalry units took up pushball from the infantry,pausing only to convert it to a horseman's pastime. The cavalry, whichdispossessed the infantry at the Institute in 1920, brought along the game,plus a copious supply of balls.

Pushball hasenjoyed spurts of popularity in California, though subject naturally to thevariations which residents of that state are wont to invent. In other words, inCalifornia horses are not often used in pushball. Hot rods, equipped withcowcatchers, are the rage for the game. But this does not mean that the horsehas 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 asthe gymkhana. One brisk gymkhana center is the Thacher School in the OjaiValley, where the students have been charging about the grounds since 1900 inthe 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 andhorse races at catch weights staged by the British in their Indian outposts.Later on the British added the pagol or "funny races," some of whichwere on horseback, others on foot or bicycle.

The gymkhana invogue at the Thacher School includes such exerting events as tilting, in whichthe 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 fromupsetting them; and broom polo. It's a pretty hectic program, so much so thatone would expect the gymkhana to be dying out in this soft age of golfmobilesand ski lifts. The gymkhana isn't, though. It's spreading. Only last week agymkhana took place at Montauk Point, Long Island, and it's reported thateveryone, including the horses, had a dandy time.