Janice Binkley-Cole handed what looked like a makeshift lacrosse stick to Tristan Cole and watched her smiling 10-year-old son head onto a practice field. From the time he left the sideline until he returned about 10 minutes later, Tristan's feet never touched the ground.
That's because Tristan plays polocrosse, and in his sport, he doesn't walk, jog or run. He rides a pony.
“The funnest part is when you get to run around [on the horse] and go really fast and have good goals,” Tristan said. “It's really fun.”
Tristan faced a rather stiff challenge during Wednesday night's practice, though. He was the only player on a pony; everyone else on the field — ranging in age from 13 to 56 — was big enough to ride a horse.
Still, he was undeterred while playing the game that fits its name: It looks like lacrosse on horses. Tristan constantly chased the action aboard Cherokee, trying to scoop the ball and help his team score on the 8-foot-wide goal marked by two tall white sticks.
“That's the thing about kids, man — they don't care,” said Ryan Trueblood, the Bay Area Polocrosse Club coach and a former U.S. World Cup player. “They are fearless.”
Allowing youngsters to compete against adults is part of what makes the sport, and the 22-member Bay Area Polocrosse Club, special, Trueblood and club president Linda Harris said.
In polocrosse, players are ranked from the most highly skilled A Division down to the E Division, and they compete in their skill classification regardless of age. So when members of the Bay Area club compete in the tournament at Bucks County Polocrosse Club's ninth annual tournament in Warwick on Labor Day weekend, everyone will be able to play.
“It's really a family sport,” Harris, 52, said. “Before, when my daughter was doing pony club and other stuff, it was all about them riding. But in American polocrosse, you can be any age and play, so I started riding again and playing.”
The Bay Area Polocrosse Club practices twice a week on the field in Prince Frederick in Calvert County, and about once a month, it competes with the nearby Bucks County and Sugarloaf Mountain clubs. Most of the players own the horses the play on, so they bring them along for the competitions.
And once every few months, the group competes in a larger tournament, such as the one sponsored by the Bucks County club next week. The Bay Area club hosts a tournament, the Blue Crab Classic, each June, and members will travel to North Carolina in early October for a national tournament.
The driving force behind these tournaments is the camaraderie among the clubs.
“As competitive as it gets on the field, everybody gets off the field and hugs,” Trueblood said, “and gets together at night for a big dinner.”
There's also a common goal to get younger players, like Tristan, involved in the sport.
It's not all that difficult to pick up, Harris said. Each team has three players on the field at one time, each marked with a No. 1, 2 or 3 on his or her jersey. To ensure that the field isn't too congested, the player wearing No. 3 is the only offensive player allowed within 30 yards of goal. The players wearing No. 2 act like midfielders, and those with No. 1 are defenders.
Other than that — and, of course, the inclusion of horses — the sport resembles lacrosse. Players carry rackets that resemble conventional lacrosse sticks, and they scoop the ball and pass to teammates.
Jess Russell, a 15-year-old Calverton High student who used to play lacrosse, said there are plenty of similarities between the sports.
“There's cradling and picking up the ball and catching that are the same,” she said.
The lacrosse-specific skills helped attract Russell to polocrosse, as opposed to polo. Another difference between those two sports is that polocrosse also highlights the horse's skills.
In polo, players can use different horses within a tournament, but in polocrosse, they have to stick with the same one. In fact, polocrosse, which originated in 1939 in Australia, is known as “the King of the One-Horse Sports.”
“You can only use that one horse, so you have to take of it and sort of cherish that horse,” Trueblood said.
Of course, that can be problematic when younger players outgrow a horse they've bonded with.
“Everyone does get attached,” Harris said. “So eventually with some of these kids getting to the point where they need to start riding a different horse ... it can be tough.”
Still, polocrosse is all about the bonds and relationships, Harris said. There's the bond between players and their horse and relationships between players, who are often family members.
At one point during a practice Wednesday, Greg Russell, 56, flipped a pass to his daughter, Jess, who rode downfield and rifled a shot through the goal. Jess flashed a quick smile to her father, acknowledging the assist.
“Since I compete against him at home, it's nice to be on the same team here,” she said.
Several minutes after that goal, the sky darkened and Trueblood ended practice. The players rode off the field toward the line of trucks — equipped with horse trailers — where they would wash off their mounts and give them water.
Tristan, struggling to keep Cherokee moving in the right direction, let out a chuckle. Sure, he concedes, he had tough time dealing with all those bigger horses and players.
But there wasn't much else he'd rather be doing.
“I play soccer and I used to play basketball,” he said. “I like [polocrosse] best out of any sport I've ever played.”
Bucks County Polocrosse Club's 9th Annual Tournament
When: Aug. 31 through Sept. 1
Where: St. Augustine Pony Club, 1290 Old Telegraph Rd, Warwick, MDCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun