Bang-a-Balloon. Flag Flyers. Socks and Buckets. Mug Shuffle.
They all sound like games played in the backyard at a young child’s birthday party.
That’s precisely what they are, for the most part. But the equestrian sport of mounted games adds a riveting twist: relay races on horseback. Or, ponyback, more accurately.
Though any horse can play mounted games, most of the games’ horses are under 15 hands tall. A hand, used to measure the height of horses, is four inches.
Countries from the United Kingdom, where the sport originated in the 1950s, have won all but three World Championship titles since the competition’s installment in 1985. But the action-packed, yet relatively obscure sport is gaining traction in the United States.
And Damascus resident Mackenzie Taylor, 16, is part of the movement.
At the World Individual Mounted Games Championships held July 12-15 in Wales, Taylor bested 55 athletes, 53 of them male, to win the U-17 category.
She was the only American winner on the International Mounted Games championship circuit this summer, which included the World Pairs Championship — she won bronze in the U-17 division — World Team Championship and European Championships.
“I do not get too tearful, but [watching Taylor win gold] was very emotional. I was trying to keep my composure. It was almost the impossible dream come true,” said Ireland native Robert Taylor, Mackenzie’s father and coach.
The mounted games were a demonstration sport at the 2010 World Equestrian Games held in Kentucky and they are expected to be added as a competitive sport in the near future, Mackenzie said.
Robert added that the sport also is in line to be considered for the Olympic Games. That is something Mackenzie, who has been representing Team USA in world competition for two years, could set her sights on.
The younger Taylor, who said she has been riding horses since she could sit up on her own, has always been a talented equestrian, Robert said.
But the competition in Wales, her first international championship with Ink Spot, the rescue pony brought to her three years ago, was a breakout performance, her father added.
Though Mackenzie — who would be a junior at Damascus High School this year, but is taught at home due to five hours of daily equestrian training and frequent travel to competitions — said she is used to people dismissing equestrian sports. Mounted games, however, require tremendous athleticism.
Core strength and balance are imperative for horseback riding in general. Good hand-and-eye coordination also is necessary to perform such tasks as collecting rings on a wooden sword, placing small mugs atop narrow poles and accurately dropping socks into buckets while remaining on a fast-moving animal.
Some of the nearly 40 different types of games require athletes to dismount and vault themselves back into the saddle while the horse is still in motion. Riders’ speed on the ground in such games also becomes integral.
The slightest mistake — a missed target that needs to be fixed or a miscommunication between horse and rider — costs time. The most proficient mounted games athletes are the most efficient ones, the elder Taylor said.
Aside from physical skill, success in mounted games is reliant on an athlete’s connection with their horse.
Mackenzie said Ink Spot — otherwise known as “Inky” — is almost like her soulmate.
“We know each other inside-out. She knows the races by heart now. She knows when she needs to slow down, she knows when she needs to turn. I just need to do my job,” Mackenzie said. “We just have this connection. [Winning the gold in Wales] was more than just me. She won it also. It’s her passion, too.”
Mackenzie has a natural ability to communicate with horses, Robert said, something that cannot be taught.
It’s not surprising.
Both Mackenzie’s parents are equestrians and she grew up on the 100-acre farm they bought and named TaylorMade 12 years ago.
Robert was born in Ireland, the grandson of legendary huntsman Tommy Taylor, according to his online biography. He was riding when he was four and show jumping by age 10.
Her mother, Kathy, also has long competed in equestrian sports and was a former coach with the U.S. national mounted games team.
Mackenzie played soccer in addition to horseback riding until eighth grade, when she chose to focus on equestrian sports. Robert said he is pleased his daughter shares in the family’s long-running history and passion for horses.
“It’s the ability to communicate consistently, considerately, that enables you to get the best out of your horse. It’s the inconsistencies in the average rider that allows the horses to make mistakes. The horse must trust the rider. Mackenzie gets on enormously well with the horses,” Robert said. “If a horse is upset, she is able to calm him down. I had a difficult horse who wasn’t jumping for a person. She got on and got the best out of the horse.”
Until recently, mounted games was limited to athletes under 21. That restriction has been lifted and Mackenzie said she plans on maintaining some association with the sport, whether competing or coaching, for the rest of her life. And, of course, pass the tradition down to her children, she added.
“A lot of the games are associated with what kids would do. They were all developed by things you can do in a backyard, but kids doing them on these little ponies. It was once thought to be too dangerous an activity, but now it’s commonplace,” Robert said. “You do not have to start fast. You can teach a horse these skills just like you learn them.”