Saddle Up and Play Ball

It's a game where you want to land on your ass.

Or where a 20-point basketball score puts you up with the all-time greats.

If you haven't yet had a chance to play donkey ball  that venerable version of basketball where the players take to the court on the rugged animals  you'd better hurry up, because this great American pastime may be on its last legs.

"The donkey ball heyday was in the 1970s," said Jack Spicer, owner of the largest donkey ball outfit in the country, Columbus, Ohio-based Buckeye. "We used to run eight trucks in winter, do 1,300 to 1,400 ball games a year back then. Now we do half the number."

There are only about a half dozen donkey ball companies in the U.S., and fewer people each year are willing to take up the trade. About three years ago, one of the biggest in the country went out of business, leaving many of the Great Plains states bereft of that unusual brand of entertainment.

"It's not something a lot of people are interested in doing," said Brenda Amburgey, co-owner of Circle A Donkey, of Henry, Tenn. "I guess that's why there aren't so many of us out here."

Spicer took on the donkey ball king mantle from his father, who started the business in 1934, and he insists business is steady, if not as dizzyingly popular as 30 years ago. But the family business, the 65-year-old said, looks like it will die with his eventual retirement.

"I don't have anybody that's interested in buying it, and my kids are involved in other things," he said. "There just aren't any people getting into the donkey-ball business for whatever reason."

Donkey ball is usually played at fundraisers in school gymnasiums, with four players on a team. Each player tries to score points while staying on their donkeys, which is no easy feat. And, donkeys are trained to stop short and lower their heads or buck their riders at the appropriately comic moment.

"It's the donkeys that make fools of the riders, not the other way around," Spicer said.

But some of the game's critics have a different view of donkey ball, which involves prodding and pulling animals across a basketball court.

"They're dragged, they're kicked, they're pulled, they're hit, but more than that, they're subjected their whole lives to being transported across the country with (their) only reprieve being playing basketball and donkeys aren't supposed to play basketball," said Amy Rhodes, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"I think it's really dying out," she added. "And I think it's because people simply don't have an interest in this sort of thing anymore because people don't think it's funny anymore when animals are punched and kicked and dragged."

But Spicer and Amburgey say their donkeys are actually treated better than regular farm donkeys. And they say their animals certainly aren't abused. Amburgey said she makes sure any player she catches abusing one of her donkeys learns the hard way not to do it.

"If I see a person grab a handful of the donkey's hair to hold, I'll grab the person's hair and ask them how they like it," said Amburgey. "And they won't do it anymore."

But ultimately, Spicer said, the complaints come from people who might be better served worrying about other humans.

"You can humiliate a person, but these are farm animals," he said. "They're not people. Yes, they deserve to be treated humanely, and we do. But we don't think donkeys have any rights other than to be treated humanely by whoever owns them."

Spicer and Amburgey plan to go right on having a non-ass-kicking time. "I'm not going to retire anytime soon," Spicer said. "I'm having a lot of fun with this yet."