Any sport needs a constant influx of talent. Veteran players are highly valued, but young people willing to commit to the work ethic required to excel are essential to the growth of all sports. Polo has been termed the sport of kings, but the up-and-coming players will determine its long-term future.
Jem Handler is one such player. “Jem is very talented and a joy to teach,” says Max Secunda, director of polo at Windsor. “She is quite slight, so she may not be as strong as some other players, but she has a way of sitting on the horse that not many people have.”
On February 19, the day of the Windsor Charity Polo Cup, she played in the junior demonstration match in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, but she couldn’t stick around to see the high-goal match (the highest level of play, determined by the cumulative team handicap). Jem and teammate Finn Secunda, Max’s son, were hurrying to Wellington to play in an invitation-only tournament on the big International Polo Club field in front of close to 8,000 spectators. Jem and Finn are both 14 years of age.
Melissa Handler, Jem’s mother, sees ancillary benefits to her daughter’s polo passion. “Jem is more confidant since starting this sport. I see focus and determination in her,” she says. “This was my daughter’s choice. This was not driven by me; Jem is a self-starter. She has given up some of her personal life to take this opportunity.”
There are many moving parts to polo: taking care of the horse, managing the equipment, relating to other players, playing as a team, listening to trainers, and communicating with grooms. For youngsters like Jem and Finn, this is the kind of life preparation that fosters maturity: prioritizing what is important, taking on challenges, having goals.
“There is an element of discipline and physical fitness and being on top of things that comes with polo,” says Max. “I’ve taken lots of people out to ride and hit balls, but only a percentage will go on with it. The experience of participating in this motivates people to come back to it as adults once other obligations are met. It’s no coincidence that business leaders want to play polo. It challenges them.”
On Windsor Charity Polo Cup day, Jem gained valuable experience that she plans to use to hone her skills. “The junior demonstration match at Windsor was easy to maintain, and the ball was always moving,” she says. The 40-goal match in Wellington later the same day, among some of the best junior players in the world, was a big step up. “That match was played at a very fast pace. I did not prepare for the level of intensity in this game. The opposing team had some of the best junior players in Argentina, so it was a struggle to keep up at their level.” While her team did not bring home a win, Jem knows it was an opportunity not to be missed. “It was really fun to play in both matches,” she says.
At the pinnacle of young polo is the exceptional Hope Arellano. In 2017, at the age of 14, she became the youngest-ever winner of the Women’s U.S. Open. When she was 13, she won the 12-goal United States Polo Association’s Pete Bostwick Memorial tournament with her two brothers and her father, Julio, who was the highest-rated American player for many years.
“I have ridden horses my whole life, but I knew by age 9 that I wanted to be a professional polo player,” Hope says enthusiastically. “To have the kind of family support I enjoy is fantastic. My parents coach me all the time. You can ask for nothing more than to have your family behind you.”
Hope played at the Windsor Charity Cup this year, just one of many matches on her dance card. She plays almost exclusively with adults, but understands that young players will drive the growth of the sport. “Polo is so rewarding, and you can truly get better every day no matter your level,” she says. “This is what makes it so attractive for young people.” That, and being around horses. “My horses are everything to me,” she declares, “my favorite part of the sport. They are teammates, even more than human teammates. You have to learn their traits inside out. The more you know your horse, the better you will be on the field.”
For Max, there isn’t one particular approach when teaching children, because they are all different. “Some are hyper-focused and can be pushed, while others are more fun, and we like that, too.” Going all in for polo can be an expensive endeavor, but young students can get started if they are committed. “With two horses, kids can get competent, understand the positions, get their technique polished and learn to play the game well,” he says.
Max has a couple of youngsters working at the Windsor barn to earn rides. “When members have finished riding, they get out there and practice,” he explains. “You can see the determination in their eyes.”
Eleven-year-old Sophie Fischer rides Pabla and Pitstop after completing barn chores. “My first ride at Windsor was a trail experience with Max, and after a few visits to the barn, he suggested I start learning how to play polo,” she says. “He is a great mentor and encourages me in all my pursuits.” Last year, Sophie played in her first match at Wellington, and she hopes to return this season. “I do see polo as being part of my life going forward.”
Windsor provides a near-perfect setting for those wishing to try their hand at the sport. “It’s a privilege to be here,” says Max. “The horses are comfortable, we have a very good stick and ball field maintained to perfection and wooded trails where horses and riders can get back to nature.”
Max would like his junior polo program to grow, but the primary goal is for students to have positive life experiences. “If the kids achieve wonderful and lofty things in the game, that’s fantastic; but if they just have an enthusiasm for it and learn to love horses, that makes me very happy, too.”
Max recently found a photo of Jem and Finn on horseback when they were about 10 years old. “They weren’t very skilled then, but that was a special time,” he recalls. “That picture reminded me that it is very important to just have fun with it.”