By Emily Hurst
It all starts with one kid. And where there’s one kid, they’ve got friends. Throw in a few saintly polo ponies and you’ve got a kids polo program. It seems easy, right?
I may have oversimplified.
Without question, the most important ingredient to running a kids polo program is the horses. Whether schools use actual ponies, retired polo ponies, or playing polo ponies with a good temperament, most kids’ polo instructors will tell you that a horse that’s good with kids is irreplaceable.
A polo pony for kids is a very specific pony. One that is not too tall or strong, so they don’t need a lot of strength to control it. Add the patience of a saint, so the horse won’t do anything too sharp or sudden even when asked.
Having an arena to teach in also makes finding horses to use for kids easier. In my experience, the arena walls can make even the sharpest or fastest polo pony manageable for a kid. The very best ponies have an innate ability to tell when it’s a kid on their back and take extra special care.
And while the horses are important, there are a few other factors to keep in mind.
The instructor’s mindset is also key. As an instructor, we want to explain everything, to get stuck in the details and the technique. But with kids, there’s a whole different set of goals. Or to be more specific, one goal: to have fun.
It’s all about making sure the kids are having fun and, above all, safe. The technique happens all on its own. Because believe it or not, the technique that we agonize over as adult players and adult polo instructors comes more or less naturally to kids.
I’ve been told it has something to do with the way kids need to position themselves to compensate for the weight and length of the mallet. Regardless, watch a kid who has just learned to swing a mallet, and you’ll see near-perfect technique like the kind you work for years to master.
Their ability to relax and have fun also carries over to their riding. In my mind, the key component that adults struggle to master with their riding is the ability to relax. It’s also how to move with the horse and let it do exactly what they’re trained to do, without too much interference. Teach the kids a few riding basics, and you’ll find that many of them are naturals, assuming fear doesn’t get in the way.
Finally, keep in mind that they’ve got time to learn the rules of the game, as long as everyone is staying safe. So sit back, relax, and enjoy how quickly the kids pick things up.
Another important thing is the kid’s mindset. Kids have to want to be there. In reference to another sport, I heard that as a coach, you’ve always got to make sure the kid wants to be there – and not the parents. You’ll notice the kids who want to be there and the kids who are there because they have to be. One kid that doesn’t really want to be there can ruin the chemistry of the group and the fun for the other kids. So while it’s not the easiest conversation to have, it’s always a good idea to identify those kids and try to change their mindset. Or maybe, try to talk to the parents about why they want their kids to be there.
So okay—you’ve got some kids, you’ve got some saintly polo ponies, and you’ve got a fun-loving instructor. What more could you need?
A plan is usually a good idea. But with kids’ polo, it’s absolutely possible to over plan. As I said, kids love to play and have fun. And what better way to have fun than to let them play chukkers! In my case, I supervise slightly longer chukkers and change the teams after each chukker. That way, all the kids could learn how to work with each other, and no one team could be too strong or weak.
Kids also love something to work towards. So if time and budget allow, organize a tournament where they can show off their skills to their friends and family. And maybe, winning a little prize always goes down well.
While running a kids polo program might not suit every polo club, farm, or instructor, I will say that it’s extremely rewarding. It also reminds me every time I watch and coach how much fun polo is. It’s something that’s easy to forget when you get too bogged down in the details. Watch some kids riding around laughing and competing with each other, and I guarantee you’ll remember why we all do this: To have fun!