Lakewood Ranch 13-year-old gallops into the spotlight against the best at the Sarasota Polo Club.
Call them the “slower days,” when 8-year-old Hanna Hornung was first learning to play polo.
Her parents, the Polo Club’s Tim and Michelle, would watch, thinking how cute all those little kids were on those horses.
“They really were just walking and hitting,” Michelle said. “We didn’t think it was any more dangerous than Hunter (show) jumping.”
So fast forward, with the emphasis on “fast,” to the first Sunday polo match of the 2022 season (Jan. 2) at the Sarasota Polo Field.
Competing against the adults, 13-year-old Hanna was holding her own.
“You see that speed,” Tim said. “Watching her out there can make your heart race.”
Michelle admits that her heart does race.
“She has taken numerous falls (over the years), so I just hope she can hold on,” Michelle said. “Taking a spill can be serious. She is all about adventure and having no fear, but I try not to think about it.”
In the first game Jan. 2, Grant Mayer, a 1-goal player for Florado/Sharp Printing, was thrown over the head of his horse, which had bumped another horse. Mayer suffered only a minor injury, but it was a scary moment. Add the speed of the higher-ranked players to the aggressiveness of the play on Sunday, and it can lead to mishaps.
With some of the higher-ranked polo players yet to arrive for the new season, which began in December, some openings have been available for novice players in the weekly tournaments. Hanna has stepped forward to fill one of those openings.
Her stellar play during the week has helped her team make it to the Sunday feature twice.
There she has played in front of thousands of fans, who line both sides of the field.
“I was ready, but at the same time, I wasn’t,” said Hanna, who attends The Out-of-Door Academy. “It was scary, against players at another level. When I first got out there, I thought I would be nervous. But I kind of forgot, and I was just focused on the game.”
Hanna is a -1-goal-ranked player, which is the novice class. Her team, Organic Matters/North South Wealth Management, included 5-goal player Alan Martinez. Professional players often are ranked as 5-goal players or higher.
Everyone on the field for the game was ranked higher than Hanna, and no other female was playing. The opposing team, Barefield, included 4-goal player Stuart Campbell, who is Hanna's coach.
“I wouldn’t say I didn’t belong, but it was different,” Hanna said.
Campbell said Hanna can hold her own but she needs higher-quality horses and more experience against higher-ranked players if she wants to be a factor on Sundays.
“She’s pretty much fearless,” Campbell said. “That’s why she will go further than most people. She’s gutsy, and she has that killer instinct.
“One thing I have found is that she is like a sponge, and she takes what I am teaching and applies it. She has a good head on her shoulders.”
Tim and Michelle picked up their first taste of the speed of polo a few years ago when they watched Campbell’s kids, Ian and Pippa Campbell, play in an intercollegiate tournament.
The Hornungs had moved to the Polo Club in 2012, and although neither had any riding experience, they were encouraged by neighbors to see if their children would like polo.
Their oldest daughter, Kaitlyn, liked the sport, as did Hanna, their youngest. Their other daughter, Alexa, didn’t take to polo.
Kaitlyn eventually started to spend much of her time pursuing her musical interests, while Hanna embraced polo.
“I liked the speed,” Hanna said of her early days playing polo. “And everyone on the field was having fun.”
Hanna played against rated competition for the first time early in the 2021 season.
“I saw what I was getting into,” she said.
After her Sunday matches, she knows she needs more work.
“I need a lot of lessons, a lot of practices and a lot of work on horses,” she said.
Her parents knew they would need to upgrade her horses if she was going to play against highly rated players, whose horses would be faster than what Hanna had been riding.
On Dec. 23, 2020, Hanna went to a ranch to try out a horse, Paloma. The horse was smooth when running with her and a sweet horse in general.
“The next day, Paloma was in our barn with a Santa Claus hat on,” Hanna said with a big smile. “She is my fastest horse.”
Tim and Michelle will continue to upgrade their horses, which means their 90-pound daughter will be going faster.
Both parents said that while they realize polo is more dangerous at the higher levels, the sport has had many positive effects on Hanna. Both said she has gained confidence in everything she does because of polo.
“It does take up a lot of time,” Hanna said. “You have to feed them morning and night. I ride every day but one.”
But has it made her more organized and responsible?
“I think so ... except for my room,” she said with a laugh. “I did clean the barn last night.”
She also loves the friend she has made in Paloma.
“It’s amazing how good a horse she is,” Hanna said. “I stay in the barn with her and stand there, patting her and giving her treats. She nudges me ... she is very loving. It’s really important to have that relationship in the games.”
Horses like Paloma could pay off for Hanna in another way. Forty-one universities have established intercollegiate polo programs, and 26 of those are women’s teams. The United States Polo Association awards scholarships, and many of the college programs receive grants to help players with the cost of an education.
Hanna likes the possibilities of where polo might take her.
Right now, though, she has one particular destination in mind. The International Polo Club of Palm Beach runs its polo club in Wellington.
That’s on her must-do list.
Why? She names Love Shack, Fancy, Roller Rabbit, Stoney Clover.
Those aren’t the names of horses.
“It’s shopping,” Tim said with a laugh.
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