When he saddles up, grabs a mallet and races into a polo chukka, nothing else matters. “The adrenaline, the team work, the strategic thinking, it is like playing chess on horseback,” says Kwan Lo.
But most of the all, the chief executive officer of industrial glove manufacturing company Taste International is drawn to the game for the friends he has met all over the world.
Lo, who had always been fascinated by horses, picked up the sport as an adult after he discovered that horse riding was not as “exciting” as he had envisioned. On the polo field, he met Argentinian teammate Patrick Furlong. They became fast friends and went on to compete in tournaments around the world, most recently as part of the Hong Kong amateur polo team.
So when Furlong, who is now based in Singapore, decided to launch a polo academy here last December to make the game more accessible to a wider range of people, his buddy Lo gave his stamp of approval by becoming an investor.
By then, Furlong had already cultivated a number of new polo enthusiasts.
Wu Jiat-Hui, a partner in a consulting firm, first took polo classes after an injury caused her to rein back on her equestrian activities. “Nobody tells you how addictive polo is until you try it,” she says. At around the same time that she got into the game, Colts Polo launched and she signed up her two sons, Alex and Benjamin Pang, aged 10 and 7, for classes. [see separate story]
Furlong himself is steeped in the game, notably playing against Prince Harry in the Sentabale Royal Salute Polo Cup in Singapore two years ago. The 45-year-old, three-goal handicap player was born with a love of horses in his blood. He grew up on a farm in Argentina where he had his own palomino mare. As there were no grooms, the young boy had to take care of the horse himself, waking up early to take her out to the field to graze, as well as groom and feed her. He began riding at four years of age; by eight, he was playing polo.
When he left for the United Kingdom in 1999 to get his MBA in finance at Leeds University Business School, he took his love for horses with him, playing polo while working in London. When he moved to Hong Kong in 2009, he became instrumental in re-introducing the game to the city. After the handover in 1997, the British players had taken their horses home and the polo community disbanded. “Hong Kong was the only international cosmopolitan city that did not have a polo programme. So a few players and I got together to create one,” says Furlong.
Under his captainship of the Hong Kong polo team – it grew to include local players as well – they went on to win three of the four international tournaments they took part in, including the Singapore Polo Open in 2016.
Creating A Culture
In 2014, Furlong moved to Singapore with his wife and three young children to develop Lloyds Bank’s Asia Pacific business. His journey from banker to polo school entrepreneur was purely accidental, he says. It began in 2016 when he started an informal weekend riding club for children at the Singapore Polo Club to coach his own kids. “It started growing and every weekend, I would have one more parent asking if their child could join. We became a group of about 20 without really doing anything,” he says.
Sensing an opportunity to introduce polo to more potential players here, Furlong began to look into setting up an academy on his own, something he had always dreamed of doing. He came to know about the Paisano Polo Academy in Turf City and worked out an agreement with the owner to lease part of its premises. Together with a few investors, he bought 10 polo ponies, most of which were shipped in from Argentina, and launched Colts Polo and Riding School.
By offering children and adults the opportunity to take polo lessons without having to join a club, he hopes to spread the love for polo to the local community and to cultivate an affinity for horses among the next generation.
Furlong is fully aware that the sport of kings is commonly regarded as an elite, expat-centric game. But he may well be the right man to dispel this notion in Singapore, starting with the desire to replicate the experience of his youth here and train individuals when they are young.
“We get children to learn about horses and what to do with them – that, in my view, is the missing part in many riding schools. At that young age, they form a bond with the horse while at the same time learning a lot about responsibility for the animal. They learn empathy and treat the horse in a different way.”
The mission of the school struck a chord with Kwan Lo. “Polo is a fantastic outdoor sport for children to get into, they bond so naturally with horses and that is the ethos of Colts, to train the next generation of polo players in Singapore,” he says. “It is also our mission and objective to bring the sport to a wider audience in Singapore, to be inclusive, not exclusive.”
Nine months on, the response has been so good that their classes are running at full capacity. Furlong and another trainer, Adrian “Memo” Raschia, conduct about 30 group lessons a week, with up to six students per lesson. The academy has about 100 regular students ranging in age from 5 to 60 and has coached about 300 individuals since they launched.
Furlong is also collaborating with schools to offer 10-week riding and polo lessons to students as an extra-curricular activity. The Australian International School and Nexus International School have signed on and he hopes to attract local schools in the near future.
(Related: Beach Polo on Sumba Island)
These days, Furlong may have switched out the boardroom for the stables, and power suits for riding gear, but parts of the high-flying finance guy remains. He is the co-founder of Neelix, an investment company that manages a portfolio of SME loans in Southeast Asia, a segment which he finds is underserved by banks. He is also actively involved in technology start-ups in the areas of blockchain, fintech and renewable energy. His office, he jokes, is now the marquee at Colts which also serves as the meeting point for students when they arrive for lessons.
Now that things are trotting along at a fine clip, he is setting his sights on growing the pie locally – and beyond. For starters, he is on the lookout for a bigger piece of land so that the school can expand.
“My vision is to have a number of these academies in Singapore and the region. I truly believe this sport can grow multiple times – it has been kept as it is for different reasons but it can be made bigger,” says Furlong, who is working on setting up outposts in Thailand, Malaysia, China, Australia and Argentina. “There is a longer term plan to get the local and international communities more involved in the sport at different levels.”
One way he is doing this is by organising the inaugural Polo Generations 2019 event next month, which will bring together polo teams from Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines.
The event, which counts the Argentine Embassy, St Regis and Turkish Airlines as sponsors, will include the Argentine Ambassador’s Cup tournament for international polo players. It will also host a family polo event, the first of its kind in South-east Asia, where parents and children can team up to compete against each other.
The Polo Network
One of the appeals of the sport of polo is that like golf, it provides players with an invaluable opportunity to network.
“The polo network is one of the most exclusive in the world. The connections are priceless,” says Furlong. “You are a phone call away from a person who plays polo here this weekend and is in London next week for business. Having a child play, I think, will improve his or her chances in life.”
Interacting with the horses also instills invaluable leadership skills in the rider. “You have to be able to control yourself, know what to do and execute it. It is not mechanical. We teach the techniques but the riders need to implement it – this is character forming. That is leadership.”
“The first time a child trots or canters, the joy they have is something they will never forget. And I get to be a part of it.”
What keeps him going is seeing meek children, or adults who are afraid of horses, transform into confident riders. He says: “It is very rewarding from every angle to see the lasting impact you make on people. You don’t make this kind of impact with banking. You see the effect immediately by giving them an experience they will remember forever. The first time a child trots or canters, the joy they have is something they will never forget. And I get to be a part of it.”
How To Be A Horse Whisperer
Patrick Furlong reveals his secrets to connecting with these noble steeds.
Pick your own horse
“I would never buy a horse unless I thoroughly check it myself. Walk around the horse, touch it and observe how it reacts to your presence. Ride the horse, and take note of how it performs. Test it for injury and age. In an hour or two, you’ll get a good idea.”
“There are certain riders that are better suited for certain horses and vice versa. Like people, some horses are easier than others. Some people are heavy-handed and can damage a horse if its mouth is sensitive. Some are too light-handed and may not be able to ride the horse. But as a part of learning, we teach riders to adapt to each horse. A good rider should be able to ride any horse.”
Body language matters
“Although a horse is a mode of transport, it doesn’t respond to directions unless you mean it. There is body language involved and the horse can perceive the mood of the rider. When you are around a horse, you have to be dictating the terms. If the horse knows that you are a beta character, it will get the best of you.”
(RELATED: Tao Ah Khing uses horses to encourage youths)