Bred with careful consideration by the notable G-String breeding program, 13-year-old Willow (King’s Gent x Nave) has channeled her spunk as a quality young horse into a solid polo career with Julian ‘Negro’ de Lusarreta. Purchased from Gillian Johnston as a made horse in 2019, Willow found her way into the 8-goaler’s hands as a consistent addition to his growing string. Although on first glance not a flashy mare, Willow is much more than what she appears, her uncomplicated and straight-forward nature making her highly desirable for the demands of professional polo competition.
Distinguishable only by a small white marking on her forehead and the Flying H brand on her left shoulder, the bay is prized for having an incredibly soft mouth, an invaluable attribute in crucial plays. Sensing her natural ability as a young horse, experienced trainer Brendon Whittle is witnessing Willow excel into her full potential as she embarks on her fourth season with Coca-Cola’s Lusarreta in the GAUNTLET OF POLO®. We spoke to both Lusarreta and Whittle, who has run Johnston’s green horse program for over two decades, for more insight on Willow then and now.
What can you tell us about her sire and dam?
Brendon: “Her sire is King’s Gent who belonged to renowned American breeder and trainer Julie Boyle. Willow’s dam, Nave, came from Miguel Novillo Astrada and was one of the best horses Gillian ever owned and played. She still has Nave as a broodmare. Miguel bought Nave in Argentina and played her in the U.S. Open Polo Championship® and Gillian played her in the tournament as well. Willow is a very well-bred horse as both her parents were very good polo horses.”
“Besides her mouth, the second thing that comes to mind is her athleticism. When I played Willow as a young horse she was all business. I never thought at any point, ‘I don’t know if this horse is going to make it.’ She always had a great mind like her mother” – Brendon Whittle
Julian de Lusarreta jumping on Willow.
What was Willow like as a young horse?
Brendon: “She was raised on the Flying H Ranch [Sheridan, Wyoming] and she went through a lot of ground work, the same process that all our horses go through. I follow the Brannaman Method so the horses get a good base on them. Willow was started by Paul Van Dyke who we send our young horses to for 30 days before starting to ride them.
Willow always showed a tremendous amount of potential and spunk. When we first started riding her she sometimes wanted to buck but as she got older she became more mature. She had a bit of sass to her which was great as a young horse.”
Julian de Lusarreta competing with Willow in the 26-goal in 2017.
How did you get started in polo?
Julian: “I started playing polo when I was six years old in my hometown of Coronel Suárez, Argentina. When I finished school, I started working with Bautista Heguy and began traveling when I was 22 or 23. I first came to the United States to play medium-goal polo for Pony Express with Bob Daniels and after that I started coming every year.
My first high-goal opportunity came in 2015 when I played the 20-goal season with Villa del Lago. Then the following year I went on to play 26-goal polo with Orchard Hill and we won the 2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship®.”
2016 U.S. Open Polo Championship® winners – Orchard Hill (Steve Van Andel, Julian de Lusarreta, Juan Martin Nero, Facundo Pieres. Pictured with former USPA Chairman Joseph Meyer.
How did Willow come to be in your string?
Julian: “I played Willow my first year with Coca-Cola in 2017. Then in 2019 when I played with them again I decided I wanted to buy her because she was one of the best horses in my string. I asked Gillian [Johnston] if I could buy Willow and since she was not playing her she sold the mare to me.”
What is Willow’s greatest strength on the field?
Julian: “Her mouth is unbelievable, you can stop her in two meters [approx. six feet]. She’s not the fastest horse but her mouth is amazing and she’s a machine! Overall, she’s a really nice horse, very comfortable to sit on, a good size for polo, and it’s easy to train and work with her.”
Brendon: “The thing that stuck out to me the most about Willow as a young horse was her mouth. She had an unbelievable mouth, soft and responsive. You can develop suppleness to some degree but Willow had a really good mouth from the get go.”
“She’s always exactly the same from the first day of the season to the last. She’s never heavy and she’s always ready to play.” – Julian de Lusarreta
Julian de Lusarreta working in tandem with Willow.
Do you have a favorite playing memory on her?
Julian: “The first year I played her in two chukkers in the 2017 Ylvisaker Cup Final that we won with Coca-Cola. I also played her in two chukkers of the 2017 USPA Gold Cup® Final against Valiente and she did great. In important games I always bring her out in two chukkers.”
Does her age effect when you bring her out in the season?
Julian: “I help her out a little bit by not playing her at the beginning of the season. I typically save her for the USPA Gold Cup® and U.S. Open Polo Championship®, but last year we couldn’t play the full season because of COVID-19. This year I decided to start her early and play all three tournaments of the GAUNTLET OF POLO®, but normally I save her for the last tournament.”
What’s her personality like on the field versus at home?
Julian: “She gets a little nervous like any of the other horses on the pony line because she knows that she’s about to play, but she doesn’t change too much. She is a little lazy when going on a set, but she gets along with the other horses and is no problem at all.”
What are your plans for her after the season concludes and in the future?
Julian: “After the Florida season she’s going to Bendabout Farm in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and she’ll rest all year until next season. I’ve only played her in the states, but my idea is to take her to Argentina hopefully next year. I would like to play her one or two years there and then retire her as a broodmare. Before Gillian sold Willow to me she took one embryo and used Hilario Ulloa’s Mesquite as the stud so she does have one baby. Willow’s daughter is named Virginia and she is a 2019 chestnut filly.”WATCH FULL VIDEO HERE
All photos courtesy of ©David Lominska.