In the game of polo, the sound of hooves rhythmically beating the ground resonates throughout the playing field as riders and horses work in unison to score a goal for their team. Polo is a fast-paced game requiring drive, athletic ability, and courage – qualities exemplified in the youth from the Work to Ride (WTR) program. Yet, unlike the polo players enrolled in exclusive private schools, living privileged lifestyles, the young players from WTR are inner city kids from low-income families in West Philadelphia. Work to Ride is helping these kids make strides in the game of polo and in their lives.
Conceptualized by Lezlie Hiner in 1994, WTR is an intervention program teaching horsemanship and the game of polo to disadvantaged youth from ages 7 to 18 in exchange for work. “Work” in the program’s name refers to barn maintenance and management, horse care, and feeding. Hiner says, “It’s really total care of the horses, horse education (that’s work for kids!), taking care of their equipment, and being helpful in running the barn.” Besides riding and playing polo, kids are rewarded with a variety of other equestrian activities including fox hunting, hunter paces, gymkhana (games on horseback) and trail riding.
While the concept of inner city kids competing in the National Interscholastic Polo division took some people by surprise, the WTR team has not only been playing, but beating teams from Ivy League private schools. Hiner proudly states, “Last year a young woman at Yale asked one of the kids, ‘You know how to ride?’ Not only did they know how to ride, but we beat them by about 15 goals.”
However, the focus of Work to Ride is not purely equestrian or athletic. It flows into academics and life skills. Youth enrolled in the program have been identified as “at risk” because of academic problems or misconduct, involvement in the juvenile justice system, and/or challenges in the family, among other factors. By engaging these kids in positive activities with animals within a nurturing environment, WTR aids them in achieving goals both on the field and off.
In order to stay in the program, kids must maintain a minimum of a “C” average in school. They must be patient and work steadily toward their goal, because the sport of polo is not learned after a few days, a few weeks or even a few months. According to Hiner, it takes approximately one year for a child to develop the skill of riding and two years for a child to reach the basic level of playing polo.
When kids join WTR, they are expected to stay in the program until they graduate high school. This long-term approach offers a safe haven to these talented hopefuls while teaching them critical life lessons. While the kids have taught Hiner patience and understanding, she strives to teach them much more than horseback riding and the game of polo.
“Education is tantamout to getting out of the ghetto and having the things they want in life. Sometimes there are no shortcuts; you have to put the time into something to get the desired results. They have learned that there is more to life than Philadelphia and many types of people to meet. That being responsible, or not, doesn’t just affect them. That the choices they make are theirs and excuses don’t cut it.”
One of the secrets behind the success of WTR, besides Hiner’s no-nonsense educational style, is the special bond that forms between child and horse. The WTR youth love being around and taking care of horses. Spending time with these beautiful, sensitive and intelligent creatures is a gift and a reward. Through this bond, kids learn trust, compassion, humility and empathy. Hiner, who has been passionate about horses all her life, exclaims, “Horses are sensitive and a good barometer for emotions – yours and theirs. The bond is unconditional. When you ride and everything clicks – your cues, their response, and everything just flows – it’s the coolest feeling in the world!”
Hiner, who worked on the racetrack on-and-off for twelve years, was inspired with the idea for WTR while stabling her horse at the Chamounix stable, where the program now takes place. She noticed that kids would show up at the stable, wanting to spend time with the horses. Hiner recalls how an 11-year old boy named Carl made an impact on her, which led to WTR’s creation.
“Carl would come up with Georgie, the blacksmith, and hang round while Georgie shod the horses. Georgie would bring him along just to get him off the street. One day a group of us were going for a trail ride and we decided to take Carl with us. From that point on, Carl would come to the stable every weekend; he would work hard on Saturdays and we would ride on Sundays.”
While Hiner admits the idea behind the program is not a new one – it is common practice for stables to employ working students – she decided to turn her idea into full-time commitment and focus on low-income kids. Hiner works seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day. On Saturdays, when the youth are sharpening their riding and polo skills from morning until night, she even drives several of them to the practice destination and back home at the end of the day. Hiner doesn’t have children of her own, but she is essentially a second mother to her WTR students. When one of them shows up late to the barn, she knows just how to instill the lesson of responsibility – she assigns more of the least favorite activity to the tardy student, which happens to be cleaning stalls. Hiner laughs, “They think they work too much. I think they don’t work enough.”
WTR is structured to motivate youth to think beyond societal expectations and dream bigger. Kids who have been in the program have gone on to attend trade school and college. Hiner says that her greatest reward in running the program is, “We have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives. All of the graduates have turned into good kids, fine young adults.”
Chris Perren, a WTR graduate, is currently enrolled full-time at Valley Forge Military College (VAFMC). While watching a recent polo game between his new alma mater’s military academy and Cowtown, the official name and sponsor of the WTR team, Perren couldn’t help but shout “Defense!” and cheer for the WTR players. As a young boy, Perren never imagined that he would be playing polo, or that he would be enrolled in college on a polo scholarship. Yet this sport has taken him on a new adventure in his life and opened up opportunities, which he never knew existed. He is planning on pursuing a degree in Physical Therapy after finishing his education at VAFMC.
During the recent game, Raymond “Rico” Munson, a 17 year-old high school senior enrolled in WTR, displayed a powerful combination of natural talent and athletic ability that makes him an impressive player to watch. Scoring all but one of the goals for WTR, Rico has been in the program for four years. Like Perren, Rico never would have believed that he would be playing polo or that he would be invited to attend VFMC on a polo scholarship. Now, he dreams of being the first African-American high-goal polo player; high-goal is equivalent to the NBA or NFL. While this soft-spoken young man comes to life on the field, what he loves most about the sport is taking care of the horses. He says, “Once they get used to you and see how much you care about them, they are like family. We are connected.”
Kareem Rosser, who plays alongside Munson, is a first year player who fits the phrase “good things come in small packages.” Weighing well under 100 pounds, Rosser plays with a lot of heart. Although only 11 years old, he realizes, “Polo is not just about hitting the ball.” His younger brother Daymar, and twin sister Kareema are also enrolled in WTR. Hiner is trying to raise funds for an all-girls team so Kareema can play polo competitively like her brother.
Although Valley Forge military Academy and Cowtown/WTR were playing against each other that day, there was true camaraderie among the players before, during, and after the game. Youth from opposing teams helped each other prepare their horses and joked with each other throughout the day. In addition to good horsemanship, the players displayed good sportsmanship with one another. Along with Hiner and Cowtown/WTR co-coach Don Aikens, Valley Forge Military Academy and College has supported WTR by providing players with practice time in the indoor arena. This support led WTR players to make history in 1999, by being the first all African- American team to compete in Interscholastic Polo.
Although Work to Ride has achieved proven success in the lives of so many adolescenes, the program is in jeopardy. The Fairmount Park Commission informed Hiner that her lease of the Chamounix Stables would be terminated. Previously, Hiner was charged $1 dollar per year for lease of the stable. Hiner says, “The City does not agree with our philosophy of helping a small group of kids, so we are still negotiating with them. There are many detractors who wonder why we teach black kids polo. They don’t get it.”
Because WTR enrolls up to ten children per season and most participants are expected to stay in the program until they graduate from high school, WTR does not follow the example of most city-funded programs. But, Hiner emphatically supports not playing by the “numbers game.” She says, “We are not interested in running 100 kids through the program in a year. We would rather focus on a small number of kids – ‘one kid at a time’ – we don’t fit the mold.”
With this challenge, Hiner takes on a realistic attitude. “We have always struggled. It is more important now to dramatically increase our funding. We anticipate an increase of $25,000 to $50,000 in rent per year by June/July. We have to raise about $75,000 just in fund-raising alone as part of our new budget. That’s a pretty big leap for us.”
To keep WTR alive, the stable is running other equine programs on a smaller scale to help supplement the funds needed to run WTR. While Hiner admits these new programs are exciting, the cost of additional staffing needed to develop and expand these programs in addition to the time needed to implement them are causing a financial burden while WTR’s future hangs in the balance. “It will take at least 6 months to implement these programs but the money is still going out,” says Hiner.
People who wish to lend a helping hand to WTR can provide assistance in several ways. After the tragic murder of Mecca Harris (a promising young WTR player) and her parents, Hiner set-up the Mecca Harris Scholarship Fund. While Mecca’s murder has not been solved, the scholarship carries on her name by helping to cover the costs for future participants in the program. Another way to support the program financially is by adopting a horse. Stephan Jenkins, lead singer for Third Eye Blind, adopted Bueda, the horse Mecca Harris rode before her death.
Hiner is determined to keep the program running, for the sake of WTR youth. She remarks, “We are not a short-term fix for kids. We feel that the long-term participation will reap lifelong rewards and have a life changing impact on kids. Short-term programs have short-term effects.” For generations, horses have carried explorers to frontiers and armies to victory. Now, they are carrying inner city youths to greater opportunities, as long as the program continues.
For more information or to help support the Work to Ride program, please visit www.worktoride.net.