It started with a wrong turn while driving in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.
That was how 8-year-old Shariah Harris and her mother found the stables of an equestrian program called “Work to Ride.” Growing up in a West Philadelphia neighborhood where crime rates are high and graduation rates are low, Harris never dreamed of playing polo.
“Polo wasn’t something that was in the cards for me,” she says. “I couldn’t afford riding lessons, or a horse for that matter. I never even thought about riding horses until I got lost in the park that day,” she says.
But after finding the barn, Harris was hooked. Within days she was mucking stalls and grooming horses. By the age of 12, she was competing against some of the most elite polo teams. Being the only players of color on the field was tough at first.
“I was only around black people as a kid and then traveling out to games we were the only black people, so it was weird, we were kind of sticking out,” says Harris, who became the first black woman to play top-tier polo at the age of 19. The team eventually gained acceptance she says, especially when they started winning.
But earning the privilege to ride takes work. Each morning the players wake up at dawn and get to work cleaning the barn, bathing, grooming and exercising the horses. If they show up late, they don’t play, says Lezlie Hiner, founder and coach of Work to Ride.
“It’s a progression with the kids,” Hiner says. “I’m very funky about being on time. That’s one of my big things in life, so I battle with the kids about that all of the time and if they really want to do something their behinds will be here.”
In 1994, she got frustrated with her desk job and quit to figure out a way to combine her two passions: her deep love for horses and helping at-risk youth. What she came up with was a program that gives low-income, inner city kids the chance to play polo for free in exchange for taking care of the ponies.
To stay on the team the players must maintain at least a C average in school. If they don’t, they’re demoted to barn chores until they get their grades up. That was the case for 14-year-old Mosiah Gravesande, who was sidelined last year for a bad report card.
“I felt bad because I was missing out on a lot and I just wanted to play, but I couldn’t because I was playing around and not paying attention to my school work,” Gravesande says.
In communities where the high school dropout rates are high, Hiner says she’s not surprised that some kids don’t make it.
“My main goal is to make sure that the kids graduate high school. Sometimes we have to provide them with tutors or interface with their schools, especially if there is no parental involvement,” she says.
Many of the players are raised in single-parent households that often lack structure and discipline. Lyzette Rosser enrolled her two sons in the program when they were in elementary school, and says Hiner has been a lifesaver over the years.
“She kept my kids from off the streets, I struggled to raise them and I couldn’t have done it without Miss Lez,” Rosser says.
Her son Kareem captained the Work to Ride team in 2011 when it became the first all-black squad to win the National Interscholastic Polo championship.
“It was a time that we made history,” says Kareem, who went on to graduate from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Now at 26, he works as a financial analyst in Philadelphia. “It took us so long to get to that point, there was a lot of falling, broken mallets and tears, but just over the years being a resilient group we finally accomplished a long-term goal of ours.”
Clinching that title was also the moment when the polo establishment started to take notice.
“She’s changing lives,” says John Gobin, former captain of the U.S. polo team. “What she has done in Philly, people are trying to duplicate around the country and she’s raised those guys as gentlemen and fantastic polo players,”
Gobin says Hiner’s tough-love approach has gone a long way in helping the kids stay on track.
“Working with the horses teaches these kids to get out of bed in the morning. They have a lot of responsibility to get to the barn in the morning, feed the horses and make sure they have water, exercise, brush them. And they can’t get into trouble because they are in the barn 12 hours a day,” Gobin says.
But Work to Ride hasn’t been able to help all of the kids. Sometimes the players drop out of school or get into trouble with the law, a few have ended up in prison. Other times they’re lost to more tragic circumstances. In 2003, one of the team’s most promising players was murdered in her West Philadelphia home in a drug deal gone bad. Hiner thinks back to the last time she saw 14-year-old Mecca Harris.
“Mecca was our only female player at the time. We had just dropped her off that night after practice and then we got the call the next morning,” Hiner says.
Mecca’s picture now hangs above the door in the tack-room of Work to Ride.
For the last 25 years, Hiner has worked tirelessly to teach the kids life skills and responsibility, but education remains her top priority. She estimates that about 65 percent of those who sign up for Work to Ride will graduate from the program. She says it’s a good number, but not good enough.
But for the most part, the program has succeeded in keeping the kids off the streets, in school and on the polo field.
On a recent day, Shariah Harris and the Work to Ride team are in Central New York preparing to compete in the Amateur Cup, one of the biggest polo matchups of the summer.
On the sidelines of the Preble Valley Polo Club, Harris fastens a yellow do-rag around her head and tightens the reins on Easy Ed, a shiny, black thoroughbred. She says at first, the former racing horse had no interest in playing polo.
“He was a problem child at first,” Harris says. “He would bite me and some of the other horses, but over time we got used to each other and now he’s OK, he’s easier.”
Harris says learning how to establish a relationship with a horse was one of the biggest challenges she faced while learning to ride.
The horn blows signaling the last 30 seconds of the game and the team is down 7 to 1. Harris looks disappointed as she walks Easy Ed back to his trailer.
“I hate to lose more than I love to win. But losing helps you become a better player and you can’t learn if you always win,” she says.
The 21-year-old captains the polo team at Cornell University and will graduate next year with a degree in animal science. She’s also helping to expand Work to Ride by raising funds for an indoor arena – which is set to open in 2021.
But for now, Harris shakes off today’s loss and walks off the field wearing a bright, pink t-shirt that reads, “Polo: the sport of millionaires, royalty and homeboys.”