Philadelphia Teens 'Work To Ride' And Change The Face Of Polo For 25 years, a group of inner-city kids in Philadelphia has been breaking down barriers of class and race in the traditionally exclusive sport. The concept is simple: they work to ride.

Philly Teens 'Work To Ride' And Change The Face Of Polo

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now a story that upends stereotypes about the sport of polo and the neighborhood of West Philadelphia. NPR's Windsor Johnston explains.

WINDSOR JOHNSTON, BYLINE: Thirteen years ago, a little girl and her mom took a wrong turn in a local park and found themselves at the stables of a program called Work To Ride.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE SIGHING)

JOHNSTON: An 8-year-old Shariah Harris was hooked. Within days, she was cleaning stalls and grooming horses. By 12, she was competing on the polo field.

SHARIAH HARRIS: I was only surrounded by black people. And then traveling out to games, we were the only black people there, so that was weird for us, especially being younger. Like, we're kind of sticking out here.

JOHNSTON: Harris went on to become the first black woman to play top-tier polo.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

JOHNSTON: Today, she leads the Work To Ride team onto the field at the Preble Valley Polo Club in central New York for one of the season's biggest events, the Amateur Cup. Harris' mount is an ebony thoroughbred named Easy Ed, who's anything but. The game itself isn't easy either.

HARRIS: You have to play the sport, control your mallet, watch everyone else on the field and control a 1,500-pound animal with a mind of its own.

JOHNSTON: Three minutes in, her team is up 1-nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Shariah Harris coming up. She makes one tap forward. She reaches out.

JOHNSTON: Since 1994, Work To Ride has been giving kids from low-income families the chance to play polo for free as long as they care for the horses and keep up their grades. If you show up late at the barn, you don't play. The program was the brainchild of Lezlie Hiner, a former polo player with a degree in psychology and an interest in at-risk kids.

LEZLIE HINER: One of my goals was to try and make sure that these kids, no. 1, one graduated high school and whether it's just interfacing with the school if there was no parental involvement. And then, you know, the carrot is the polo and the riding.

JOHNSTON: Lyzette Rosser is a single mom whose two sons took up polo with Hiner when they were in elementary school.

LYZETTE ROSSER: She kept my kids from off the streets. I raised six of them by myself, and she played a big role in my kids' life.

JOHNSTON: Her son, Kareem, captained Worked To Ride in 2011 when they became the first all-black squad to win the National Interscholastic Polo Championship.

KAREEM: It took us so long to get to that point. It was a lot of falling, a lot of broken mallets, a lot of tears. Just over the years, we - you know, just us being kind of a resilient group, we finally accomplished a long-term goal of ours.

JOHNSTON: But Work To Ride hasn't been able to help all of the kids. Fifteen years ago, one of its most promising players was murdered. Those who get into trouble with the law or drop out of school lose their spot on the team. Mosiah Gravesande was sidelined last year for a bad report card.

MOSIAH GRAVESANDE: 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.

JOHNSTON: Hiner's tough approach is working with the kids, says John Gobin, former captain of the U.S. polo team.

JOHN GOBIN: She's changing lives. What she's done in Philly, people are trying to duplicate around the country.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: We've got a couple seconds till the warning horn. Chris Veech (ph)...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN)

JOHNSTON: Back on the field, the team loses today's round of the Amateur Cup 7 to 1. Shariah Harris looks disappointed as she walks Easy Ed back to his trailer.

HARRIS: I hate to lose more than I love to win, but it helps you become a better player.

JOHNSTON: Harris captains the polo team at Cornell University and is about to graduate with a degree in animal science. She's also helping to expand Work To Ride, raising funds for a new indoor arena. For now, she'll shake off today's loss and put on her team T-shirt. It reads, polo - the sport of royalty, millionaires and homeboys.

Windsor Johnston, NPR News, Tully, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEO CROKER'S "THIS COULD BE (FOR THE TRAVELLING SOUL)")

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