02:04 - Source: CNN
Philly home to top-ranked polo players

By Sarah Hoye, CNN

Philadelphia (CNN) – On a recent Friday night, Saddiq Myers is chasing his younger sisters, Sudaysah and Sihgerra, through a barn in West Philadelphia.

Their giggles rise above the din of horseshoes clanking across a barn floor and the scrape of metal shovels scooping manure.

While most teens and tweens are kicking off the weekend at the mall or the movies, a group of friends gathers inside the stable, once home to mounted police horses.

Tucked away in the heart of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park, the stable has become an urban oasis for at-risk youth hailing from the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

The tight-knit crew gets to ride horses in exchange for cleaning out stalls and brushing down horses through Work To Ride, a long-term prevention program for inner-city youth.  The program is for kids starting at age seven all the way through high school graduation. It includes roughly 30 horses and 20 kids who all qualify as low-income.

Photos: Meet the players

Those with the top riding skills, and who are willing to step up their game, can learn to play polo, which the program first introduced to the youth in 1999.

“This is my second home, and I need to be here if I want to be something in life,” said Kenshaun Walker, 15, who plays on the men’s team and is in his sixth year with the program. “This is my top way to get me out of Philadelphia.”

They scrimmage with college teams like Harvard, Cornell, UConn and the University of Virginia in warm-up games for the schools.  They generally end up crushing their Ivy League opponents – like Harvard, which suffered a 20-3 defeat last year.

Last March, Work To Ride’s men’s high school polo team was the first all-black team to win the National Interscholastic Polo Championship. They defend their title Friday.

The players’ success has attracted national media. They’ve been featured on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” as well as  ESPN and Sports Illustrated.

“With us, we really want it. Every time we step on the field we know our goal is to win,” said player Brandon Rease, 16.  “It’s a great feeling to know that you’re on the top, and especially when you’re one of the few at that level.”

Work To Ride executive director Lezlie Hiner opened the barn doors in 1994, vowing to put her degree in psychology and a fierce passion for horses to work. She hasn’t looked back since.

“I wrote down my dream job description and here I am,” she said, letting out a husky laugh.

Her goal is simple: transport the city’s disadvantaged youth from the confines of their neighborhoods to fields of dreams.

“It’s very rewarding to see the kids that really want to make a change and take advantage of what we have to offer,” she said.  “A lot of them could fall victim to whatever ills are out there in the neighborhood.”

No one knows that better than Sydney Rutledge, who plays on the women’s team. Last year, while Hiner was dropping her off at home, she heard gunshots.

The stunned 14-year-old didn’t know if she should run or hide inside the car.

“The worst thing I ever saw was (that) man get shot in front of me,” she said.  “That’s why I don’t like being around where I live.”

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In addition to working with the horses, staff and volunteers provide after school tutoring and require students to maintain passing grades. The kids are taught to make good decisions in their lives and stay out of trouble.

Star players and brothers, Kareem and Daymar Rosser, whose mother stopped by the barn to visit with Hiner, are beating the odds.

“I love this program. It helps my kids out a whole lot,” Lezette Rosser said.  “I don’t have to worry about them doing nothing stupid.”

Near the back of the barn, Kenshaun Walker is busy wrapping up his chores around the stable. He said he isn’t interested in skipping school, doing drugs or drinking alcohol. He just wants to play polo.

“I don’t care if I’m not rich. I don’t care if my mother’s single. I don’t care what I don’t have,” he said.  “I’m willing to do anything in life to make it to the pros in polo.”

Not all the students stay. Some leave after losing interest, others turn to the streets and others become victims of gun violence.

Mecca Harris, a rising polo star, was gunned down in 2003 alongside her mother and her mother’s boyfriend before she could ride in the Pennsylvania Hunt Cup. Her name is etched in concrete on the barn floor and a wooden memorial sign hangs on the door of the equipment room.

As a horse-drawn carriage pulled her white casket through the streets of West Philadelphia, her polo horse, Beuda, followed the procession, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Her death is a grim reminder of the culture of killing that surrounds these kids.

Despite the recent successes on the polo field and the media attention, Hiner still struggles with fundraising; the program costs an average $10,000 per student per year.

But just like the youth involved in the program, Hiner is not deterred by any obstacles standing in the way of success.

“People say, ‘Why do you keep trying?’” she said.  “And I guess because you keep hoping the lightbulb will go on.”