Philly's inner-city kids make strides ... playing polo
| WOODSTOWN, N.J.
Amid the rumble of hooves comes a loud thwack as the mallet hits the ball and speeds down the field.
"Go Bee!" shouts an onlooker. The diminutive figure on the large horse is already in front, galloping after the ball.
The rider's name is Jabarr Rosser, a.k.a. Killer Bee, who's stunning the polo world with his fearless skill - at age 10 - as well as his background. Bee, as he's called, is from the tough streets of West Philadelphia.
His success is a testament to his prowess and discipline - and to the determination of a former corporate sales executive who turned her love of horses into social action.
Her name is Lezlie Hiner, the founder of Work to Ride, which has given Bee and his inner-city teammates the opportunity not only to learn to ride and care for horses, but also to play the sport of kings.
The only such program in the country, Work to Ride is transforming individual lives and, although slowly, the elite world of polo.
"There's a lot of snobbery, but what I'm finding, more and more, is that when they get out on the field and play, they get a lot of respect," says Ms. Hiner. "They're good. That's what breaks down the barriers."
On this day, the Work to Ride players are facing an adult team, the Ruff Riders of the Bucks' County Polo Club, at the Cow Town Polo Grounds here. The day is hot. The field is dusty. The competition is intense. In the second chukker, the polo term for a round, the kids are winning, 3 to 1.
"I love a challenge, and this is a very hard sport to master in many different aspects. And the speed, I do like the speed," says Richard Prather, at 21 the oldest of the Work to Ride players, as he saddles his horse. Mr. Prather met Hiner seven years ago, just as the program was starting. He was having trouble academically at school and requested a tutor. When the tutor learned that he loved animals, she suggested he meet Hiner at the stables of the Chamounix Equestrian Center in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park.
Hiner had stabled her own horse there for several years and had witnessed a steady flow of kids from the neighborhoods, most of whom had never seen a horse before.
"The kids at the barn were from some of the rough neighborhoods, drug dealers on the corner, that sort of thing," she says. "They'd come every weekend. It was a huge commitment, but it was keeping them off the streets."
With a small grant and a large dose of determination, Hiner started the riding program. In exchange for work at the stables, the kids could take lessons. As they got better, she started them on polo. That's called the Urban Riding Program.
Hiner, who has a degree in psychology, also works with at-risk youths who are struggling with behavior problems. She says working with the big, powerful horses helps teach the kids a "new way of responding to the world."
"They come in, and they're big, tough, and very confrontational," she says. "But when you get them with horses, suddenly the machismo that they come in with is nothing. They learn a whole different way of being. They have to learn compassion, working with a horse."
That's something that seems to come naturally to the 10 to 12 kids who are part of Work to Ride's team. It's part of the interscholastic competition coordinated by the Polo Training Foundation, which is the junior arm of the US Polo Association. In order to play, the kids have to keep a minimum C average and attend all practices.
"They have to exhibit not just playing ability, but also sportsmanship and leadership - the qualities that make up a good person," says Lynn Thomson, secretary of the Polo Training Foundation in Tully, N.Y. "Lezlie's wonderful with those kids, and they are earning respect, especially that little one [Bee]."
Ms. Thomson says "everybody was just raving" about Bee's athletic ability at last year's Eastern Regional Scholastic tournament in Virginia. Yet his youth and small size still tend to surprise people. Ruff Rider Peggy Loubris says when she met Bee on the field four weeks ago, she and her teammates decided they should "lay off the little guy."
"Well, pweff, he took the ball and went down the field and scored," says Ms. Loubris of Revere, Pa. "So no more. We don't lay off the little guy."
Prather also has a warm spot in his heart for Bee. After working with Hiner for seven years, Prather is now manager of the Work to Ride stables and is hoping to become a professional player. He has already won high marks working at several polo clubs in Spokane, Wash.; Houston, and West Palm Beach, Fla. But in the meantime, he's getting more "education under his belt" at a local community college.
"I don't know of any African-American high-goal pros, and I'm thinking I'd like to change that," he says, patting his horse, Figamajig, an Argentine thoroughbred. "It may not come from me, but it will definitely come from the younger ones, like Bee."
At the end of the match, the score was 6 to 3, with the Work to Ride team taking the game.